Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Keeneland Recap: It Just Didn't Feel Right

The 2014 October meet is now finished at Keeneland, and the highlight of course was the brand new dirt surface, replacing the polytrack that bettors had grown to love (or hate) since it's introduction in 2006. Now I, just like everyone else, love Keeneland, but this meet left a bitter taste in my mouth. It just didn't feel right.
      I've been in racing my entire life, but I've only been handicapping and betting for about four years now, so the only Keeneland I've ever known is polytrack Keeneland. I was never bothered by handicapping polytrack; my home track is Woodbine so polytrack is what I learned on. I've written about my concerns regarding the true safety of polytrack in the past (not a fan) but as a horseplayer, it has never bothered me. Keeneland always had huge fields, and the races were not easy. It was a lot of fun. The new dirt track wasn't as difficult, and it shows in the field sizes and win payouts.
     Last year's fall meet had an average field size of 9.85, but this year that fell almost a horse and a half per race to 8.42, a 14.6% drop. The average $2 win return last year was $17.14, but with the smaller fields and simpler handicapping that came with this meet, that dropped to $11.60, a decline of 32.4%. The value in betting Keeneland's races went down significantly, and that showed in the handle.
     This meet mirrored last year's in terms of number of races, with 160 races held over 17 days. In 2013 handle totaled $139,667,317, with a daily average of $8,215,724 and $872,920 per race. This year, the total handle was $122,904,389, a decline of 12.1%. Almost $17 million in handle lost. That's a very significant number. Excuses have been made, most notably possible loss of some major players, which I cannot verify, and the weather, which is just ridiculous. If it is the loss of a whale, step back and ask yourself: why did he/she stop playing? The answer is simple: the value was gone. This isn't necessarily a case of all-weather being "better" than dirt or people betting all-weather because it's all-weather. This is a case of value being better than no value, and the bigger fields that all-weather attracted created the value.
     Briefly touching on the weather idea, one of the concerns voiced by horseplayers before the meet was how dirt would affect off-turf races, so I took a look at that. In 2013, there were six races moved from turf to the polytrack. Six horses were listed as off-turf scratches in those races. This year, five races were moved from the turf to the dirt, and 20 horses were listed as off-turf scratches. We've gone from losing one horse per race to four horses per race when the turf is rained off. So that was a valid concern.
     Perhaps the most frustrating part about this meet was the fact that there was really nothing that made it stand out, nothing that you couldn't find at other tracks. Instead of a continuation of the player friendly Kentucky Downs, this year's fall-meet felt more like Santa Anita, with the shorter field sizes and speed favouring dirt sprints. An average field size of 8.42 isn't special; Hawthorne's current average field size is 8.68. Keeneland is well regarded for their low takeout, but they're only the lowest with triactors and superfectas. Win/Place/Show are lower at Northlands, Woodbine, Hastings and in California, Exactors are lower at Kentucky Downs and NYRA, and when it comes to multi-race wagers you can get lower prices at Houston, Retama, Northlands, Tampa, the Meadowlands, NYRA, and several more depending on which specific Pick X wager you're looking for. Now that their field sizes don't reign supreme, Keeneland is no longer the best.
     Going back to "speed favouring dirt sprints," one thing that was frequently discussed over the meet was how fair the track was. A lot of people claimed it was too speed favouring, others claimed it was very fair. Well, I have the break down. Seventy-five dirt sprints were run, of which 35 were won by speed, 28 were won by stalkers, and 12 were won by closers. Speed won 46.6% of the sprints. That's a pro-speed bias. Routes played fairer, with speed winning 14 of 46, stalkers winning 22, and closers winning 10. On the turf, there were only four sprints run, with two speed winners and two closing winners. Turf routes were about as fair to speed as dirt sprints were to closers. Speed went four for 35, with stalkers winning 20 and closers winning 11.
     Now, was everything about this meet bad? Absolutely not. Despite what I've been told was one of poorest meets weather-wise, average daily attendence was 14,798, only a 5.6% drop from last year and live handle was down only 3%. As racing fans, we witnessed a terrific Fall Stars weekend, with several Breeders' Cup contenders making their final preps. We could talk about how great they all are, but I think we should take a moment to appreciate the one and only Wise Dan, who will miss this year's Breeders' Cup Mile due to an injury. Wise Dan's win in the Shadwell Turf Mile was easily my favourite Wise Dan race. Nothing went well trip-wise for the veteran gelding, and down the stretch I was sure he would be off the board, but in the fashion of truely great racehorses, he fought back and won nicely. There aren't many horses as great as Wise Dan, and he deserves his place in history.
     With this meet in the books, we're left waiting until April for the Spring meet to see if the new dirt track will be the beginning of a trend of lower handles and field sizes, or if Keeneland can attract more horses and turn things around. Keeneland is still a top-class track that tries to act with both horseplayers and horsemen in mind, and it deserves praise for that. This was certainly an interesting meet. It just wasn't as interesting as we have gotten used to.

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