Churchill Downs fall meet handicapping preview

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Noel Michaels

October 26th, 2019

The Churchill Downs Fall Meet is here, and the season, which lasts from Sunday, Oct. 27 to Sunday, Dec. 1 offers some of the autumn’s best racing during the post-Breeders’ Cup time of the year that generally offers slim pickings for horseplayers. After opening day, racing will be conducted five days a week through the entire month of November.

RELATED: Stars of Tomorrow I horse-by-horse guide for Churchill Downs races on October 27

The stakes highlights of the Churchill Fall Meet come over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend when six graded stakes will be run, headlined on Black Friday, November 29, with the Clark Handicap (G1). This year the Clark could attract three-year-old Eclipse Award candidate Maximum Security against a field of older horses. Saturday, November 30 will be the Stars of Tomorrow II card that will be overloaded with top-notch two-year-old races.

Churchill Downs offers high-quality traditional dirt track racing ideal for handicappers. The Churchill dirt course is generally regarded as a “cuppy” surface at times, meaning that the track does not retain enough moisture in it to hold the sand together. This results in footing that some horses love and others hate, and this factor makes a horse’s past performances at Churchill Downs very important, and makes Churchill Downs one of the tracks where the horses-for-the-course angle means the most.

Churchill Downs Handicapping

As a Churchill handicapper, you also must make yourself acutely aware of any inside/outside biases happening at any given meet, and you must pay attention to the rail path in particular, because the Churchill Downs rail seems particularly susceptible to mostly negative track biases.

Due to the cuppiness of Churchill’s dirt surface, the track is more likely to be faster and more conducive to speed in the summer when temperatures and humidity are higher. At the fall meet, Churchill’s main track is generally more likely to play slower than it does in the spring and summer.

The cooler the weather turns, the less likelihood there is of speed-favoring conditions or a lightning-fast track. Since many of the horses racing at Churchill the next month will be exiting races at Keeneland, this means that horses coming out of big front-running dirt efforts at Keeneland should be downgraded a bit at Churchill. Conversely, late-closing horses that didn’t have a good chance to rally at Keeneland should be upgraded at Churchill now because, perhaps, they will have a chance to run better than over the different type of track. This is especially true if you see the horse owns a prior win or wins at Churchill Downs, particularly during this or any past fall meet.

The Churchill Downs turf course is sand-based in order to promote good drainage, and it is this composition that makes this turf course different from most other turf courses, with the exceptions of perhaps Keeneland and Fair Grounds. Chances are if a horse has recently run well on the turf at Keeneland, the horse’s turf form will be much more reliable than horses shipping in from other places. The Churchill turf, just like the dirt, is another place where you’ll want to heavily weight a horse’s local CD past performances.

Churchill Downs Turf Course

Churchill Downs’ turf course is generally fair to horses breaking from inside and middle post positions.  Posts further out than post 8 are at a bit of a disadvantage. The main turf distance that is affected by post positions is one mile. Win percentages for outside posts commonly drop to an extremely poor average of 3-5% winners each at that distance. Therefore, generally speaking, posts outside No. 8 are not great, and can be downright disastrous in turf races run at one mile. Take note also, that at a mile, middle posts 4-7 have, in the past, had been clearly the best at that distance.

In turf sprints at Churchill Downs, the inside six posts enjoy an advantage, and any post outside 6 is not good. This is in stark contrast to the turf sprint races run at Keeneland and in New York at Belmont and Saratoga, which tend to favor outside posts.

In Churchill turf sprints, use the post position angle to your advantage in order to catch some prices. The Keeneland turf sprints tend to favor outside and middle posts and most of the Churchill turf sprinters will be coming out of turf sprints at Keeneland.  When you see a horse entered in a Churchill turf sprint coming off a sub-par turf sprint effort from Keeneland, Belmont, or Saratoga, give that horse an excuse if it broke from the rail, or perhaps from any of the three inside posts in that last race.  Chances are, that horse’s chance of winning was hurt by the inside draw in big fields, making it an overlay in a turf sprint at Churchill Downs, unless, of course, the horse draws outside post 6 at Churchill. In that case, wait until next time.

Churchill Downs Running Styles

In terms of running styles, Churchill’s turf course favors mid-pack pace-pressers and stalkers over all other running styles. Early leaders generally have a difficult time going wire-to-wire on this turf course, and the deepest of closers have a tough time getting up in time to win. Just as with post positions, this analysis is especially true in one-mile turf races, where early speed horses win less than 9% of the time, and closers coming from further than 10 lengths out of win even less.  The ideal winning profile on the Churchill turf is a stalker that runs about 4 lengths off the pace at the first call (half-mile), and 2 1/2 lengths behind at the second call (6F mark).

Enjoy top-quality racing at the upcoming Churchill Downs fall meet. Best of luck!