Johnsen: Kentucky Downs a ‘Bettor’s Paradise’

by | 09.05.2013 | 9:30am
Kentucky Downs

There are only a few days of live racing each year at Kentucky Downs, but many fans and bettors look forward to the brief late summer meet as both a unique racing experience and betting opportunity.

As the Franklin, Ky. track gears up for five days of racing this month (Saturdays and Wednesdays), Simulcast and Live Racing Manager Corey Johnsen explains what makes Kentucky Downs an excellent wagering proposition and offers a few tips to horseplayers.


By Corey Johnsen

You've no doubt heard, sensing an unmistakable pride in the pronouncement, that Kentucky Downs is unique, owing largely to its 1 5/16-mile turf course, which from the air must look like a giant pear. As uniqueness goes, that's impressive enough and guaranteed to send a flutter through the pastoral heart. But for horseplayers, here's another and perhaps more significant reason Kentucky Downs has become something unique in America's racing experience: If you had bet $2 to win on every favorite here last year, you would have made a 22-percent profit on your investment. And that's — well, that's simply extraordinary, unprecedented in recent memory, or any memory, for that matter.

Yes, Kentucky Downs is unique because of its undulating, European-style turf course and its all-turf-all-the-time program and the blessed brevity of its schedule, which contributes to a carefree and festive atmosphere. All that's wonderful. But for the horseplayer, whether serious or casual, here's wonderful: large fields with good horses, and plenty of betting opportunities with a low takeout. And that summarizes the bettor's perspective of Kentucky Downs.

It has become one of the most bettor-friendly racetracks in America, a veritable bettor's paradise. For more than half the Kentucky Downs races (51.2 percent) last year, 10 or more horses lined up in the starting gate. And the racing was very formful — that is, predictable. Favorites won 37.2 percent of the races, and yet the average favorite paid $6.60. Nearly a third of the winning favorites paid $8 or more. In other words, you're unlikely to find a four-horse field here with a 2-5 favorite that renders all the betting options equally unappealing, a situation that seems to have become commonplace elsewhere. In fact, the Kentucky Downs fields were so typically large that there was only one odds-on favorite the entire season, and Seruni, in an unusually dull effort from the old pro, finished fifth at 4-5.

This isn't to suggest, however, that you should adopt betting on favorites as your strategy, but it does emphasize that at Kentucky Downs, in part because of the large fields, the odds are so attractive that even betting favorites can be profitable. The other factor in this oddity, of course, is the takeout.

As you probably know, the takeout is the cost of betting: what's removed from the pool before the money is returned in the form of payoffs. A lower takeout means a higher payoff, reflected in better odds. And Kentucky Downs has become an industry leader in lowering the takeout. In fact, the track has the lowest takeout in the country (18.25 percent) for exactas. The new Pick 5 will offer a takeout of only 14 percent. Rolling doubles, Pick 3s, Pick 4s, trifectas, superfectas, and the Hi-5 all have 19-percent takeout, and straight win, place and show wagers have a 16-percent takeout.

With a lower takeout tantamount to lower prices, it's almost as if there's a sale every day at the racetrack. But only almost, because sales generally involve an effort to move products that might otherwise be unattractive. And, over these next few weeks in September, Kentucky Downs will offer some of the most attractive racing in the country. That's right, some of the best racing in America, right here in Franklin, Ky. — and the most lucrative racing, too, with purses averaging $900,000 a day.

Many outstanding horses have raced at Kentucky Downs over the years. Yaqthan, Chorwon, Silverfoot, Rahystrada and Ioya Bigtime all have won the track's premier event, the Kentucky Turf Cup. Sovereign Award winner Never Retreat won the Kentucky Downs Ladies Turf Stakes in 2010 on her way to earning nearly $1.4 million. A year before she won the Breeders' Cup Distaff, One Dreamer won a stakes at Kentucky Downs. Morluc, G H's Pleasure, Battle Won and Silver Medallion all won stakes at Kentucky Downs. But in terms of quality, the racing this year promises to raise the standard.

On opening day, Sept. 7, for example, the track will offer three stakes, and on Sept. 14, proudly billed as Million Day even though the purses will actually surpass $1.3 million, Kentucky Downs will present five stakes races.

So, yes, Kentucky Downs is unique, with its giant pear of a turf course and all those zeroes dancing in a chorus line, but it's also a horseplayer's paradise. And that's what you probably need to keep in mind when you saunter up to the wickets to invest in the short-term futures market — that and the track's winning trends. And, make no mistake, knowing the trends — something else that makes Kentucky Downs unique — can be the difference between winning and just having a good time.

Speed, for example, has a significant advantage in the races run at distances less than a mile. Last year, nearly half the winners, or 8 of 18, led virtually from the start in these sprints. And only three horses rallied inside the eighth-pole to win a sprint.

That might seem strange since the run down the lane at Kentucky Downs takes in one of the longer homestretches found on any turf course in North America. It's about a quarter-mile. But, and here's the rub, the stretch run to the wire slopes uphill, which tends to compromise the strength of late-runners. At the same time, in those sprints, the run to the turn is downhill, which only emphasizes the speedsters' advantage.

The situation changes at a mile, or a mile and 70 yards, where the initial run down the backstretch is uphill. Only three winners led throughout at this distance last year, and all three were able to take advantage of a soporific opening half-mile (49.0 seconds, 49. 64 and 49. 65). But the typical winner rallied from about five lengths back after the opening half-mile, and a few were able to rally from far back, such as Drama Drama, who overcame an 11-length deficit to win, and Miz Ida, who charged from 8 1/2 lengths back to take the Kentucky Downs Ladies' Turf Stakes.

No matter the distance, though, the winner usually makes his decisive move in the expansive, sweeping turn that propels the horses into the stretch. In sprints, the broad turn allows speedsters to continue their momentum unchecked; and in longer races, it allows the late runners, even encourages them, to launch their bids early.

Here's another trend to consider: a horse's provenance. For this unique celebration of racing and wagering, for this treasure island of lucrative purses, horses converge on Kentucky Downs from all over the country, which, of course, can only add to the handicapping challenge. Again, though, knowing the trends becomes important because some sources have proven more productive, more successful and propitious, than others. Horses that had made their prior start at Arlington Park, for example, performed especially well at Kentucky Downs last year, winning eight races from their 35 starts. Ellis Park, however, produced the most winners, 13, but from 178 starters. Saratoga horses, as you would expect, have sparkled at Kentucky Downs in recent years, and they won four races last season. But so did horses from Indiana Downs. Probably to the surprise of some, horses that had just raced at Mountaineer Park won five of their 28 outings here a year ago.

Experience has provided a winning trend, too. Quite simply, the racetrack rewards experience. Only two horses made two starts here last year, and they both ran better in their second outing, with Geothermal winning and Grace for Grace finishing second. At the other extreme were the first-time starters. Of the 26 horses that made their debut here a year ago, only one was successful, Console, who looked like a fire-breathing monster when he pranced into the paddock. Since his successful debut at Kentucky Downs, he also has won at Keeneland and Saratoga. Owned by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, the son of War Front is now advancing into stakes competition.

The importance of experience also applies to the jockeys. Riding here isn't your usual running in circles. Kentucky Downs' unique turf course makes unusual challenges on riders, who benefit from their experience here. That's probably why David Cohen, an excellent jockey by any measure, was 0 for 17 in his first season at Kentucky Downs.

So who are the experienced jockeys who know the course, its demands and undulations and, most importantly, its key to the winner's circle? Well, with two victories this year, Calvin Borel could move by Larry Melancon, who sits atop the standings with 38 wins, and become the all-time winningest jockey at Kentucky Downs. Jon Court is just behind them with 33 victories. Brian Hernandez Jr., who topped the standings a year ago, is closing quickly, having won with 30 of his 130 mounts here, or 29 percent. Kent Desormeaux won with four of his seven mounts last year and has won with five of nine in his career, or 56 percent. Other riders who seem to possess the essential winning experience include Corey Lanerie, second in the standings last year; Victor Lebron, a four-time winner a year ago; and Robby Albarado, who has won with 15 of his 71 local mounts.

Yes, there's no other track like it. Kentucky Downs is unique. But winning here isn't.

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