Course guide: Keeneland

Read about the famous Kentucky track, which will stage the Breeders' Cup for a second time in 2020.

  • Monday 26 October
  • Blog
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By Peter Fornatale

For those who don’t know, Keeneland is one of the most important – if not the most important – racecourses in America. The UK equivalent is Newmarket in that both are located in the seat of their countries’ breeding industries and have an “HQ” feel.

In a typical year, Keeneland runs just the three weeks in spring and then these three weeks in fall, when the weather is best around Lexington, Kentucky.

This year, Keeneland canceled its Spring meet early amidst COVID-19 concerns and instead pulled together a five-day meeting July meet that brought back many of the biggest races traditionally held in Spring. I jokingly called it “Royal Keeneland.”

The Fall meet has its own feel. One of the special elements of the Spring meet is the baby races. Two-year-old racing is still relevant in the fall but the races don’t have quite the same importance as the first-year sires all have a body of work at this point.

Breeders’ Cup preps are the order of the day in the Fall meet, with 10 separate Win-and-You’re-In races scheduled as well as several other races with divisional championship – and Breeders’ Cup – implications.

Watch the 2020 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Friday 6th and Saturday 7th November.

Well-known races

Too many to list! Between both meets, Keeneland has 10 Grade 1s, 11 Grade 2s, and 12 Grade 3s. The biggest Grade 1 is the Blue Grass Stakes, a key prep for the Kentucky Derby. Other Grade 1s include the Alcibiades, Ashland, Breeders' Futurity, First Lady, Jenny Wiley, Madison, Maker's 46 Mile, Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, Shadwell Turf Mile, and the Spinster Stakes

History

The Keene in Keeneland comes from Jack Keene, one of the founders who brought the place into being in 1936. The vision was to be both a racing entity and a sales company, so the logical location was farmland west of Lexington, Kentucky.

Keeneland is old-school. How old school? They didn’t even have a racecaller until 1997. The clubhouse is very formal, similar to a UK racecourse in that regard. I recall my first visit there in the late 1990s. It was a warm day and we were in one of the fancy restaurants upstairs. I took off my jacket to eat a cup of Keeneland’s famous burgoo. One of the green-coated ushers came over to check me in the most polite way possible: “Sir, may I help you with your coat?”

It was the first run-in I had with a green-coated usher at Keeneland. It would not be the last. But don’t get me wrong, I love the place. I just prefer the less formal, more gambling centric enclosures like The Bluegrass Room and The Green Room.

Keeneland is very photogenic and has been featured in many films, including Seabiscuit and Secretariat.

Queen Elizabeth II has visited on multiple occasions, including in the Fall of 1984 when the track launched the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes for three-year-old fillies in her honor.

Keeneland hosted the 2015 Breeders’ Cup, a wildly successful event, famous for American Pharoah’s Grand Slam. They are hosting the BC again this year, without fans, and will host again in 2022. The 2022 Cup at Keeneland is an event international fans should really consider targeting for a visit – it’s a special place and are of the country that should be on the bucket list of any racing fan with even a remote interest in American racing.

Trainers and Jockeys

Except where noted, the stats in this piece were compiled with the help of self-professed “numbers geek,” and regular contributor to inthemoneypodcast.com, John Camardo. They were compiled from the last three fall meets (2017-2020).

Where possible, two stats we like to track are ROI (return on investment, looking at what happen if you wagered a dollar via the tote on every mount), and IV (Impact Value, how often connections win compared to have often they “should” win, as implied by the odds. When evaluating ROI, keep in mind that any number over £0.85 should be considered a positive result, in the sense that £0.15 is taken out of every wagering dollar via the tote pools. If you’re “beating the takeout,” you are doing very well. With Impact Values, a number of 1.0 means something happens exactly as much as it should, with negative numbers indicating they don’t happen as often as they should and positive values indicating just the opposite.

TRAINERS

Dirt Routes

(*Route = races at a mile or over)

Samples are limited here so it’s nothing to go crazy over but we’ve selected four trainers to keep an eye on in dirt routes.

Ian Wilkes tops the advanced metrics with 27 starters, a 22 percent win percentage, a 1.57 Impact Value and a plus ROI.

It’s just 14 runners but Philip Sims looks worth paying attention to: 21 percent winners, 1.6 IV, 200 percent plus ROI.

McLean Robertson (15 starters) is another non household name who does well: 20 percent/1.56 IV/£1.17 ROI.

Rodolphe “Rudy” Brisset (13 starters) wins at 31 percent/1.36 IV/£1.60 ROI.

Dirt Sprinters

There are a lot more trainers to choose from when it comes to success in dirt sprints. A few to pay particular attention to:

Michael Tomlinson (25 starters) wins at 24 percent with a 2.89 IV and a £1.76 ROI

Jason Barkley (14 starters) has a striking line: 21 percent, 2.02 IV, £1.28 ROI

Rusty Arnold’s numbers are incredibly strong: 23 percent, 1.94 IV, £2.58 ROI

Todd Pletcher’s sample is small (11) but he’s won at 55 percent/1.88 IV/£1.14 ROI

Four others who win at 17 percent or more with positive IVs and notable ROIs are Ben Colebrook, Steve Asmussen, Wayne Catalano and Wes Ward.

Turf Routers

Michael Stidham comes out well with 18 percent winners, 2.16 IV and a £2.19 ROI

Rusty Arnold’s numbers remain strong at 17 percent, 1.92 IV, £0.92 ROI

Shug McGaughey has limited starters but 25 percent winners, 1.64 IV and £2.00 ROI

Promising young trainer Norm Casse has only send out 11 runners but has 2 winners and a 1.52 IV and a £1.42 ROI.

It should be no surprise that Mike Maker does well: His 81 fall meet starters have won 17 percent with a 1.24 IV and £1.16 ROI.

Two wild negative stats to note: Wes Ward is 0 for 19 and Bill Mott is 0 for 23.

JOCKEYS

Dirt Routes

By wins, Ricardo Santana, Jr. is top of the pops with 11 wins and the other metrics come in strong: 22 percent winners/1.43 IV, £1.19 ROI

On the advanced metrics, Chris Landeros wins the prize with 22 percent winners, 1.84 IV and £2.51 ROI.

Small sample of 11 mounts but Joel Rosario looks worth following: 36 percent winners, 1.97 IV, 1.9 ROI.

Edgar Morales comes out well again: 19 percent winners/1.92 IV/£1.68 ROI

Another under-the-radar jock in the black us Declan Cannon: 15 percent winners/1.96 IV/£2.20 ROI

Julian Leparoux makes the grade at 17 percent winners/1.15 IV/£1.21 ROI

Two very big names have similar lines with win percentages over 20, IVs just under 1, and plus ROIs: Jose Ortiz and Javier Castellano.

Dirt Sprints

There are a few important names to call out in dirt sprints, starting with Julien Leparoux: 21 percent winners in a large sample, a 1.31 IV and a £1.35 ROI.

Tyler Gaffalione is just as impressive: 24 percent winners/1.53 IV/£1.33 ROI.

Joe Rocco, Jr. deserves his props: 18 percent winners, 2.08 IV, £1.18 ROI.

Small sample but strong numbers for Joel Rosario again: 19 percent, 1.29 IV, £1.11 ROI.

Let’s include Ricardo Santana, Jr. on our honor roll: 21 winners overall for a percentage of 18, an IV of 1.01 and a £0.89 ROI.

Turf Routes

Small sample of 18 mounts but Edgar Morales stands out: 22 percent winners, 4.06 ROI and £4.92 ROI.

Joe Bravo might have to add a new moniker: “Keeneland Joe” has done well in fall meet turf routes with 17 percent winners, 1.84 IV and a £1.62 ROI.

Tyler Gaffalione’s numbers are impressive: 13 percent, 1.21 IV, £1.25 ROI

Another big name who thrives is Javier Castellano with 23 percent winners, a 1.02 IV and a £0.90 ROI.

Honorable mention to Shaun Bridgmohan with 21 percent winners, 2.84 IV and £2.64 ROI with his 14 starters.

SPECIFIC ANGLES

(Stats in this section come from our friends at STATS Race Lens and were filtered by STATS power user Matt Vagvolgyi)

Post Positions: Turf Sprints

Looking at post positions, while the data sample is small, it does seem notable that the rail can be very tricky in turf sprints (9 percent winners and a loss of £0.30 on the pound in a five year sample and 0 for the last 15). Meanwhile the 2-3 gates come out well in the analysis, suggesting that saving ground is important but perhaps there is something about having the hand forced from inside that makes for tough trips. I am tempted to avoid rail runners in turf sprints unless they can make a clear lead.

In another somewhat counter intuitive stat, posts 10 and out actually do quite well in aggregate (12 percent winners and just a £0.05 loss). Not sure what this means but I will try to avoid the knee jerk assumption that these gates and the ground loss that often goes with them are necessarily a bad thing.

In Turf Routes, we see a similar dynamic play out with the inside gates, with the 1 being a slight disadvantage but the 2-3 seeming advantageous.

Here, as expected with the two-turn configuration, posts 10 and out do not do well (8 percent winners and a £0.43 loss) and should be downgraded accordingly.

The conclusion, more or less, is that in turf routes you want to be drawn 2-9 ideally.

In dirt sprints, the inside gates don’t do all that poorly on the numbers, but it is certainly notable that continuing what we saw in turf sprints, the outside gates do well – really well in the last year (17 percent winners and a positive ROI). This could be significant given the larger trend in USA racing of having rails that are not advantaged. I’m going to upgrade outside speed on the dirt in sprints.

In dirt routes we see a much better performance from the inside gates. There is a certain logic here because even if it’s not a good rail, in a route, the jocks have more of an opportunity to get off from the bad rail.

The Power of Closing Sectionals

Horses on the Keeneland turf at virtually all distances have an advantage when they have the best late pace figures – this is logical certainly, but a look through the numbers really makes late pace look important at Keeneland. Going hand in hand with this notion, early speed in turf routes at Keeneland does not appear to be as beneficial as at other tracks (Belmont turf routes come to mind). This is particularly true when there is cut in the ground (ie the turf is listed as good).

Here is an odd one: in sloppy track dirt sprints at Keeneland, the horses with the best projected late pace have a positive ROI. Typically, I think of these races favoring speed so this is one I’ll look out for.

Another stat that surprised me: Santa Anita shippers have fared poorly in the last five years (13 percent winners with a £0.54 loss on the pound). I’m not ready to downgrade them just yet, but I will be watching the performance of California shippers very closely.

Breeders' Cup 2020

Now let’s drill down on the specifics of this year’s Breeders’ Cup, which as in 2015, will take place at Keeneland. Autumn ground – with some cut in it - can be expected for the turf races. Hopefully the dirt will be nice and try for the weekend.

temp
Map: Timeform

Stats

The stats in this piece were compiled with the help of self-professed “numbers geek,” and regular contributor to inthemoneypodcast.com, John Camardo. They were compiled from the last five full years of Keeneland data (2016-2020).

The key stat we are looking at here is IV (Impact Value, how often connections win compared to have often they “should” win, as implied by the odds. With Impact Values, a number of 1.0 means something happens exactly as much as it should, with negative numbers indicating they don’t happen as often as they should and positive values indicating just the opposite.

Post-position angles

Turf Sprint, Juvenile Turf Sprint

Looking at post positions, it’s undeniable that the rail is very tricky in full-field turf sprints. Perhaps there is something about a rider having his hand forced from the inside that makes for tough trips.

It’s also possible that there are plenty of days where the rail isn’t good – I haven’t noticed this much this fall meet but it’s something to look out for. The numbers are very striking.

I am tempted to avoid rail runners in the turf sprints unless they can make a clear lead.

In another somewhat counter intuitive stat, posts 10 and out actually do quite well in aggregate in these spots. Not sure exactly what this means but I will try to avoid the knee jerk assumption that these gates and the ground loss that often goes with them are necessarily a bad thing. This would go hand-in-hand with their being days the turf rail is bad. This is an area worthy of future exploration.

Mile, Turf, FM Turf, Juvenile Turf, Juvenile Fillies’ Turf

In full-field Turf Routes, we also see something surprising—the inside gates do just fine as you might expect, but the far outside gates, when judged by advanced metrics, aren’t all that bad. The negative numbers, judged by Impact Value, come from gates 7-10. What does this mean?

The advantage of an inside draw is real but don’t discount turf runners drawn to the far outside. It’s not that it’s an advantage; it’s just that the market overestimates the disadvantage.

We’ll return to this concept in dirt routes.

Sprint, FM Sprint

In full-field dirt sprints, the inside gates are an advantage, with the first three stalls showing a positive impact value. Once again, outside gates (9-11 in races with at least 11 runners) are also really strong performers in aggregate.

The lesson for me is that in a sprint race the winner can come from any gate, it’s all about who can show controlling speed relative to the group at hand.

If I had to choose, I’d give preference to the outside speed runners, if only because this Keeneland meet had plenty of days where the inside wasn’t good. But don’t downgrade inside runners, even from the rail, if they have the speed to get out of there.

I’ll also look to avoid second-best speeds drawn inside.

That’s not exactly revelatory, as that’s something you’d generally want to do on any track unless you were dealing with a golden rail, but it’s still worth reminding ourselves.

Dirt Mile, Distaff, Classic, Juvenile, Juvenile Fillies

In dirt routes we once again see both a strong performance from the inside stalls (1-4 all have positive IVs), and the far outside gates also do well relative to how often the odds tell us they should win. It’s tricky to keep these two thoughts in one’s head but I think it’s the right thing to do – as logic dictates, it’s important to save ground in two-turn dirt races, and the crowd sometimes underestimates this. At the same time, they also discount the chances of the far outside runners a little too much. What does this mean for us at the Breeders’ Cup?

Respect horses and jockeys you can project to save some ground. Don’t worry too much about horses drawn in outside gates.

The latter even more true based on the specifics of the situation. If the horse you’re considering has the tactical speed without much speed inside so he can navigate to a good spot, that’s much preferable to being one of three speed horses drawn wide where a wide trip starts to be inevitable.

Running Styles - Dirt

In dirt races, as you would guess, speed is incredibly important. If you could know who would make the early lead in aggregate in dirt races at Keeneland (and this is typical for dirt races) you could have the winner around more than 25 percent of the time, and it’s probably closer to 30 percent.

If generally speaking you’re going to be more than a few lengths back early on, as stats guru John Camardo says, “You might as well rip up the paper and move on to the next race.”

I will offer the caveat that a race like this year’s Filly and Mare Sprint has the potential to be the exception that proves that rule – a proper pace meltdown. But I think John would argue (correctly) that even when you think a pace is going to meltdown, you still don’t want to be dead last in dirt races. Upgrade and downgrade your contenders accordingly.

Running Styles - Turf

As one would expect, early speed is not the same type of advantage in turf races. Even in the sprints the early leaders win less than 20 percent of the time.

Horses on the Keeneland turf at virtually all distances have an advantage when they have the best late pace figures – this is logical certainly, but a look through the numbers really makes late pace look important at Keeneland. Going hand in hand with this notion, early speed in turf routes at Keeneland is simply not as beneficial as at other tracks (Belmont turf races come to mind). This is particularly true when there is cut in the ground (ie the turf is listed as good or softer, likely conditions for this year’s BC).

I’m going to downgrade turf route horses with early pace unless they have the late pace to back it up.

The success of the inside gates doesn’t preclude the idea of a dead turf rail on some days. In a route race, riders have more of an opportunity to navigate off of a bad rail. And the lack of success of frontrunners goes hand in hand with the idea that the inside isn’t necessarily where you want to be.

Watch the 2020 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Friday 6th and Saturday 7th November.

Course guide: Keeneland
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