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Ellis Star (@Ubercapper): The inside track on Woodbine turf racing

June 2, 2022

Expert handicapper Ellis Starr provides an inside look at Woodbine’s turf racing. Horseplayers can find Ellis’ daily analysis of racing at Woodbine by clicking here and can follow Ellis on Twitter @Ubercapper. 

JUNE 2, 2022 – As someone who writes Race of the Day analysis for Woodbine, I really look forward to turf racing. The opening of the turf courses at Woodbine for racing is something racing fans of all levels will be looking forward to as well. Woodbine offers racing on two turf courses, the E.P. Taylor Turf Course and the Inner Turf course, with both offering opportunities for profit. This is particularly true when we keep in mind some of the features and nuances of those courses.

The Inner Turf course, first opened in 2019, is by its nature much different than the sweeping E.P. Taylor Turf Course. Because of its tighter turns and shorter run from the top of the stretch to the finish line, horses which have the ability and/or tendency to be in the top few positions in the early stages tend to do better than horses racing from the middle or back of the field in the early stages.

The Woodbine inner turf course opened in June of 2019. The inner turf course is seven-furlongs, playing much different than the much larger E.P. Taylor turf course. (Michael Burns photo)

More importantly, post position has a much greater importance on the Inner Turf as compared to the E.P. Taylor turf. Looking at the past three years of data since races were first run on the Inner Turf at Woodbine, horses breaking from the first three positions in the gate have an advantage over horses in other post positions.

This is particularly true for races run at five furlongs on the Inner Turf as you can see from the statistics below showing since 2019 horses breaking from the one, two or three positions in the gate have won 17% of the time and finished in the top three 48% of the time. Even betting on all three horses in each of the 119 races run at five furlongs would have resulted in a 7% profit. This illustrates the advantage the inside posts have which we need to consider when handicapping and wagering on five furlong races on the inner turf at Woodbine.

Oddly enough, the size of the field doesn’t really have much of an effect on the strength of this factor because when we look at races with field sizes or seven or less the return on investment goes up to 34%, which is a bit counterintuitive but nevertheless instructive. Also, note the top three percentages for horses breaking from the inside three post positions at five furlongs goes up to 58%, which is important to note when betting the exacta or trifecta.

More specifically, post position number one is slightly better than two or three as horses breaking from that position have won 17% of the time with a 7% positive profit. Still, taken as a group I think it’s safe to look more closely at horses with inside posts at five furlongs on the inner turf when starting to choose the contenders we will bet on within those races.

Moving more broadly to both turf courses, some interesting stats emerged regarding trainers who succeed at above average rates at Woodbine. Among trainers with more than 100 starts the past three years, Norman McKnight and Martin Drexler have the highest winning percentages at 23% and 20%, respectively. Next is Kevin Attard, with an 18% win rate but better still a 9% positive return on win bets going back three years on over 100 starters.

One of the more interesting facts I uncovered was the combined success of the Attard family trainers over that time. Taken as a group, horses trained by Jamie, Kevin, Sid, Steven and Tino Attard on either turf course at Woodbine the past three years have won 39 of 260 races (15%) and returned a net profit on win bets.

Of course, general turf handicapping principles apply, perhaps first and foremost. My methodology for handicapping turf races, particularly as Woodbine with two distinct courses, can be broken down to two questions:

1. Are there races from a horse’s past, which if repeated, would make it a contender today?

When answering this question we are not looking for the winner. Rather, we are looking to eliminate horses which may have less of a chance to win as compared to others, with the goal of getting down to one to four horses in the field. To answer this question we look at past races which are the most similar to today’s race. In the case of races at Woodbine on the turf, the first thing to look at is the distance of today’s race and whether it will be run on the Inner Turf or the E.P. Taylor Turf. Then, scan the horse’s past performances for races on that particular course, and at or near the distance of the upcoming race, looking at the finish position first to help imagine if the horse repeated those past races today would it be a contender.

2. Can the horse repeat or come close to that representative race effort today?

This is the part of the process where we take the list of contenders from #1 above and to put them in preference order or in order based on what we think their chance of winning is. We can look at their most recent races and imagine whether their efforts from similar races in the past are repeatable. If we believe the horse is in top condition, or has potential to improve enough to race at its peak, the only question remaining is whether the effort we believe may be forthcoming, based on the horses best race in a similar situation, is better than another horse which also meets the same criteria.

Here’s an example of how #1 and #2 above come together to help us select horses we want to wager on: Today’s race is 6 ½-furlongs on the E.P. Taylor Turf Course. Horse A ran in a seven-furlong race on the E.P. Taylor course last October and won. Horse A is also making its second start of the meeting after running in a shorter race on the main track and finishing fourth. Horse B ran in a 6 ½-furlong race on the E.P. Taylor Course last July and finished second. Horse B was running earlier this year on turf at another track and finished second in its two most recent races. Based on those facts we might believe horse B is in a bit better physical condition as compared to horse so we might give it slight preference as our top contender, with both horses to be considered for wagers we make in the upcoming race.

There’s one other thing which is important to consider as part of the handicapping equation. Particularly in the first two months of the racing season at Woodbine there will be horses returning from layoffs, so we should look at how those horses performed off layoffs in the past, particularly their first start of the season at Woodbine.

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