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Is Keeneland the best place to prep for a synthetic Breeders' Cup?
For the second consecutive year, the Breeders' Cup races are being run on Santa Anita's synthetic Pro-Ride surface. Do the horses who prep for the Breeders' Cup on Keeneland's Polytrack have an advantage on the synthetic surface at Santa Anita? I looked at the results of last year's Breeders' Cup races to find out, looking first at the longshots. Be Smart finished second in the Grade 1 Alcibiades, then finished off the board as a 20-1 longshot in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Sing Baby Sing won the Grade 3 Phoenix, then was not a factor at 35-1 in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Neither of these horses were expected to contend in their Breeders' Cup races, and they didn't.
The horses who prepped on Keeneland's Polytrack whose odds were below 20-1 in their Breeders' Cup races are probably a better barometer. Square Eddie won the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity, then finished second in the Juvenile at 7-2. Dream Empress won the Grade 1 Alcibiades, and finished second at 12-1 in the Juvenile Fillies. Carriage Trail won the Grade 1 Spinster, then finished fourth at 6-1 in the Ladies' Classic. While none of the three won, two of them ran well, and the other ran respectably. A $2 across-the-board bet on this group would have yielded a profit of more than 26 percent.
The track-bias profile for Keeneland's Polytrack surface has continued to evolve over recent race meets. Soon after the switch from the original dirt surface there were periods of time when closers held a significant advantage over rivals who were located nearer to the front of the pack. Unfortunately, some jockeys and trainers overreacted to the situation. Few of them wanted their horse to be on, or close to the early lead in route races, and sometimes also in sprints. The result was that the early fractions of those races could be very slow, with late fractions that were much faster than usual. Horses would often be grouped closer together at the finish than they had been on dirt, and race results seemed to be less predictable than usual. Some handicappers were quite frustrated by the change.
Things are much better now. The recent track-bias profile for Keeneland's Polytrack looks just like the profile I would expect to see for any typical dirt track, and that's good news. I believe the ideal scenario for synthetic racing surfaces is that they should be able to deliver increased safety for horses and jockeys without noticeably changing the traditional track bias tendencies that handicappers and horsemen have become accustomed to on dirt tracks.
Early speed is most often an advantage in sprint races on Keeneland's Polytrack. If a horse who seems likely to grab a clear early lead in a sprint also figures to be a serious contender based on the ability he has shown, he is the most likely winner. If he appears to be overmatched, handicappers should then look for the most talented of his opponents who possess tactical speed. Beyond those two groups, midpack runners and closers need to be much the best, or they will need help from a fast early pace, or they will have to hope that the track bias has changed. If none of those scenarios apply, midpack runners and closers are more likely to take minor prizes than they are to win those races.
Horses with early speed have much less of an advantage in route races on Keeneland's Polytrack. Any horse who can relax on the lead will be the one to beat if he fits well on basic handicapping principles, but he won't win as often as his sprint counterparts will. Horses with tactical speed are still the next most likely group to win, but they don't stand out from the runners who will be chasing them. Good midpack runners and closers will have a solid chance to win.
Pace is an important factor in turf sprint races at Keeneland. An early leader through modest fractions is usually hard to catch, but aggressive fractions are common enough to make closers the next-most likely winners in these races.
The early leader is usually vulnerable in Keeneland's turf route races. Horses who track the leader in second, third, or fourth place are the main beneficiaries. Midpack runners and closers have realistic chances, but these winners tend to pay smaller prices than the winners who have tactical speed.
POST POSITION TRENDS
It is interesting to note that the same post position trends that were in force in sprint races on Keeneland's original dirt surface are still in place despite the switch to Polytrack. Recent trends show no strikingly bad post positions in these races, but inside post positions continue to be very good, particularly posts 1 and 2.
Inside post positions have a slight advantage in route races on Keeneland's Polytrack. There are no particularly bad post positions.
Inside and middle posts have been more effective than the outside boxes in turf sprint races.
Random bets on horses at low odds are very unlikely to show profits, but it can still be instructive to see how well, or how poorly, horses at contending odds perform on Keeneland's Polytrack. With that in mind, I recently checked samples of 300 runners at odds lower than 5-1 in Polytrack sprint and route races.
Horses in this odds range typically have solid past performances, so there should be no good excuse for them to perform particularly badly, except for the possibility that their form from other tracks might not successfully transfer to Keeneland's Polytrack. I was especially interested to see if these horses were formful enough to produce at least a $1.68 return on investment, a level for $2 win bets that takes into consideration a 32-cent deduction for the 16 percent parimutuel takeout.
The return on investment on these horses in sprint races was slightly below par at $1.62, but they fared surprisingly well in route races, where they won back a good share of the takeout with a $1.79 ROI.
I was also curious to see how these Polytrack results compared with the results of turf races at Keeneland. There are too few turf sprints run each year to make this data worth studying in that category, but I found 196 horses to evaluate in route races on the grass. Horses at odds lower than 5-1 performed slightly better than expected, with a $1.73 ROI.
There are a couple of lessons that can be taken from these results. If you are a win (and probably also a place, or show) bettor who usually finds himself betting on logical contenders in lower odds ranges, you'll want to specialize in betting on Polytrack route races at Keeneland. If the favorable trend continues, you will be betting into the equivalent of a parimutuel takeout only a shade higher than 10 percent, which is a pretty good deal. If you are looking to make a nice score on an exotic wager, Polytrack sprint races give you your best chance to beat the favorites at Keeneland.