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Jeremy Plonk has worked in the racing industry professionally for 20 years and has been a statistical consultant to Keeneland, Del Mar and Oaklawn Park, as well as NBC Sports and ESPN. He has been a national racing columnist for ESPN.com and Daily Racing Form and is the owner of Horse Player NOW, creators of the Night School national fan education program. A former chart caller for Equibase, he continues to be a public handicapper in the Horse Player NOW BUZZ report.
Jeremy Plonk’s Keeneland Keys for Friday, October 3, 2014
What to Watch for Today: The 2014 Fall Meet opens with a bang, featuring a pair of traditional kickoff stakes in the G1 Darley Alcibiades and the G3 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes. And, all eyes will be on the new natural dirt surface, which replaces Polytrack after an eight-year run.
It will be important to consider the surface, but I caution against obsessing over it. The same handicapping fundamentals applied universally will serve you best in this brave, new-but-old world. Based on workout times earlier opening week, it has not been a blazing-fast surface whatsoever. Only 10 of 68 half-mile workouts Sun-Mon-Tues went under :48 flat.
A few trainers back in the Keeneland mix after an absence include Hall of Famer Nick Zito and Larry Jones, both formidable with opening day entries, as well as highly respected east coast conditioner Kelly Breen – who fires four times on the first day of the meet.
Follow me on raceday two ways, either in the live blog/chat at the Keeneland website (http://www.keeneland.com/racing/racing-live-coverage) – also available on your mobile devices – or on Twitter @Keeenelandracing, where I provide up-to-the-minute picks and analysis.
Weather: The new dirt surface could be put to the moisture test right away as there is an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms forecasted for Friday. Temperatures in the low 70s are expected with winds of 17 mph. Keep an eye on the flags – to the left favors early speed horses, to the right gives horses who come from behind their best chance.
Keeneland Handicapping 101: Here we go race-by-race to give you the inside stats. Most information is gleaned from the free Keeneland Handicapping database (http://apps.keeneland.com/awstats/Default.asp) that you can manipulate and search for yourself as well!
Obviously trends on the dirt surface will be evolving throughout the meet, and I’ve also gone back and researched the most recent Fall Meet on dirt in 2005 to extract some insights to how I think the racing action may morph in the post-Poly era.
Race 1 is a maiden special weight route for the older horses. In 26 races over all surfaces during Fall Meets at Keeneland since 2006, only 1 first-time starter has won in this situation and 19 of 26 winners exited a route prep. Don’t dwell on posts in this 12-horse field as you might assume wide draws are highly disadvantaged. The facts are that posts 10 and higher have accounted for 23% of the wins in 1-1/16 miles races that featured 12 or more starters on the Kee main track since Fall ’06. Nick Zito returns to Keeneland with a preference for dirt and starts 3 on opening day, including Aggrandizement in the curtain raiser. Zito was leading trainer with 9 wins at the 2005 Fall Meet, the last in the dirt era.
The early pick four begins in Race 2, a non-winners of 2 lifetime claiming race on the dirt. With a field of just six and at six furlongs, you’d expect early speed to have a legitimate edge in this race. Kaabond exits a tired effort at Indiana Grand, and it’s worth nothing that Indy preppers won 3 of the 6 races at the 2013 Fall Meet in the “non-winners of 2” claiming ranks. Her trainer Sally Schu won a similar N2L claiming sprint at the ’12 Fall Meet at 7/1 odds. Kaabond will have to have her running shoes on to beat Twitterverse.
Open $50,000 claimers sprint 7 furlongs in Race 3. While Arlington horses have done best in these richer claimers historically during the fall, we’re without one in this race. Do note solid success for Kentucky Downs preppers as well at $25,000 claiming-and-higher, which could bode well for Avicii. Her trainer Michelle Lovell has done her best Keeneland work in sprints (all 9 career Kee wins have come in sprints).
We hit the turf for the first time in Race 4, an entry level allowance for 2-year-olds. There’s typically 1 or 2 of these carded each Fall Meet, and note this is no place to look for a price bomb. Of the 10 offered since 2006, 8 were won by horses 5/2 or less on the toteboard. Six of 10 had route preps last time out, while New York raiders led the way with 4 wins. Solid favorite Designed For War via Saratoga would make a ton of sense and could be the early pick four single. If looking for another option, note trainer Chris Block (Nun the Less) scored not 1, but both, of the 2012 Fall Meet offerings in this category with Bambazonki and IO Ireland.
Races 5 and 7 are split divisions of promising 2-year-old maiden special weight sprints at 6 furlongs. Note that first-time starters won 20 of 38 such races for the age/class/distance during the Polytrack era, including 4 of 6 last year. If you get back to the last dirt meet in Fall ’05, 2 of 4 races that season on dirt went to the rookies. Among the notable rookies, consider in Race 2 horses like Etruscan, a son of champion Bernardini out of Kentucky Oaks winner Proud Spell, as well as Danzig Moon, whose trainer Mark Casse was on fire at the ’14 Kee Spring stand. In the Race 7 second division, rookies of interest include Cloverdale Nine, a half-brother to Whywhywhy and Spellbinder, and trained by Wesley Ward, who has won more 2-year-old races at Keeneland since 2006 than anyone else by a wide margin. Also note rookie Exodus, another Larry Jones trainee, who is by Medaglia d’Oro and out of the G1 winner Stop Traffic, making him a half-brother to G1 Whitney winner Cross Traffic. Of the Race 5 and Race 7 divisions, the latter appears the one to have more strength among those who have already raced and the former the more likely to be won by a first-time starter if not both.
Race 6 begins the 50-cent pick five. It’s a third-level allowance, and a rare occurrence that doesn’t give us much statistical glue. But this field of 7 is the epitome of Keeneland with horses coming from 7 different last-out venues. Grade 1/Grade 2-caliber runner Bourbon Courage returns at just 6-1/2 furlongs, and it’s your guess as good as mine if this comeback prep is an easy spot for him or a play-against. His trainer has just 1 sprint-to-route win on his Keeneland resume, as Kellyn Gorder did score a $32,000 claimer this spring with a horse cutting back from a two-turn mile at Turfway to a 7-furlong date at Keeneland. But nothing this drastic or high-profile.
The co-featured G3 Phoenix is Race 8, and it was a price haven in the Polytrack era with an average winner of 11/1 and favorites going 1-for-8. But you can’t just blame the Poly there as the 9 previous Phoenix renewals on dirt also saw favorites go just 1-for-8. C Zee will try to become the 9th three-year-old to win the Phoenix in its 162 years. Recently, Wise Dan (2010) and Sum of the Parts (2012) succeeded as sophomores. Even on Polytrack, early speed has been a premium in the Phoenix with the last 7 winners all racing within 2 lengths of the lead after the opening half-mile (average -½ length). Each was exiting a prep at 5-1/2 or 6 furlongs with no cut-backs in distance. This is a very tough race to judge the pace admittedly, but don’t be afraid of a price.
The Race 9 Friday finale is a 1-1/8 miles turf allowance. Of the 108 turf allowances during Fall Meets since 2006, 29 winners have exited preps in New York (17 Sar, 12 Bel). No other circuit come close (AP 14 winners, KD 12 winners). That’s good news for Treaty Oak, the only NYRA shipper in the nightcap. Bill Mott has 11 Fall Meet turf allowance wins during that span and will try to get Songoficeandfire in off the also-eligible list. Posts 10-11-12 have accounted for 9 wins in the last 21 races held at 1-1/8 miles on turf with a capacity 12-horse field. Don’t over-emphasize the draw if you like someone wide. That’s more than posts 1-6 have won combined in those same races.
Feature Race Play, courtesy of the Horseplayernow.com BUZZ Report:
The Grade 1 $400,000 Darley Alcibiades headlines the opening-day card in Race 9. Favorites have won 3 of the last 4 Alcibiades contested, with 4 of the last 5 winners prepping at Woodbine most recently. But the surface change to dirt has changed the complexion of the Alcibiades, and two-time defending champion trainer Mark Casse will not be represented for a three-peat.
The favorite’s role in a historically formful race goes to Fashion Alert, unbeaten winner of the Astoria at Belmont and G3 Schuylerville at Saratoga. While she’s never been a route of ground and has been away since July 18, there will be no shortage of public support for the Todd Pletcher trainee. Surprisingly, Pletcher has yet to win the Alcibiades on Polytrack or dirt.
From a pure handicapper’s standpoint, I was not impressed with the G2 Pocahontas at Churchill Downs in review. In trying to narrow a tough field of 13 on Friday, I’ll eliminate those alumnae from the Pocahontas and take my chances.
Certainly use and respect Fashion Alert in multi-race and intra-race wagers, but I’d be inclined to include some sharp last-out winners on the class rise with her. Those include Taylor S and Calamity Kate with a sneaky look at the maiden Gap Year, who lures Joel Rosario off of the Pocahontas runner-up to ride. Taylor S will be my key among the upset hopes.
Feel free to drop me an E-mail anytime at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com.