Updated on 09/16/2011 9:36AM

Rethink front-runners at low odds


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Handicappers who take Keeneland form at face value after the Kentucky racing scene shifts to Churchill are usually in for a rude awakening. If the results from the first four days of racing at the current Churchill meeting are a reliable indicator, that trend will continue.

These numbers should put things in perspective: At the fall meet in 2001, Keeneland favored speed, with 27 front-running winners from 112 races on the main track, a 24 percent success rate. The bias was much stronger this April. Even after subtracting the 4 1/2-furlong races for 2-year-olds, where early speed was dominant, 35 of the 93 races on the main track, 38 percent, were won by the horse who led at the first call. The results from the recently completed fall meet weren't nearly as impressive and closely resembled the 2001 fall statistics. Horses with early speed won 27 of 114 races on the dirt, for the same 24 percent win rate as last year.

How do those numbers stack up against the early results from the current Churchill meet? So far, only five winners have scored on the front end from 32 races on the main track, for a modest 16 percent. The bias difference does not apply only to front-runners. It also can be seen in the success rate of horses with tactical speed. Horses who were located in the front half of the field at the first call won 70 percent of the races on the dirt at Keeneland in October. Only 17 of 32 have succeeded at Churchill, 53 percent. This pattern has been relatively consistent despite a wide variety of track conditions.

With the numbers listed above in mind, the results of some of the races run during the early portion of this meet provide examples of how handicappers should adapt to the early trends at Churchill.

Fourteen Wishes was the 7-10 favorite in the first race at Churchill on Oct. 30. She had enjoyed a clear lead until midstretch when she finished second against maiden specials at Turfway on Sept. 26. The drop into an Oct. 12 $50,000 maiden claiming race at Keenleand didn't help much when she set a faster-than-par pace, then faded to a distant third, beaten by 9 1/4 lengths.

Fourteen Wishes deserved to be the favorite in her second start for $50,000 if Churchill was as kind, or kinder to her running style than Keeneland. If not, the switch from six furlongs to a mile, and hindrance from a surface that was less favorable to her running style, would make her a beatable underlay. Fourteen Wishes finished second, beaten 2 3/4 lengths.

Horses who led, or who were up close to the lead at other tracks, should also be viewed skeptically if they are bet down to low odds at Churchill. All Night Party had been prominent throughout while second all of the way against $50,000 maiden claimers at Turfway, and was the 5-2 second betting choice on the drop to $25,000 in the third race at Churchill on Oct. 30. But he was unable to capitalize on a clear lead that ranged from 1 1/2 to two lengths, and finished fourth.

Weekend Miracle, a confirmed front-runner, led all the way in a victory over $15,000 nonwinners-of-two at Ellis, and was made the 4-1 second betting choice in the fourth race Oct. 30, an $8,000 claiming race. Her 3 1/2-length lead would have made her a threat to go all the way at Keeneland, but she had no answer when 3-5 favorite Bunk N Ted blew past her as if she were standing still and romped by 10 lengths.

Soul Onarazorsedge was unable to get the job done in the fifth despite a clear one-length lead in that five furlong race, and finished third at 7-2.

Sea Colony, a speedy sprinter who was well-supported at 3-1 should have been dangerous when he was allowed to grab a one-length advantage during the opening quarter in the ninth, a $17,500 claiming race, but wilted and finished fifth of nine.

The lesson: Until the trend changes, front-runners will not be good bets at low odds at Churchill. Bettors who adjust to this pattern sooner rather than later can prosper for as long as it lasts, and will be well-funded to capitalize on the next change if the bias returns to normal.