Updated on 09/18/2011 1:24AM

Tactical speed did fine at Keeneland


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Opinions about Keeneland's Polytrack bias are a dime a dozen. But if you want an objective view, take a look at the numbers.

Through Thursday, 116 races were run on that surface. Sixty of them were won by horses who rallied from the rear half of the pack, compared with 56 races won by horses located in the front half at the first call. There is only a slight edge to closers by that measurement.

Let's be more specific. Who won more races on Polytrack at Keeneland - horses who were first, second, or third at the first call, or horses who were in the last three running positions at the first call? I am hereby forgoing the thousands of dollars I would have won on side bets from friends on this proposition bet by giving you the startling answer. There were 34 winners from the first three running positions vs. only 27 winners from the last three.

How can this be, when front-runners performed horrendously during the early stages of this meet? At their worst point there was just one front-running winner from the first 48 races. But things have been better recently, with a total of 10 front-running winners from 116 races. Since they went 1 for 48, there have been nine front-running winners from the last 68 races, a 13 percent win rate. That is less than half as good as the long-term average of 28 percent front-running winners on the dirt, and the win rate on the total sample is still a disappointing 8.6 percent. But it isn't the catastrophic 2 percent win rate burned into the minds of many handicappers. There were also 13 winners from second place, and 11 winners from third.

What does this mean? You should upgrade your opinion of front-runners from unbelievably horrible to bad, and realize that horses with tactical speed have won a reasonable share of races. The other discovery is that deep closers aren't the horses who are capitalizing the most when the horses with early and tactical speed lose at Keeneland. Horses from mid-pack have benefited more.

Handicappers should be prepared to adjust from the Keeneland Polytrack bias to the Churchill dirt trend. I used to be somewhat irritated by Churchill's main track since it was only mildly speed-biased, which was a letdown after enjoying Keeneland's legendary dirt speed bias. But now, horses who were in front and then tired at Keeneland figure to be more effective at Churchill.

The most interesting group of losing front-runners from Keeneland to watch at Churchill is the 2-year-olds. One example is Great Job, who dueled in a maiden special at Turfway in his debut and lost by a nose with an 85 Beyer. He ran back in a seven-furlong maiden special at Keeneland on Oct. 26, and was made the 4-5 favorite. Great Job drew off to a clear lead, owned a 1 1/2-length advantage in midstretch, then caved in and finished fourth, beaten by 2 3/4 lengths. On the old Keeneland dirt track, he might have drawn off to a comfortable win. At Churchill he will be a serious threat to hold on to win his next start, especially if he cuts back to a shorter sprint distance.

Looking ahead to April at Keeneland, you have to wonder how the Polytrack bias will affect the 4 1/2-furlong maiden special races for 2-year-olds. The winners of those races are usually front-runners, but that trend could change. Newly minted 2-year-olds haven't been in training long enough to develop the stamina needed to prepare them for a tiring surface. If that turns out to be the decisive factor, a number of quick 2-year-olds, hammered down to low odds due to their blazing early speed, will be reeled in by off-the-pace runners in deep stretch. The win percentage of favorites could plunge in those races, paving the way for attractive payoffs.