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Handicapping At Kentucky Downs

You’ve no doubt heard, sensing an unmistakable pride in the pronouncement, that Kentucky Downs is unique, owing largely to its 1 5/16-mile turf course, which from the air must look like a giant pear.
As uniqueness goes, that’s impressive enough and guaranteed to send a flutter through the pastoral heart. But for horseplayers, here’s another and perhaps more significant reason Kentucky Downs has become something unique in America’s racing experience: If you had bet $2 to win on every favorite here last year, you would have made a 22-percent profit on your investment. And that’s — well, that’s simply extraordinary, unprecedented in recent memory, or any memory, for that matter.

Yes, Kentucky Downs is unique because of its undulating, European-style turf course and its all-turf-all-the-time program and the blessed brevity of its schedule, which contributes to a carefree and festive atmosphere. All that’s wonderful. But for the horseplayer, whether serious or casual, here’s wonderful: large fields with good horses, and plenty of betting opportunities with a low takeout. And that summarizes the bettor’s perspective of Kentucky Downs.

It has become one of the most bettor-friendly racetracks in America, a veritable bettor’s paradise. For more than half the Kentucky Downs races (51.2 percent) last year, 10 or more horses lined up in the starting gate. And the racing was very formful — that is, predictable. Favorites won 37.2 percent of the races, and yet the average favorite paid $6.60. Nearly a third of the winning favorites paid $8 or more. In other words, you’re unlikely to find a four-horse field here with a 2-5 favorite that renders all the betting options equally unappealing, a situation that seems to have become commonplace elsewhere. In fact, the Kentucky Downs fields were so typically large that there was only one odds-on favorite the entire season, and Seruni, in an unusually dull effort from the old pro, finished fifth at 4-5.

This isn’t to suggest, however, that you should adopt betting on favorites as your strategy, but it does emphasize that at Kentucky Downs, in part because of the large fields, the odds are so attractive that even betting favorites can be profitable. The other factor in this oddity, of course, is the takeout.

As you probably know, the takeout is the cost of betting: what’s removed from the pool before the money is returned in the form of payoffs. A lower takeout means a higher payoff, reflected in better odds. And Kentucky Downs has become an industry leader in lowering the takeout. In fact, the track has the lowest takeout in the country (18.25 percent) for exactas. The new Pick 5 will offer a takeout of only 14 percent. Rolling doubles, Pick 3s, Pick 4s, trifectas, superfectas, and the Hi-5 all have 19-percent takeout, and straight win, place and show wagers have a 16-percent takeout.

With a lower takeout tantamount to lower prices, it’s almost as if there’s a sale every day at the racetrack. But only almost, because sales generally involve an effort to move products that might otherwise be unattractive. And, over those few weeks in September, Kentucky Downs will offer some of the most attractive racing in the country. That’s right, some of the best racing in America, right here in Franklin, Ky. — and the most lucrative racing, too, with purses averaging $900,000 a day.

Many outstanding horses have raced at Kentucky Downs over the years. Yaqthan, Chorwon, Silverfoot, Rahystrada and Ioya Bigtime all have won the track’s premier event, the Kentucky Turf Cup. Sovereign Award winner Never Retreat won the Kentucky Downs Ladies Turf Stakes in 2010 on her way to earning nearly $1.4 million. A year before she won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, One Dreamer won a stakes at Kentucky Downs. Morluc, G H’s Pleasure, Battle Won and Silver Medallion all won stakes at Kentucky Downs. But in terms of quality, the racing this year promises to raise the standard.

So, yes, Kentucky Downs is unique, with its giant pear of a turf course and all those zeroes dancing in a chorus line, but it’s also a horseplayer’s paradise. And that’s what you probably need to keep in mind when you saunter up to the wickets to invest in the short-term futures market — that and the track’s winning trends. And, make no mistake, knowing the trends — something else that makes Kentucky Downs unique — can be the difference between winning and just having a good time.

Speed, for example, has a significant advantage in the races run at distances less than a mile. Last year, nearly half the winners, or 8 of 18, led virtually from the start in these sprints. And only three horses rallied inside the eighth-pole to win a sprint.

That might seem strange since the run down the lane at Kentucky Downs takes in one of the longer homestretches found on any turf course in North America. It’s about a quarter-mile. But, and here’s the rub, the stretch run to the wire slopes uphill, which tends to compromise the strength of late-runners. At the same time, in those sprints, the run to the turn is downhill, which only emphasizes the speedsters’ advantage.

The situation changes at a mile, or a mile and 70 yards, where the initial run down the backstretch is uphill. Only three winners led throughout at this distance last year, and all three were able to take advantage of a soporific opening half-mile (49.0 seconds, 49. 64 and 49. 65). But the typical winner rallied from about five lengths back after the opening half-mile, and a few were able to rally from far back, such as Drama Drama, who overcame an 11-length deficit to win, and Miz Ida, who charged from 8 1/2 lengths back to take the Kentucky Downs Ladies’ Turf Stakes.

No matter the distance, though, the winner usually makes his decisive move in the expansive, sweeping turn that propels the horses into the stretch. In sprints, the broad turn allows speedsters to continue their momentum unchecked; and in longer races, it allows the late runners, even encourages them, to launch their bids early.