03/31/2006 12:00AM

Last shot at Keeneland's speed bias

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - There is a very good chance that the upcoming spring meet at Keeneland, which runs from April 7 through April 28, will be the last one to use the traditional dirt racing surface. It will probably be replaced by a Polytrack surface in time for the beginning of the fall meet.

For handicappers, the bad news is that the intense speed bias sometimes seen at Keeneland is unlikely to be seen as frequently on Polytrack. The good news is that the Polytrack surface is much safer for horses than most main tracks. Also, it is a myth that Polytrack is equally fair to all running styles. The Polytrack at Turfway is often speed-favoring, and there is still money to be made by betting on the right front-runners on that surface.

In October, some distances on the Polytrack at Keeneland will probably be more speed-favoring than others, and some race days will probably be more speed-favoring than others. Handicappers who understand and keep track of these subtleties will still have an edge.

Meanwhile, let's celebrate the last "normal" Keeneland meet by capitalizing as much as possible on the traditional trends. In my book, "The Power of Early Speed," I list the individual distances run at every track in North America and point out the differences in win rates and the return on investment of horses with early speed at each distance. Of the most commonly run distances at Keeneland, the six-furlong sprints stand out as the most speed-favoring. The first-call leader wins 35 percent of those races, with an excellent $4.01 ROI. The win rate drops to 26 percent with a $3.12 return at 6 1/2 furlongs. Longer sprints (the seven-furlong and about seven furlong distances were combined) are the least profitable, with 24 percent wins and a $2.38 ROI.

The 4 1/2-furlong races run in April also strongly favor early speed, but most of the horses in them are first-time starters, so it is best to check the statistics in my book to see how likely the jockeys and trainers of each horse are to go for the lead.

Horses with early speed are very profitable in 1 1/16-mile races. The early leader won 27 percent of those races, and bettors more than doubled their money at an ROI of $4.04. At 1 1/8 miles, the win rate was similar, at nearly 29 percent, but the ROI was lower though still strong at $3.24.

New rules

I will be changing the strategy for the bankroll bets in my analysis on the selector page of Daily Racing Form for this spring's Keeneland meet.

In the past I have used a few different formats. The easiest is the straightforward suggested bet, with no minimum odds requirement. The hope is that most of these horses will offer betting value, but it is always frustrating for me to watch a horse who should be 7-2 or 4-1 get hammered down to 2-1, or lower.

The alternative has been to list minimum odds requirements. The problem is that I don't know which of my picks will offer the most value until a few minutes prior to post time. Those are the horses I bet for myself, and they are the ones I wish my readers would bet.

With that in mind, my policy at this meet will be to recommend $20 win bets on all of my first or second picks at odds of 7-1 or higher. The only exception will be that no bets should be made on first-time starters I pick first or second. In that case, if my horse is cold on the board, there might be a very good reason for it.

Why $20 bets if I am starting with $2,000? Most people overbet their longshots in relation to the size of their bankroll. One percent of your bankroll per bet is an appropriate percentage of a betting bankroll over the long haul for win bets on horses whose odds will usually be anywhere from 7-1 through 20-1, or so. If you specialize in horses at lower odds ranges, you can afford to bet a higher percentage of your own bankroll.