Churchill Downs: Tips and trends for betting the 2021 spring meet

April 23rd, 2021

One year after COVID-19 prompted the postponement of the Kentucky Derby (G1) by four months, a sense of normalcy has returned to Churchill Downs.

The annual spring meet will begin as scheduled Saturday, and the Kentucky Derby is back to its traditional date on the calendar — the fabled first Saturday in May. Forty stakes races are on the agenda for the two-month meet, which wraps up June 26.

To prepare for the opening of Churchill Downs, let’s review a handful of useful stats and trends to keep in mind while handicapping the high-class racing action.

Outside posts aren’t problematic in dirt routes

According to post position statistics compiled by Equibase, outside posts aren’t particularly disadvantageous in dirt routes. During the 2020 fall meet horses that broke from post 8 won at an 11.5% rate, and horses that started from posts 9-11 won at rates ranging from 7.4%-9.8%—not too far off the 11.3%-14.5% win rates from posts 1-3.

Statistics from Brisnet indicate that posts 8 and wider had an average win percentage of 11% in 1 1/16-mile dirt races, from September through November 2020, better than the 9% strike rate produced by post 1.

These are significant stats, because outside posts have less of a chance to produce winners than inside posts. There will always be a horse in post 1, and in a five-horse field, that post will only have to defeat four horses. But post 10 is only occupied in races with 10 or more starters, when the raw chance for victory is no more than 10%.

Beware inside posts on the turf

Only 14 turf races were contested at Churchill Downs during the 2020 fall meet, with the remainder cancelled because of issues with the rooting on the grass course.

But those 14 races produced surprising results. Just one horse from the three innermost posts managed to reach the winner’s circle, compared to nine winners from posts 4-7. Posts 1-3 scored just one victory from 42 opportunities (2.3% wins), compared to posts 4-7, which produced nine winners from 56 opportunities (16% wins).

This is unusual, because ground-saving trips tend to be beneficial on turf, and inside posts dominated over the Churchill Downs lawn during the 2019 fall meet. Perhaps the issues with the turf course compromised horses drawn inside. If that was the case, than the disadvantage might disappear for the 2021 spring meet. But until we see how the fresh data unfolds, this is a trend worth watching.

Avoid speed horses in seven-furlong dirt sprints

Although speed horses excel in six-furlong and 6 1/2-furlong dirt sprints at Churchill Downs, they tend to struggle a bit at seven furlongs. According to Brisnet data, from September through November 2020, just 19% of seven-furlong dirt sprints were won in gate-to-wire fashion.

Instead, tracking types enjoyed the most success. On average, the winners settled about 2 1/4 lengths off the lead through the first two points of call, before they pounced to victory in the final three furlongs. Horses rated with Brisnet’s “E/P” (Early/Presser) running style won at a 33% clip.

The track has been fast in recent years

While Secretariat’s Kentucky Derby record has stood untouched since 1973, that doesn’t mean the Churchill Downs main track is on the slow side these days. Seven of the current track records at Churchill have been established during the last decade, including two in 2020.

  • Wilbo: 5 furlongs in :56.41, Sep. 18, 2016
  • Groupie Doll: 7 furlongs in 1:20.44, May 5, 2012
  • Fruit Ludt: 1 mile in 1:33.26, Nov. 21, 2014
  • Successful Dan: 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.04, May 4, 2012
  • Idol: 1 3/16 miles in 1:55.97, Nov. 8, 2020
  • Ry’s the Guy: 1 1/2 miles in 2:29.58, Sept. 1, 2020
  • Rocketry: 1 3/4 miles in 2:57.62, Nov. 2, 2018

Keep the speed of the racing surface in mind when handicapping this summer. Evaluate fast final times in context with the entire day of racing. A performance that looks sharp on paper may have been the result of a blazing fast track.

Watch out for Gaffalione, Asmussen, Cox, Maker, Brown, and Kenneally

There’s a rising star in the Churchill Downs jockey colony, and his name is Tyler Gaffalione.

The 26-year-old rider dominated the jockey rankings in 2020, when he won all three meet titles and won at a 23% rate. Gaffalione wins a high percentage of his rides on both dirt and turf, a multi-surface versatility not every jockey can claim. If he picks up where he left off at the 2021 spring meet, he’ll be a frequent visitor to the Churchill Downs winner’s circle.

Among trainers, Steve Asmussen is always a force to reckon with. His deep stable has topped the trainer rankings at seven of the last 12 Churchill Downs meets, including four consecutive spring meets. Across the whole of 2020, Asmussen won at an 18% rate at Churchill Downs, with 45% of his starters in the money.

Brad Cox and Mike Maker have also won meet titles in recent years. Even though they saddle fewer starters than Asmussen, they tend to win at a higher percent rate — 21% apiece in 2020.

But if we’re talking win percentage, then the name to know is Chad Brown, who won 18 of his 59 starts in 2020, a 31% success rate.

Be sure to watch out for betting favorites trained by Eddie Keneally. According to data from StatsMaster, Kenneally has won 42 of his 94 starts (45%) with favored runners since 2017, and betting them all would have produced a profit of 11%. In 2020 alone, Kenneally won seven of his 13 starts (54%) with favored runners to produce a profit of 53%.

Good luck with your handicapping!