What is it they say about Kentucky Downs?

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

The unique setting of Kentucky Downs provides a picturesque backdrop for racing – and some odd challenges for trainers, jockeys and especially bettors. (Ron Flatter photo)

Franklin, Ky.

The mantras coming out of Kentucky Downs are many.

Low takeout.

Big fields.

Rich purses.

European style turf racing.

Weird things happen.

That last one might not be endorsed by the management of this lush property that is uniquely positioned in the deepest part of Kentucky. Tennessee is to the south. And the west. And the east. The little geopolitical notch for this rolling meadow was carved out and ceded to Kentucky in order to let duelin’ Tennesseans aim pistols at one another. Presumably that came to a halt a few generations ago.

The weird occurrences keep happening at this racecourse. Last year there was the premature ejection that left horses unloaded at a gate that opened too early. And there was the time the gate was misloaded, inexplicably leaving a stall open between horses. And there were all those times the gate was mispositioned on the course. That was before it was discovered that it had been mispositioned every year until 2020. On Wednesday, a horse flipped at the gate but was not scratched from the race. Of course she finished last.

Those are quirks. The story of Kentucky Downs now as it is every year is how difficult it is to handicap the races – and how the rewards are so good for horseplayers who figure out how to crack the code.

With races still to be run Saturday and Sunday before this mini-meet comes to a close, favorites have won 14 of 42 races. That is 33.3 percent. The national average through mid-summer, according to Brisnet’s Ed DeRosa, was 37.9 percent. Five of them came on an exceptionally chalky day. Those first 42 races also had seven winners that scored at odds of at least 10-1, or 16.7 percent.

Compare and contrast those numbers with the meets that just ended in California and New York. In 292 races, not counting one that was declared no contest, Del Mar saw 99 favorites (33.9 percent) win and 38 victorious long shots carrying odds of at least 10-1 (13.0 percent). The shortest-priced horses at Saratoga won 160 of 417 races (38.4 percent) with another 51 coming through at 10-1 or longer (12.2 percent). So much for the so-called “Graveyard of Favorites.”

Field sizes are certainly a big factor in all this. There were averages of 7.4 horses per race at Saratoga and 8.6 at Del Mar. Through the first three days of its six-day meet, Kentucky Downs averaged 10.1.

One would think the payouts would be huge at Kentucky Downs. Well, yes and no. Winning 50-cent Pick 5 tickets – there are two pools a day – have paid $258,381.95, $12,852.00, $7,755.65, $817.70, $13,394.05, $198,518.40, $1,085.20 and $2,052.00 Everything from a nice bachelor pad to a nice family dinner.

One man who has studied betting trends in recent years at Kentucky Downs said the Pick 5 can get so frustrating, it might be better to find an easier task.

“I have tried to focus my wagering this meet on the Pick 3s,” Brisnet’s Joe Kristufek told me in an interview for Horse Racing Nation. “Inevitably in a Pick 4 or Pick 5, with the budget I’m working with, I’m probably going to miss somewhere. If you like a horse that’s 6-1 or 8-1, just bet the horse. If you’re playing around with exactas and trifectas and Pick 3s and Pick 4s, and that horse wins, yet you don’t hit any of those (horizontal) bets when it pays $18, and you lose money, there’s no worse feeling than that.”

That sounds like good advice, especially in a country where main-track knowledge is pedestrian, and turf acumen is gold. Some bettors simply gravitate to the most successful turf trainers, like Chad Brown and Christophe Clément. But that does not always work here.

“You might not be right very often at Kentucky Downs,” Kristufek said. “But when you are, most of the time with the big fields, you’re going to get paid.”

Blindly playing jockey Joel Rosario worked really well the first two days of the meet. He won 10 of 19 races. He has since cooled off, but with one win Wednesday and two more Thursday, his 13 trips to the winner’s circle are a record for a single year at this track. And that comes with two days to spare.

Playing Kentucky Downs, then, is like playing baseball in the 21st century. Don’t sweat striking out so much when the odds say the home runs will come around. The computer geeks insist that that is the best way to attack the game.

So doesn’t it seem like baseball is just now catching up with horse racing? Especially for six days every summer at the ol’ Dueling Grounds.

Racing notes and opinions

At the risk of crying wolf, representatives of the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association and Churchill Downs Inc. spoke by telephone this month in an effort to end their nearly two-year impasse. That was what sources in Las Vegas and Louisville told VSiN. “No real progress to report, unfortunately,” one said. According to another, the NPMA made the call to reopen negotiations aimed at restoring legal wagers through Nevada racebooks on tracks that CDI owns and controls. Although it was not characterized as a sense of urgency, the upcoming racing seasons at Churchill Downs, Oaklawn and Fair Grounds were said to have prodded the phone call. Yes, we have heard this before, so horseplayers in Las Vegas should not raise their hopes.

Kentucky Downs presents two automatic qualifiers Saturday for the Breeders’ Cup. Casa Creed (7-2) is the favorite to win the $1 million, six-furlong, Grade 3 Turf Sprint, a “win and you’re in” for – wait for it – the Turf Sprint. The 5-year-old horse finished third in the Fourstardave Handicap at Saratoga, where 6-year-old mare Got Stormy (9-2) defeated him. The long-shot play here will be on Fast Boat (10-1), a deep closer that won the Grade 3 Troy  last month at Saratoga. The Turf Sprint at 5:09 p.m. EDT will be followed at 5:44 p.m. by the $1 million Grade 2 Calumet Turf Cup, which Arklow (3-1) won last year. Trained by Brad Cox and ridden by Florent Géroux, the 7-year-old horse has lost twice this summer. That is one reason Channel Cat (9-2) will be on top of my ticket. Since winning the Man O’ War at Belmont Park in May, he has finished out of the money twice, but importantly he does have a win over this track. That is why Channel Cat will key my tickets that include Arklow and Glynn County (15-1), another former winner at this racecourse.

The Dubai Racing Club put a positive spin Tuesday on its purse increase for next year’s Dubai World Cup night. In reality, though, Sheikh Mohammed merely restored some but not all the prize money that was reduced 26 percent this year in the name of the coronavirus. The feature will still be worth $12 million as it was for the last two runnings in 2019 and 2021. Each of the nine races on the March 26 program will be worth at least $1 million, and the Dubai Turf was boosted from $4 million to $5 million. Unaccounted for, though, were the specific increases for the undercard. Total purse money in 2022 will be $30.5 million, up 17 percent from this year but still shy of the $35 million that had been in play in 2019. World Cup night was called off in 2020, when the pandemic was just starting to rear its ugly head.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode comes from the turf meet at historic Kentucky Downs near the Tennessee border. Track announcer Larry Collmus talks about this weekend’s Breeders’ Cup qualifiers there. From the National Horseplayers Championship, Karl Broberg discusses his passions of horse training and betting. Johnny Avello of DraftKings Sportsbook handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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