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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 FALL MEET PREVIEW (PART 1 OF 2)
A logical question as the 2014 Keeneland Fall Meet rolls around is: “Just where will the winners come from?” The geographic landscape that makes up a Keeneland meet always is as diverse as can be. And just when you got comfortable with which circuits might excel on Polytrack, the return to dirt this week brings a new and invigorating challenge.
Let’s look at the most prolific circuits to produce main track winners at Keeneland during the Polytrack era’s 1040 Fall Meet races and try to make some sense of a plausible prediction of 2014 success. Last Fall’s spread of winners on the main track was razor-thin: 16 Churchill, 15 Kentucky Downs, 15 Presque Isle, 13 Arlington, 12 Saratoga.
Turfway Park (150 wins)
Irrelevant now as TP nixed its September meet after 2012 and for the second straight year Churchill Downs will serve as the Kentucky lead-in. But looking at nearly 15% of all winners coming from Turfway, you have to think that will put more checks in the Churchill Downs column.
Arlington Park (145 wins)
AP provided a solid Polytrack-to-Polytrack surface transition and perfect timing on the calendar in past years. You would have to think more of the dirt-inclined horses who bypassed Keeneland in favor of Hawthorne on the Chicago circuit might now re-route back to Lexington. So while some may surmise Arlington will drop, I predict it would hold strong as one of the top 3 producers of main track winners even on the dirt and may produce even more winners than last Fall’s 13 on the Kee main. Back in 2005 Fall, the last meet on dirt at Keeneland, the Poly to dirt runners via Turfway Park were exceptionally best statistically.
Saratoga (108 wins) / Belmont (30 wins)
The New York contingent very well could rise with a return to dirt, undoubtedly it will in the higher-profile races. But the casino-infused purses at Belmont and future racing at Aqueduct likely will keep en masse shuttling from New York an unlikely event. Keep in mind that of the 16 NYRA shippers to win on the Kee main last Fall Meet, 12 were making turf-to-Poly surface changes and only 4 were dirt horses. It's a leap to think that the New Yorkers will flock back at all levels just for dirt racing. In 2005, NYRA produced 19 dirt winners during this Kee stand, only 3 more than last year on the Polytrack. Two-turn maiden special weights could be an area in the 2-year-old ranks that conditioners do come to town for, given Belmont’s 1-turn route nature. Look for a similar output to last year in the win column overall.
Presque Isle Downs (89 wins)
Nearly 60 percent of the PID winners came in races for $30,000 claiming or less (including starter allowances and maiden claimers). So while the synthetic surface affinity most will assume should disappear, it’s plausible these horses still fit very well on class. Look for a drop-off in the win total, likely closer to 10 than last year’s 15, but don’t expect the PIDs to vanish. As mentioned in the AP section, the synthetic preppers from Turfway were dynamite at Keeneland in the last Fall dirt meet in 2005. Look for these horses to get some chances in turf sprints as well.
Kentucky Downs (73 wins)
For running only a handful of days, it’s amazing how prolific this meet has been in producing Keeneland successes. Since every runner exiting KD will be making a turf-to-dirt surface change that makes for a new balance in predicting Keeneland success. Nearly three-quarters of all main track winners at Kee via KD have come in claiming, maiden claiming or starter allowances. So, again, they will fit very well on class. But note only 2 dirt winners prepped at KD during the 2005 Fall Meet on dirt (vs. 6 KD preppers winning on turf that season). I’m looking at last year’s 15-win total and predicting a drop, so much that 10 wins would be a success. Now, on the turf, that could be a whole different story as KD turfers could very well be on the rise at this Kee meeting.
Churchill Downs (44 wins)
These 44 Churchill wins are misleading in that 16 came last year in the first September meet lead-in and the other 28 were horses in past years coming off a summer layoff from the CD meet that ends traditionally around July 4. Field sizes were not strong at the 2014 Churchill September meet, so raw numbers would seem to hint of a possible drop-off in wins produced at Keeneland. But it’s also fair to think that the second time around, trainers using Churchill as a prep toward Keeneland might be more common than last year’s almost experimental September season at the Downs. I think you’ll see this number actually rise off the 16 wins last year and push toward the 20 mark.
Hoosier Park / Indiana Grand (30 wins)
Now that Hoosier runs exclusively harness, the Thoroughbred scene in that state all runs through Indiana Grand. There will be plenty of dirt-savvy horses from Indiana Downs ready to make a run at Keeneland for Kentucky horsemen who had fled the state for casino purses. Note that Hoosier Park preppers won 4 races all at near-basement levels during the 2005 Fall Meet at Keeneland on dirt, but this time around the racing program appears stronger at Indy with an influx of Kentucky ex-patriots running there. Indiana Grand could double its 7 main track wins from last Fall this time around with sharp claiming barns like Tom Amoss, Steve Asmussen and Mike Maker camping out there this summer.
Ellis Park (28 wins)
This could be the misconception for horseplayers in that the dirt surface at Ellis Park will translate to more success on the Keeneland main track. But if you go back to the 2005 Keeneland Fall on dirt, only 3 Ellis preppers won (all in cheaper claiming/maiden claiming races). The strength at Ellis long has been its 2-year-old turf routers getting seasoning at a distance many of the regional dirt horses did not. Look for those types on the Keeneland lawn or perhaps moving to dirt. Ellis horses won 3 races on the main track at Keeneland each of the past 2 fall meets, so set the over/under again at a trio.
Monmouth Park (24 wins)
I’m not sure the Monmouth program is as good now as it was in 2005 when dirt was last seen at Keeneland. The Jersey types then were pretty strong in allowance sprints at Kee, and given the fast nature of that track on the Shore, its best chance for success here in 2014 might be in similar events where that speed is at a premium. Figure somewhere in the 2-4 range for Monmouth winners at the meet.
Look for part 2 of the season preview on Thursday before we hit daily statistical blog updates that go race-by-race for the season! Check out more from Jeremy Plonk, including exclusive wagering strategies and more, in the Horseplayernow.com BUZZ report.