Betting Strategies: Kentucky Downs Insights with Neil Pessin

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September 2nd, 2022

Trainer Neil Pessin knows a thing or two about Kentucky Downs. In the early 1990s, Pessin ran the race meet there for three years. His father, Dr. Arnold Pessin, designed and built Kentucky Downs. Known for its large fields, low takeout, and jaw-dropping payouts as much as its three turns, uphill and downhill stretches, this unique track runs for seven days each September, and horseplayers are always looking to crack its code.

This track is nothing like we ever see in the U.S. What inspired your dad to design it in the European style?

To move the least amount of dirt. What made him do it that way was because that’s the way land laid. We had to move some dirt, of course, but he wanted to do the least amount, so that's how the course got laid out. He just wanted to do the least amount of excavation to get the layout of a racetrack. So it ended up being almost a mile-and-a-half racetrack with funny turns.

The main reason it was built was because of slot machines. The idea was to get the track down there and then get the slots passed. The gas station at the exit there at one time was the number one location in the United States for selling lottery tickets because so many were coming over across the state line from Tennessee.

Did he design other courses?

This is the only one that he did. But he had other ideas. He was very creative and always had thoughts. He’s the one that gave John Gaines the idea for the Breeders' Cup. He’s the one that had the idea for the Kentucky Horse Park, originally. He built the Thoroughbred Training Center at Paris Pike to try to get night racing in the summertime at Lexington. In fact, the Training Center was the first location of Fasig-Tipton in Kentucky.

What are some of the Kentucky Downs insights horseplayers would benefit from knowing?

There's insights to it. Like, once a jock learns to ride there. We went to the first meet, and we told all the jocks to drop your irons one or two notches. Don't ride like you normally do. Because their heads will drop on that course a little bit just because of the natural lay of the land, not because they are stumbling or anything like that but because it's an up-and-down course. If you have your irons up where they normally would, you're gonna feel like you’re going to fall off. So you drop your irons, give them their head, and you let them run.

The European riders knew how to do that at the get-go. That’s why you see Florent Geroux, Flavien Prat, those riders all do well down there. And the American riders are learning how to do well down there now because they’ve had enough years over it. The main thing is drop your irons a notch or two and give them their head.

But speed is beneficial down there, it doesn't always have to win, but speed is always good.

And the outside is not bad — because the horse draws the 12 hole, you don't throw them out like at some tracks. Down there, the outside can be beneficial, especially going short. If the jock doesn't know that track and he stays on the rail, he’s going to run into that bend that almost shuts you off going around the turn because it goes in and juts out. If you’re not in the three path when you get to it, you’re about to check your horse.

Most of them all know that now, but at first a lot of them didn't know it. It’s little idiosyncrasies like that. I think most of the riders know how to ride it because they’ve ridden there a few times.

What about pedigree angles?

It’s a question of preference, and the only way to find out is to run them. You can't say, oh, well, he’s bred to like it because like Cigar, he was bred to love the turf, but he didn’t. But he did love the dirt. Kentucky Downs is just another surface. Whether they like it or not, you find out when you run them. But that's one reason you get a lot of longshots there because they only run nine days during a year so you don't have a lot of horses running back that often there. 

So finding horses who have run there and done well before is key?

You might have a horse who ran one race there and didn't do any good, but he might not have been feeling very good that day. He might have been coming down with something and didn’t ship well. Could have been any number of things — he didn’t run well the first time, maybe he didn’t have a good trip. He got shut off and it wasn't in the PPs. A lot of times you get good prices down there.

Basically you have to run a pretty sound horse there. As long as he’s sound and doesn't have any health issues, and there’s really no way to know for sure on that in terms of a betting perspective. I can tell you if my horse is running there or anywhere, you can bet there’s nothing wrong with him.  Especially there, because it's an up-and-down course, you just want to make sure there aren't any issues coming in.

What about horses coming out of races at Kentucky Downs, any insights there?

If a horse runs well at Kentucky Downs or even just runs at Kentucky Downs, then he’ll run well at his next start no matter where it is. Maybe even better than he normally does. We tracked that for the first couple years, and it was amazing how well those horses did coming from Kentucky Downs going to Keeneland. Most of them outrun their odds.

Mentally, it's more like being at a fair than a racetrack. There’s not a huge grandstand. It's out in the wide open, there’s not a lot around the racetrack. It’s almost like running out in the field to them, and it's a fair atmosphere, and I think that's good for them too. Plus the track gives them a certain fitness level, and when they run anywhere else, they’re like, oh, this is easy. If a horse fits in the condition you're running them in, then he’s got a good shot outrunning his odds if he's coming from Kentucky Downs.

Does the grass get long and play a bit more like a Euro course?

It’s all weather dependent. The main reason for moving the rail is that you don't chew the same spot up so much and get it where it’s rough. At Kentucky Downs, every race is run over it. The grass down there they probably let grow longer than most. You’ll almost see it falling over. The main thing is if jocks give their horses their head. Some horses will handle it, some won’t. The up-and-down part of it. That's why they get some longshots down there because you have horses that didn’t like other tracks but like it there, and vice versa. It’s just like any other surface. Some horses like dirt, some horses the Fair Grounds turf, some horses like the Keeneland turf. It’s like tennis players, some do well on clay, some do well on grass — different players like different surfaces. Even running athletes — some do well on outdoor tracks and some do well on indoor tracks.

How does rail movement work?

It’s their preference on rail position, whatever they want to do. Probably how they like it done is start the rail out and move it in. But either way is fine. It's a very wide track so they can move the rail two or three times if they wanted to in different locations.

If they move the rail out a lot, it tends to help the speed horses, too. Although, with the Kentucky Downs turn, you're not so worried about losing that much ground because of how it's made. It doesn't throw a horse off his game too much if they go 13 wide. They're all kind of running the same in that turn.

Does rain affect the course in any unique ways?

It depends how much rain they get. A little bit of rain actually helps it. It won't affect the racing at all. It will make the ground so it's not just real hard. Rain helps more than any kind of sprinkler system you put out on any turf course. If they get tons of rain, it can get unsafe because water will pool and it will get slippery and muddy and then you don't want to run on it. If it gets a medium amount of rain, it affects how a horse runs on it, but the same as preferences for yielding or good turf.

Do you play the races there?

I’ve been known to make a bet or two.

Do you structure your tickets differently playing Kentucky Downs than you do at other tracks?

It depends on the race itself. I don't play big, except on my horses, because I know how they're doing, so if I can single one of my horses and then spread in other races, either in the Pick 4 or Pick 5, or in trifectas, exactas. When you've got a horse you can key, or even two horses, you can spread a little bit more than you would in other places. You can get some good payouts down there because everybody is spread all over.

I like playing Pick 4s, exacta, and win and show bets. You've got to be able to key one horse in one race or two horses in two races, then spread.

Do you play different angles there than other tracks?

I’ll include certain jockeys. The horse still has to be a live horse. You've got to be able to figure the horse in somehow. Whether they have speed or have run well there before. I will include certain jocks that I know have done very well over the course. Like Joel Rosario, Geroux, Prat.

What about Vincent Cheminaud? He’s been riding so well and could sneak up on some people.

He comes from a European riding style, he's done well in big races, and I think he’ll adjust pretty quickly to it. I would keep an eye on him because he’s gotta learn the course. He’s not one I would throw out — I’ll put it that way.

Do trainers use the course to get a race in but not necessarily run to win? Since it’s such a unique track, it seems like all the horses would be cranked and pointing to the races.

For the most part, I think people target that meet and try to have them ready. The money is better than anywhere else in the country. If you want to give your horse a race, to me that's not the place to do it. Do it wherever you’re at. Unless on a time schedule for something you're planning down the road, it fits in perfectly, and the race is there, then you can do that. But just to go with a first-time starter or something like that, to me that's not the place to do it. When you go there, you better think that you’ve got a shot.