Gary West.

West: Best Racing and Wagering Go Hand in Hand at Kentucky Downs

By Gary West/Special to TVG

America’s best racing is green. From a horseplayer’s perspective, the best races, meaning those that are most inviting and rewarding, are run on the grass. You might disagree if you’re hooked on mint juleps or if your racing ideal comes to you by way of those hoary black-and-white films that depict a herd of horses moving in a dust cloud around a barely visible oval. You might disagree if you’ve never been to a racetrack outside of Hot Springs, Ark., or if Dr. Hackenbush is your veterinarian.

But for people who actually push their money through the wickets and who enjoy an exciting and competitive race in the hope that it’ll lead to a rewarding and profitable conclusion, racing on turf is far superior to racing on dirt surfaces. I point this out because the FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs opens Sunday, offering not only the nation’s richest racing — $2.5 million a day in purses — but the best racing, since it’s all on the grass.

A few years ago, to compare dirt and turf racing from the horseplayer’s perspective in a way that would be both objective and quantitative, I examined two weeks of racing at four racetracks — Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita. (Races moved off the turf to the main track were not considered, nor were steeplechase events.) The results were so stark and straightforward, so indisputable, that I haven’t felt any need to duplicate the analysis. At all four racetracks, the turf races attracted larger fields, resulted in more lucrative payoffs and had more excitingly competitive outcomes, as measured by winning margin, than the dirt races at the same venue.

Snapper Sinclair with Julien Leparoux aboard, winning the 2019 Tourist Mile (now the WinStar Mint Million) at Kentucky Downs. Coady Photography.

At Belmont, for example, dirt races attracted an average 7.17 starters, and turf races 9.39. And it was the same across the board: 8.13 to 10.39 at Gulfstream; 7.86 to 9.33 at Santa Anita; 6.97 to 8.24 at Churchill. And with large fields, the turf races were typically more competitive and contentious than races on the main track, and that, of course, led to more lucrative payoffs. At Santa Anita, the dirt winners’ payoffs averaged $8.87, and the turf winners $13.13. The discrepancy was greatest at Churchill, where dirt winners paid $8.55 on average, compared to $14.19 for turf winners. I didn’t include exotic payoffs, but they often shimmered like the northern lights for turf races and would have been even more emphatic.

Setting aside the quality of the horses for a moment and looking beyond the possibility of a bell-ringing payoff, what makes for an attractive race? Even the most phlegmatic horseplayer who measures his good times at the track by the number of Franklins in his pocket watches races in the hope of seeing theatre, and he would agree that a race going down to the wire is more exciting and interesting and entertaining than a race with an outcome that seems preordained. Saturday’s Forego (G1), where Yaupon and Firenze Fire fought and battled — viciously, you might say— side by side for most of the Saratoga stretch, where Firenze Fire fiercely morphed into Picasso’s horse from Guernica, was great theatre and enormously entertaining. The Ballerina (G1), where Gamine led throughout as the 1-5 favorite, not so much. Too many dirt races are more like the Ballerina than the Forego.

Turf races, on the other hand, tend to be more competitive. At Gulfstream, for example, the average winning margin was 2.43 lengths on dirt; 1.45 lengths on turf. And it was the same for all four racetracks: At Churchill the average winning margin was 2.87 lengths on dirt, 1.13 lengths on turf; at Santa Anita 2.24 lengths on dirt, 1.64 lengths on turf; and at Belmont, where nearly a third of the turf races required a photograph to sort out the finish, the average winning margin was 1.75 lengths on dirt, compared to 1.24 lengths on turf. Take the metric one placing further, and it’s clear that some dirt races have probably lost much of their audience by mid-stretch. At Churchill, for example, the first three horses in a turf race typically finished within 2.06 lengths of each other, compared to 5.44 lengths for dirt races. On the turf at Belmont, the top three finished even closer, within 1.90 lengths of each other, compared to 3.23 lengths on dirt.

As it appears in popular culture and history and memory, American racing takes place on a dirt surface, usually around a one-mile oval. Many racetracks — Churchill Downs and Fair Grounds come to mind — didn’t even have a turf course until the 1980s. Many trainers would only move a horse to the turf in desperation, nothing else having worked; buyers of yearlings would often ignore those by stallions that raced exclusively, or most successfully, on turf. America’s most famous races were run on dirt and the best horses raced on dirt, or so went the assumption, or was that a prejudice? In 1987, Theatrical won six Grade 1 races, including the Breeders’ Cup Turf, plus a Grade 2, but he raced exclusively on the grass; and so he wasn’t Horse of the Year. That honor went instead to Ferdinand, who won two Grade 1 races, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

That wouldn’t happen today. Many of the best horses in the country are racing on turf, and, even more, being recognized as such. In 2019, Bricks and Mortar put together a Theatrical-like campaign, winning five Grade 1 stakes and a Grade 2, all on turf, on his way to being named Horse of the Year. Wise Dan won 17 races in 2012-2013, all but one on the grass, and, of course, was a two-time Horse of the Year. Yes, things are changing. In 2004, only 8.8 percent of the races in North America were run on turf; that nearly doubled last year, to 17 percent. So it’s as if the nation’s racetrack operators, along with the sport itself, have finally realized what horseplayers have known for a while: that turf racing is, quite simply, superior. And if that realization leads to an improvement in the overall betting product, that represents a major step forward for the sport.

Turf racing is superior, and Kentucky Downs presents the best turf racing, which means it’s the best racing in America —from the horseplayer’s perspective. The purses are extravagant: Maidens run for $135,000, or nearly as much as the purse for Wednesday’s With Anticipation (G3) Stakes ($150,000) at Saratoga. In just six days of racing, Kentucky Downs will offer 14 stakes with purses of at least $500,000, including three worth $1 million. Many of the top owners and trainers in the country who believe they have an outstanding turf runner in their barn have been waiting for these six days. Horseplayers have been waiting, too, because the pastoral racetrack in Franklin, Ky., combines the best racing with the lowest takeout.

(The takeout is, quite simply, the cost of betting. The takeout is removed from the pool, or money wagered, and what remains is returned to the bettors. A lower takeout means a higher payoff.)

Last year, when favorites won 29 percent of the races, the average winning payoff was $16.73. The takeout for exactas is 18.25 percent, lowest in the country, and last year the average payoff for a $1 minimum exacta was $65.32. The takeout for the Pick 4 and the Pick 5 is 14 percent; they’re 50-cent wagers. Last year, the winning payoff for the Pick 4 averaged $3,295.88; for the Pick 5, $23,076. The takeout for the Pick 3 is 19 percent; last year, the average winning payoff for the 50-cent bet was $374.06; and $269.20 for the trifecta.

Kentucky Downs payouts.

It’s like there’s a sale on betting — Come and get your bets now at the cheapest prices anywhere, the busker could be yelling from atop a soapbox. Only this sale isn’t a desperate move to push an inferior product; this is a sale on the best racing in the country — $15 million in purses, over six days, with the best horses, jockeys and trainers all competing. There’s nothing else like it.

Nor is there anything else in America like Kentucky Downs. From the air, the turf course must look like a giant pear: It’s 1 5/16 miles, with a downhill slope to a relatively sharp first turn, an uphill run down the backstretch that angles downhill into a wide, sweeping second turn, leading to the longest stretch of any course in the country, more than a quarter-mile, which gradually slopes uphill. The course rewards experience and talent. If you’re dazzled by all those zeroes dancing in a chorus line and you’re thinking of bringing a horse here to compete for some of that $15 million, you should know this: You’ll need a runner. And if you hear the full-throated, alluring call to bet on the country’s best racing and take advantage of the extravagance that includes full fields and low takeouts, then it’s wise to know the winning trends.

The long stretch doesn’t necessarily mean late-runners dominate. If the ground is firm, speed does extremely well in the races up to a mile. When the speedsters do their best work, they’re given the added advantage of a downhill run to the turn; when the late-runners do their best work, they’re faced with an uphill climb. And so horses on the lead or within a length of the early lead will win about 30 percent of such races. The situation changes dramatically at a mile and beyond, where speedsters face an initial uphill run. And in the two-turn races — at 1 1/2 miles and 1 5/16 miles — the winner typically comes from about five lengths back. No matter the distance, though, the telling moment usually comes in that sweeping turn, where the late runners can move into position and the speedier types can sustain an advantage.

Sunday’s co-features, by the way, are the Dueling Grounds Oaks and Derby, which recall the history of the site. In the early 19th century, this was the American frontier, where Southern gentlemen often settled their differences according to a code duello, or duel. When Tennessee outlawed dueling in 1801, the antagonists would simply cross the border into Kentucky. A Tennessee congressman named Sam Houston once fought a duel right here, escaping unscathed, but bitter. He, of course, would go on to become the President of the Republic of Texas. And to settle a dispute that involved a racehorse named Truxton, a duel that took place in 1805 not from here left Andrew Jackson, who would become the seventh President of the United States, with a wound that would kill him 40 years later. I point this out only to remind you that even though the horses and the course are beautiful and the racing exhilarating, you’d be wise to be careful.

Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.