Churchill Downs 2023 Spring Meet Betting Preview: Track Trends, Jockeys, and Trainers to Watch

Churchill Downs Kentucky Derby Kentucky Oaks spring meet horse racing racetrack turf Tyler Gaffalione Ricardo Santana James Graham Brian Hernandez Mitchell Murrill Corey Lanerie Julien Leparoux Florent Geroux Steve Asmussen Joe Talamo Cristian Torres Joe
Horses head into the top of the stretch at historic Churchill Downs in this 2019 photo. Churchill’s 2023 spring-summer meet opens April 29. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The Churchill Downs spring-summer meet is upon us, with the opening card set for Saturday night, April 29. When that “Downs After Dark” card kicks off, Churchill Downs will immediately become one of horse racing’s top simulcast signals of the season. Churchill’s live racing will be conducted mainly on a four-day-a-week schedule, Thursdays through Sundays, through July 3. Exceptions will be Memorial Day and Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve week, which will run from Tuesday, May 2 through Derby Day, Saturday, May 6.

The focus at this time of year at Churchill Downs, of course, is the Kentucky Derby and a plethora of other stakes that will be run opening week. Once the Longines Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby come and go, there is still a whole lot of high-quality day-to-day racing on tap at Churchill Downs for horseplayers to sink their teeth into. This article takes a look at some track trends for handicappers to watch out for to be successful for the entire meet at Churchill Downs.

Churchill Downs Jockeys and Trainers

Tyler Gaffalione (Eclipse Sportswire)

Tyler Gaffalione, the perennial leading jockey at Churchill Downs in recent years, is the favorite to take the riding title again in spring of 2023 after winning the Churchill spring riding titles in 2020-2022. His streak of eight straight meet jockey titles at Churchill Downs came to an end last fall when Luis Saez edged him by one win, but Saez rides in New York for the majority of the spring and summer and Gaffalione should rule the roost as he did last spring when he won the meet title with 62 victories (24%), which was nearly double the total of second-leading jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. who won 33 times (17%).

Other jockeys who are expected to contend for top 10 slots in the Churchill spring standings include Rafael Bejarano (third place with 30 wins last spring for 15%), Brian Hernandez Jr. (27 wins, 14%), Florent Geroux (23 wins, 17%), Joe Talamo (21 wins, 14%), Julien Leparoux (16 wins, 15%), Mitchell Murrill (15 wins, 12%), and James Graham (14 wins, 11%). Talamo and Geroux are represented by new agents this spring. The last rider besides Gaffalione to win the jockey title at the Churchill spring meet was Corey Lanerie who led with 43 victories in 2019. Lanerie wins much less these days. At the 2022 Churchill spring meet, he won only 11 races for 10%.

One new addition to an already competitive jockey colony at Churchill this spring will be Cristian Torres. The 25-year-old announced plans to ride regularly under the twin spires after wrapping up a breakout meet at Oaklawn Park. Torres leads the rider standings at Oaklawn in both wins and earnings through April 25.

Much of the success of Ricardo Santana hinges on the success of Steve Asmussen at Churchill and elsewhere, as he’s the barn’s first-call rider. That’s a good thing to be at Churchill Downs, where Asmussen ranks as the all-time leader in wins with 864. Asmussen narrowly won the 2022 Churchill spring training title 25 wins to 23 wins over Brad Cox, thanks in large part to the fact that he started 167 horses at the meet vs. Cox’s 80 starters. That discrepancy meant that Cox was far and away the leading trainer in terms of winning percentage with 29% versus 15% for Asmussen. What that means essentially is that while Asmussen may be favored to win the training title at Churchill in the spring of 2023, it is Cox who probably will be the better bet.

Based on statistics from the 2022 Churchill Spring meet, other top trainers this season are likely to include Ken McPeek (third with 16 wins last year for 20%), Joe Sharp (15 wins, 23%), and Mike Maker (13 wins, 15%). Two trainers who were extremely hot last spring who you should have prominently on your radar for this season are Brian Lynch and Bill Mott. Lynch went 11-for-33 for 33% last spring at Churchill Downs, while Mott racked-up an 11-for-37 record for 30% wins.

Churchill Downs Turf Course

We should start by mentioning that turf racing will be a wait-and-see proposition for handicappers and horsemen as we all cross our fingers for the good condition of Churchill’s new grass course. Churchill installed the course in 2021, and it debuted a year ago at the 2022 spring meet but was plagued with problems until turf racing was eventually suspended to give the new root system time to grow and mature. With the exception of the Arlington Million Stakes and the Beverly D. Stakes run on the grass one day last summer, turf racing did not return to Churchill until last November – and even then, it was on a very limited basis.

Not much handicapping information can be gleaned from only eight turf races that were run at Churchill Downs last fall. What we do know is that the new course is still a seven-eighths of a mile oval that is slightly wider than the old course at 85 feet. The crown of the track was removed, and the course is now banked instead. The additional width and removal of the crown will allow the inner rails to be moved to four positions. Under ideal conditions, a quarter of all races run at the meet should be run on the grass.

On the former Churchill Downs turf course, posts further outside than 8 were at a bit of a disadvantage. The turf distance that is most affected by post positions was a flat mile, where the win percentages for outside posts drop to a poor average of 3-4% each. It was the middle posts 4-7 that were best at one mile. Even more so than post positions, running styles were an important factor on the Churchill Downs lawn. Churchill used to favor mid-pack pace-pressers and stalkers on the turf as leaders generally had a difficult time going wire-to-wire and the deepest of closers had a tough time getting up in time to win. This was especially true in one-mile turf races, where early speed horses were expected to win less than 10 percent of the time, as were deep closers. The ideal winning profile in Churchill turf routes was a stalker about four lengths off the pace at the first call (half-mile), and 2 ½ lengths behind at the second call (after six furlongs).

In Churchill’s turf sprints, many of the runners that show up will be coming up from winter stints at Gulfstream Park, and these horses should hold an advantage over locally based horses returning from layoffs. Gulfstream’s turf sprints strongly favor speed horses, so if you see stalkers or closers arriving off of recent losses at Gulfstream, you might want to upgrade those horses at Churchill because their running style plays better than at Gulfstream.

Churchill Downs Main Track Trends

Equine poetry in motion under the twin spires. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The Churchill Downs main track is regarded as a “cuppy” surface, meaning the track does not retain enough moisture to hold the sand together. This causes the track to break away from under horse’s feet resulting in a surface that some horses love and others hate. This factor makes Churchill Downs one of the tracks where the horses-for-the-course angle means the most.

The track is more likely to be faster and more conducive to speed in the second half of the meet when temperatures and humidity are higher. Early in the spring meet the track is likely to play slower and speed horses may not excel as much early in the meet as they do as the calendar progresses from spring to summer.

Churchill Downs dirt mile races are run around one turn and play more like sprints than routes. Unless a horse is already a proven one-turn mile performer, horses stretching from seven furlongs will do better in those mile races than horses trying to cut back from two-turn route races.

When talking about preferred running paths, Churchill’s main track has been inconsistent between many recent race meets and is often susceptible to anti-inside biases or a “dead rail.” As a Churchill handicapper, you also must be acutely aware of any inside/outside biases happening at any given meet, and you must pay attention to the rail path in particular and adjust your handicapping accordingly.

The effectiveness of the inside paths on the main track may or may not be reflected in post position stats. At some meets, the win percentages for inside posts have been worse than those for outside posts. At the most recent Churchill Downs spring meet in 2022, post positions were remarkably fair for inside, outside, and middle draws. The same was true during the 2022 November meet. This is a good sign that we will have a fair racetrack in 2023.

The Churchill Downs spring-summer meet is always one of the best meets to play at this time of year. Staying on top of key trends throughout the season and you will help you improve your winning percentage at Churchill Downs. Best of luck!

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