Updated on 09/17/2011 10:20AM

Keeneland's track bias too crucial


WASHINGTON - During its 15-day spring meeting, Keeneland offers a concentration of high-class racing that is unmatched in the sport. It pays out more than $600,000 per day in purse money. It attracts the nation's elite stables and jockeys. It features at least one stakes race every day, including two important preps for the Kentucky Derby: the Blue Grass Stakes and the Lexington Stakes.

Not only is the competition exceptional, but so is the track's ambience. Accordingly, Keeneland is a beloved institution in Lexington, Ky. - so beloved that few people like to point out that its races are regularly a farce.

There is not a major track in America with a racing surface that is so often so biased and unfair as Keeneland's. The advantage it gives to front-runners on the rail makes Keeneland bear more resemblance to a dog track than a venue for championship Thoroughbred racing.

Here is a synopsis of the six main-track races on last Sunday's card: In the first race, Fashion Girl raced on the rail, dueled for the lead, and drew off to win. In the second race, Kool Humor raced on the rail, dueled for the lead, and won at odds of 8-1. In the third race, Idadidit broke from post 1, vied for the lead, and won at 8-1. In the fourth race, 11-1 Beach Plum led all the way on the inside. Shah Jehan raced on the rail on the backstretch and eased outside to rally to capture the fifth race. Smooth Jazz, a 7-1 shot, broke from post 1 and led all the way to win the eighth race, a $250,000 stakes.

The rail-favoring, speed-favoring bias has appeared at Keeneland frequently for years, and it mystifies track superintendent Mike Young. "We try to make the cushion as even as we can," Young said.

He wonders if the fact that Keeneland (unlike most tracks) faces west has something to do with the phenomenon. He suspects that in the afternoon moisture remains in the portion of the track near the rail, making it firmer and faster. Young said he has talked to track-maintenance experts as far away as England but still hasn't found a satisfactory explanation or remedy for the tendency of the racing surface.

As a result, the favorable rail is established as part of life. Reverent Kentuckians accept Keeneland as it is; for decades they never even questioned the senseless absence of a public-address system. Young said that at the current meeting "we haven't had one complaint" from a trainer about the condition of the track.

Horsemen may not say anything about the track, but horseplayers say plenty. They know that when the rail is favorable it becomes the dominant factor in handicapping. Ordinarily, bettors relish a bias, because it makes picking winners easier; all they have to do is identify the horse who will get the early lead on the rail. But most horseplayers probably share my opinion that it is exasperating to figure out the way a race at Keeneland is going to be run.

This may be an all-star jockey colony, but relatively few of its members make a consistent, determined effort to get to the rail when they can. In Wednesday's feature race, Salty Farma appeared to be the lone speed in a small field; when she broke alertly the race should have been over. But jockey Lonnie Meche decided to put her under wraps and permit another rival to take the lead on the rail while he sat outside. Of course, Salty Farma lost.

Races at Keeneland are regularly decided by jockeys' misjudgment as well as minor incidents - such as a slight stumble or jostle at the gate - that cost a horse a good tactical position. Even important stakes races - ones that ought to be definitive tests of horses' ability - can be decided by flukes.

In the $750,000 Blue Grass last week, the favorite Peace Rules seemed likely to get a tough test, because at least two of his rivals had the speed to outrun him and secure the coveted ground on the rail. But when the gate opened, one of his rival jockeys didn't gun his mount for the lead and the other got into early traffic trouble. After breaking from post 2, Peace Rules unexpectedly found himself on the lead on the rail. Brancusi, who had broken cleanly from post 9, chased him from the outside. They ran one-two all the way around the track, and Offlee Wild, who was able to stay on the rail behind them, finished third. The Blue Grass was almost meaningless as a Derby prep. Peace Rules didn't earn much of a speed figure despite his bias-aided trip, so the victory did not enhance his credentials.

In the Lexington Stakes, which was to be run on Saturday, the most accomplished horse in the field was the speedster Trust N Luck, who led all the way to win the Grade 1 Fountain of Youth Stakes in Florida this winter. But the colt had the misfortune to draw post 8 in an eight-horse field, starting outside at least two rivals who had the speed to prevent him from dropping to the rail - not the typical Keeneland scenario for a victory.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post