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Homeracing

Off-the-turf races can present enticing betting opportunities

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

November 30th, 2022

It happens all the time. A race is slated to take place on turf, but then rain dampens the course and forces the race to be contested on dirt or synthetic instead. When this happens, enticing betting opportunities can arise.

A surface switch is a major change that can throw bettors for a loop. Maybe they’ve already handicapped the race for grass and don’t know how to respond when it transitions to dirt, a switch usually accompanied by a bevy of scratches. Or perhaps they’re a bit too reliant on morning line odds to identify the key contenders, forgetting that a surface switch is a good reason to disregard morning line odds entirely.

But take heart, there’s no need to run in fear when a race gets rained off the turf. If you’re willing to analyze the entries with a fresh eye, you can catch nice payoffs.

A perfect example came in the 2022 Commonwealth Turf S. at Churchill Downs. Originally, the 1 1/16-mile turf race drew 11 entries. But when the race was transferred to dirt, five horses scratched, leaving a compact six-horse field to face the starter.

Handicapping the revised Commonwealth Turf didn’t appear overly difficult on paper. Three of the entrants had never won on dirt, and only one horse had scored multiple dirt victories. That one runner was Trademark, a pure dirt runner with three wins to his credit. The three-year-old gelding had even shown a clear affinity for Churchill Downs during the autumn of 2021, dominating a maiden special weight and an $80,000 allowance optional claimer in gate-to-wire fashion.

Even better, Trademark entered the Commonwealth Turf off a powerful 3 3/4-length victory over Actuator in a $125,000 allowance optional claimer at Keeneland, for which Trademark received a career-best 100 Brisnet Speed rating, the highest number belonging to any horse in the Commonwealth Turf field.

Trademark had been entered to face older horses in the Clark (G1) at Churchill Downs two days prior to the Commonwealth Turf, but opted to scratch in favor of competing against fellow three-year-olds in the Commonwealth Turf.

On paper, Trademark loomed as an obvious win contender. Yet he started as the 3.56-1 second choice behind Actuator, whom bettors pounded to 0.95-1 favoritism. Actuator had defeated Trademark in the Indiana Derby (G3) during the summer, but their recent meeting at Keeneland hinted Trademark was now the better horse.

So what happened? Trademark tracked the pace over a sloppy track, then kicked away to win by four lengths. A perfectly logical $20 win bet would have returned $91.20. Actuator finished a non-threatening fourth, but Stolen Base—the third runner with a dirt victory to his credit—finished second at odds of 6.16-1, completing a $2 exacta that returned $55.60.

Betting an off-the-turf race doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes, a straightforward outcome returns great dividends.

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