04/01/2010 12:00AM

Keeneland roundup

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BREAKING DOWN THE BABIES

The biggest challenge for most handicappers each year at Keeneland's spring meet is deciding how to deal with the 4 1/2-furlong maiden races for 2-year-olds. At the beginning of the meet, the runners in these races usually are first-time starters, so there are no past performances to analyze. As the meet progresses, some of those horses will race again and a few others who have raced elsewhere will join them, but most often you are handicapping unraced horses. Should these races be ignored? If not, how can they be handicapped?

Studying the human connections and the breeding of these horses helps to some extent, but a check of the result charts shows the most accurate way to gauge the chances of these horses is to see how much betting action they are taking. Much more so than in other races, there is a lot of well-informed money in the pools, based primarily on the opinions of clockers, trainers, and jockey agents. The jockey agents sift through the clocker and trainer opinions with the goal of trying to get their jockey on the most highly regarded horse in the race who is still in need of a rider. If they are lucky, their jockey might have been aboard one or more of the entrants in a workout, which gives them invaluable information. When a top jockey lands on a first-time starter in these races, the horse usually attracts good betting support from the public.

Once it is understood that inside information is a more crucial factor in these races than it is in races with more experienced horses, it is logical to wonder exactly how efficient this betting market is. If it were perfectly efficient, all of the pertinent inside information would lead to the return on investment on horses in all of the various odds ranges being the same, with all of the horses being equally unprofitable.

My view of most free markets is that they are usually very good overall, but they are almost always imperfect, sometimes significantly so. With that hope in mind, I studied all of the first-time starters who ran in all of Keeneland's 4 1/2-furlong, 2-year-old maiden races for the last 19 years. My goal was to see which odds categories, if any, were underbet or overbet. I found valuable answers to those questions and was surprised by one discovery as well.

The first interesting thing I saw was that horses who were pounded down to below even-money were good bets. That makes sense, since a horse who attracts an avalanche of betting money despite no impressive past performances is likely to be something special. They won 24 of 40 races, with a $2.02 ROI.

Horses between even-money and 1.90 returned an above-average $1.87. This is an important cut-off point since, with one notable exception, most of the results from other odds categories were subpar.

Horses from 2.00 to 2.90 yielded a below-average $1.51 ROI, which is similar to the $1.49 returned by horses from 3.00 to 4.90 and identical to the $1.51 ROI on horses from 5.00 to 9.90.

I noticed a significant difference between the performances of the horses in the even-money to 2.40 range who were favored versus the horses in the same range who were not favored. When these horses were favored, they returned a solid $1.71. But when they were well bet but another rival came up hotter and attracted more money than they did, they performed poorly, with a low $0.97 return.

The one finding that both fascinates and perplexes me is that horses between 15.00 and 19.90 enjoyed remarkable success. They produced a $2.77 ROI from a sample of 132 horses. I didn't pay much attention to them at first, but once the good results became apparent, I noticed two of the winners who came later didn't just win, they crushed their opponents with wins by 8 1/2 and nine lengths. These results were quirky because horses in the 10.00 to 14.90 range were poor bets, with a $0.94 return, and horses at higher odds were even worse bets. I'll discount this result as a statistical anomaly. For now, I'll include the 10.00 to 14.90 horses with the 15.00 to 19.90 horses and regard the combined 10.00 to 19.90 group as being above average at $1.78.

Horses who received little betting action performed hideously. A sample of 534 runners making their debut at 20-1 and higher produced a miniscule $0.51 return.

TRACK BIAS

While it is unlikely that the track bias at the spring meet will be identical to the trends we saw during Keeneland's fall meet, there are usually enough similarities to make a review worthwhile.

Synthetic sprints: Early speed was preferred in sprint races. Inside posts have frequently been an advantage at all distances on the synthetic surface, a trend that dates back to the old dirt surface, but the last fall meet was an exception, with inside post positions performing at a subpar level.

Turf sprints: Horses with early speed had an advantage. There were no significant post-position trends.

Synthetic routes: All running styles performed similarly. Inside post positions were slightly below average.

Turf routes: There was a slight edge to horses with tactical speed. Inside posts were best.

LEADERS AT THE FALL MEET

Jockey Robby Albarado won the riding title with 25 wins, five more than Julien Leparoux. Neither was profitable for bettors, with ROI's of $1.69 and $1.34.

Leandro Goncalves got off to a slow start while riding many longshots, but finished much better, with five wins from his last 53 mounts (9 percent), and a solid $2.42 ROI.

Trainer Ken McPeek dominated the trainer standings with 17 wins from 66 starts, a shade less than 26 percent, with a $2.49 ROI. There was a gap of 11 wins back to Todd Pletcher in second. McPeek was profitable at $2.49, and Pletcher showed a slight gain at $2.06.

McPeek was most effective when he and Albarado teamed up. That combination won 11 of 28 races, with five seconds and three third-place finishes. That's a remarkable 39 percent win rate, with a $3.11 ROI.

HORSES TO WATCH

Leavenworth

Trainer: Wayne Catalano

Last race: March 10, 8th (GP)

Finish: 3rd by 2 3/4

Making his first start for trainer Wayne Catalano, this 4-year-old was beaten as the favorite in a five-furlong turf sprint but finished second. Now at Keeneland, where he worked a bullet five furlongs in 1:00.40 Tuesday, he looks primed for a top performance in a first-level allowance if moved to the Polytrack.

Here Comes Ben

Trainer: Charles Lopresti

Last race: Dec. 12, 10th (TP)

Finish: 5th by 8 1/2

Was freshened after going off form late last year but should come alive at Keeneland, where he won a first-level allowance in October. He loves racing over the synthetic, is proven fresh, and has trained lights out at Keeneland in preparation for his first start of the year. Look for him in a second-level allowance.

Upperline

Trainer: Mike Stidham

Last race: March 6, 7th (GP)

Finish: 3rd by 1

Might be one of the most underrated 3-year-old fillies in the country, in part because she has not done this year what she does best: race on Polytrack. Trainer Mike Stidham shipped her to Gulfstream to race twice on the grass in stakes, but her calling is the Poly. Now in the third start of her form cycle, look for a banner effort in the Ashland over a distance and surface she loves.

Make Music For Me

Trainer: Alexis Barba

Last race: March 6, 6th (SA)

Finish: 1st by 1

Unraced for 2 1/2 months and making his first start on turf, this Bernstein colt was a striking winner of the Pasadena, outrunning more experienced turf runners. He has since trained forwardly at Hollywood, and his performances last year on Polytrack resulted in competitive efforts against the likes of Lookin At Lucky and Noble's Promise.

- Byron King