Noel Michaels: The Great Race Place Begins Another Great Season
THE GREAT RACE PLACE BEGINS ANOTHER GREAT SEASON
By Noel Michaels
The California winter racing season celebrates its annual official opening day on the day after Christmas, Dec. 26 with the start of the Santa Anita meet. The four-month race meet continues throughout the winter until mid-April. Along the way during the approximately 80-day meet, a long list of major stakes races will be run in every non-juvenile division, including Grade 1 events such as the Santa Anita Handicap in early March, the Santa Anita Derby in early April, and finally ending with the annual closing day running of the 1 3/4-mile San Juan Capistrano run down Santa Anita’s signature down-the-hill turf course.
Along with Gulfstream and Aqueduct, Santa Anita is one of the country’s premiere annual winter race meets, offering big purses and high-quality racing on both its turf course and on its dirt main track. Being the lone dirt track destination on the main Southern California circuit only cements Santa Anita’s status as not only one of the best winter season race meets, but as one of the year’s best race meets of any season.
Southern California racing is currently in a state of transition with the recent closing of Hollywood Park, which ran its final race ever on Sunday, Dec. 22. The historic track, once called “The Track of Lakes and Flowers” and regarded as one of the prettiest in the country, will soon meet the wrecking ball, leaving a big gap in the middle of the SoCal racing calendar. The open dates will be filled, in part, by a new Thoroughbred racing schedule at Los Alamitos, which is being expanded to a one mile track from five-eighths to accommodate the longer races.
With all this upheaval, it is nice to know that no matter how much things change, they also stay the same at a place like Santa Anita, which can be counted on for high-caliber winter racing each and every year beginning on Thursday. Along with the quality and the dates, other things tend to stay the same at Santa Anita as well, including the tracks winning profiles on both dirt and turf. Learn these winning profiles, and you will be well on your way to winning at Santa Anita.
Getting To Know Santa Anita – The Great Race Place
Good-priced winners can always be found at Santa Anita if you know how to find them. For horseplayers, one of the key challenges at the Santa Anita meet is heavily weight a horse’s dirt ability, particularly at Santa Anita, while largely ignoring past performances that were established at the other SoCal circuit tracks – Hollywood Park and Del Mar – which are both synthetics.
In fact, in order to get a really good gauge on a horse’s ability, you really must heavily rely on a horse’s past performances specifically at Santa Anita, which are necessary for an apples-to-apples comparison of a contender’s ability and chances of winning.
Aside from running styles and deciding which of a horse’s past performances to trust and which ones not to, a lot of other valuable information can be gleaned for the purposes of winning at Santa Anita by studying winning post position trends, winning trainer trends and the predominant running style preferences. Also, it’s important to have fun and enjoy the great winter meet at “The Great Race Place” that no doubt will feature countless memorable performances and yield several Kentucky Derby hopefuls, while spotlighting the talents of some of the country’s best jockeys and trainers.
First, let’s look at the Santa Anita dirt surface. According to the track superintendant, the Santa Anita dirt track consists of nine inches of sand and clay on top of an eight-inch base. This track composition makes the surface very similar to the dirt tracks at places like Churchill Downs, Gulfstream, and the Oklahoma training track at Saratoga. The main difference between all of these tracks and Santa Anita, however, is that Santa Anita receives much less rain than those other tracks. This phenomenon tends to “bake” the track and often make it conducive to early speed and vulnerable to inside/outside track biases.
In other words, you’ve gotta pay attention to track biases throughout the Santa Anita meet, and you must be diligent in this regard, taking note of how the track plays each day, logging that information, and then referencing the track bias notes when horses come back to make their next starts.
Santa Anita’s turf program will be run on its unique downhill turf course, which features the only right-hand turn in North American racing. This becomes a factor in turf races run at the signature 6 ½ furlong down-the-hill distance, and in the longer turf routes at 1 ½ miles. At those downhill distances, the right turn essentially makes the inside posts outside, and the outside posts inside. Both the short-term and long-term winning trends in Santa Anita’s signature downhill turf sprint races agree – the inside posts are a major disadvantage, and the outside posts rule.
Read on, and enjoy the great racing season at California’s winter “Great Race Place” – Santa Anita Park.
SANTA ANITA DIRT TRACK TRENDS
It is important to study Santa Anita’s dirt track trends to form a good outline of Santa Anita’s winning track profile.
On Santa Anita’s main track, in terms of running style, you usually want to place an emphasis on early speed in sprints – especially at the two most popular dirt sprint distances of 6 furlongs and 6 1/2 furlongs.
At Santa Anita, roughly 38 percent of the 6 furlong races can be expected to be won in wire-to-wire fashion, and at 6 1/2 furlongs, 32 percent of the races can be expected to be won wire-to-wire. At 7 furlongs, the win percentage for wire-to-wire front-runners is again very high at roughly 38 percent.
The average beaten lengths at the first call in races at these sprint distances is about 2.1 lengths off the lead at the quarter-mile mark. In other words, horses definitely don’t want to be too far back early in Santa Anita main track sprints if they hope to have their best chance to win, because 93 percent of the dirt sprint winners at Santa Anita race within 5.00 lengths of the lead at the first call (quarter mile). Therefore, throughout the Santa Anita meet, expect it to be difficult for a horse to win from very far back in the pack.
In Santa Anita dirt track routes, the front-end bias indicates speed is helpful, but not as necessary as it is at the sprint distances. In dirt routes, roughly 23 percent of the races are won wire-to-wire, and another 43 percent are won by horses that can be classified as tactical speed or pace-pressing horses. The other 33 percent of dirt route winners are the stalkers and closers.
Where post positions are concerned, based on the statistics, I would expect the rail and the inside posts (1-3) to be the preferred spots in dirt sprints. Route races at Santa Anita usually tend not to show much bias in terms of post positions until you get to the far outside posts, which can occasionally be a disadvantage outside post 8 in two-turn races.
POST POSITION TRENDS
Santa Anita’s main track is not particularly well known for having a lot of post position biases and angles, but the track does actually favor certain posts at certain distances. During the Santa Anita meet, some post position preferences spring up at various distances. Let’s start short and then go longer.
The 5 1/2-furlong distance sees quite a bit of action on Santa Anita’s main track throughout the winter/spring meet, even though there are fewer than half the amount of 5 1/2-furlong races run at Santa Anita as there are races run at the more common sprint distance of 6 furlongs.
With a shorter run into the first turn in these shorter sprints, one might think that speed and inside posts would dominate at 5 1/2 furlongs on the main track, however, this is not the case. The stats indicate that either of the two inside posts can be detrimental at this distance for horses that do not have any early speed. The reason is simple: 5 ½ furlongs just isn’t enough ground for a horse to drop back inside, shift outside, and then rally around the entire field in time to win.
Any other part of the starting gate – with the exception of the far outside posts 10-14 – seems to do alright at the short 5 ½-furlong sprint distance.
At Santa Anita like most other tracks, 6 furlongs is the most common distance run at the meet. At 6 furlongs, unlike at 5 1/2 furlongs, the far inside posts are best places to be, with 15% of the runners from both Post 1 and Post 2 customarily finding their way into the winner’s circle.
As the posts continue outward in races at 6 furlongs, they seem to drop off in effectiveness starting with Post 6, with the worst percentages being for horses breaking from posts 12-14.
A look at the winning posts statistics at 6 1/2 furlongs shows it to generally be a fair distance for the inside and middle post positions. The exception is the outside posts including post 9 and outward. Win percentages drop off rapidly outside Post 8, with post 9 horses winning only 8% of the time, on average, and runners breaking from posts 10-14 winning at an even worse average of only 5% of the time.
That leaves us with 7 furlongs, which is the longest sprint distance run at Santa Anita and that one that features the biggest bias to take not of. The 7-furlong dirt races are ruled by horses breaking from the rail, with a win percentage generally expected to be as much as 25%. Besides the rail bias at this distance, the other big news is the futility of the far outside posts 9-13.
Post Positions – Main Track Routes
Santa Anita’s two-turn route races are mostly run at distances from one mile to 1 ¼ miles. The one mile races start in mid-stretch, and the 1 ¼-mile races start in a small chute all the way at the top of the stretch adjacent to Clockers’ Corner.
Not surprisingly, the prevailing bias in these two-turn routes favors horses with inside posts that can work themselves into prime ground-saving position by the time they hit the first turn. Horses breaking from outside posts often cannot get over toward the rail in time for the first turn, and therefore are sometimes doomed to suffer wide, ground-losing trips resulting in lower winning percentages.
At the one mile distance, for the most part, horses benefit from drawing one of the inside and middle posts, with any gate from 1-8 expected to do okay. Unexpectedly, however, the innermost posts do not have as much of an advantage at this distance as they have at the other route distances at Santa Anita, and the outside posts are not at as much of a disadvantage at a flat mile as they are in longer Santa Anita main track routes. This is true all the way out until you start to finally see a disadvantage starting at Post 9.
This is surprising because the run-up to the first turn is obviously shortest at one mile, so therefore the disadvantage for outside posts and the advantage for inside posts should be greatest at this distance. Instead, however, it is the inside posts in 1 1/8-mile races that have the greatest advantage at Santa Anita, and the outside posts at 1 1/16 miles that are at the greatest disadvantage.
Moving to the distance of 1 1/16 miles on the dirt, just as at one mile, horses breaking from outside posts 9-14 rarely win at Santa Anita. However, as opposed to one mile where the first eight post positions are all okay, at 1 1/16 miles on the main track it is the post positions from 1-6 that are the best bets. The possible exception to the inside and middle favoritism would be the actual far inside rail post, which wins only about half as much as horses from the neighboring Post 2.
The longer two-turn route races run at Santa Anita – at distances from 1 1/8 miles to 1 1/4 miles – are the races that provide the greatest advantage for the innermost post positions. Each of the four inside posts 1-4 should be expected to yield double-digit win percentages, with the best success rates coming from posts 2-4, which will probably each win at clips between 18% and 24% at the distances of 1 1/8 miles and 1 1/4 miles at any given meet.
Outside posts, on the other hand, do poorly at these 1 1/8-mile and 1 1/4-mile distances, with each of the gates outside post 4 normally showing single-digit win percentages that are almost always lower than the win percentages from any of the inner gates.
SANTA ANITA TURF RACING
Santa Anita’s turf course is home to some of the best grass racing conducted in America, particularly over the winter. Santa Anita’s grass course generally plays very fairly to all running styles and running paths, with horses routinely being able to win races both on the lead and from off the pace with wide rallying moves. Obviously it is better to save as much ground and possible and stay within a workable striking distance of the lead, as these horses tend to win the majority of the races. Deep closers often must lose too much ground making those wide late moves, and that gives the front runners a better-than-average shot at holding-on in the relatively short Santa Anita grass course stretch run.
Perhaps the course will favor early speed horses and pressers more when temperatures are hotter and the climate is drier. Come-from-behind horses might have slightly better chances during rainy season when the lawn can be a little bit softer. When the turf is wet and rated less-than-firm, that is the best chance to bet that the front-runners will cave-in up front, setting the races up for winners from farther off-the-pace.
Because of the unique aspect of the Santa Anita grass course, the handicapping preference should be given to local “horses for the course,” perhaps as well as European horses, who will largely be unfazed by this quirky North American turf course. Horses for the course will be particularly enticing to bet in the turf sprints, so watch the entries for horses that have already won down the hill on turf at Santa Anita.
Post positions are of utmost importance at Santa Anita in both grass routes and sprints. Santa Anita turf sprints feature the only right turn in North American racing, and as a matter of fact, the first turn in the race is the right turn. This essentially flip flops the gate in the turf sprints, making the outside posts basically the inside posts, and vice versa.
In Santa Anita turf routes, inside posts are good, but middle posts are also just fine all the way out to post 7. However, the far outside posts, particularly posts 8 and wider, are disadvantages at most distances on the Santa Anita grass. With the short run to the first turn on the Santa Anita turf course, you would expect that runners from the outside posts would do exceptionally poorly and that you would see a drop-off in winning percentage for horses starting outside post 7, with posts 11 thru 14 rarely ever winning but seeing very little action. This downgrade of the posts 8 and wider is the biggest factor at one mile, and gets less important as the turf distances get longer at the longer.
In grass races run specifically at one mile, the inside advantage is even stronger with the five inside posts producing the most winners. Narrowing it down even further in those turf miles, the best posts to break from are posts 2-4, with as much as 40% of the winners at those distances breaking from those three post positions. Interestingly, while the other inside posts do well, the rail itself is not the best place to draw at one mile on turf with a low win percentage in the 8%-10% range at that distance.
Beyond one mile, the majority of the rest of the turf races run at Santa Anita will be run at the 1 1/8-mile and 1 1/4-mile distances. Overall, these races don’t show a distinct bias in terms of post position like the one-mile races do. In these longer turf routes, inside, middle, and outside posts all offer fair winning percentages with the exception of those posts 11 and outward, which see little action.
Finally, the other main difference between Santa Anita turf races run at one mile and those run at 1 1/8 miles, 1 1/4 miles, and beyond, is that the rail post is not as detrimental at the longer distances as it seems to be at a flat mile.
This underscores the fair nature of Santa Anita’s grass course, which even with its tight turns and relatively short stretch run still does not discriminate against almost any reasonable post position.
SANTA ANITA TURF SPRINTS
Santa Anita is unquestionably the North American capital of turf sprints thanks to its unique and picturesque down-the-hill turf course, which allows the track to card its signature 6 ½-furlong downhill turf races. These races offer wide appeal for both horsemen and bettors, and have long been a part of what makes the Great Race Place so great.
Turf sprints have established themselves as some of Santa Anita’s most popular and most widely-carded races, usually with at least one of these turf sprints being run down-the-hill per day on days when Santa Anita is able to offer turf racing. These downhill races usually host full fields and are often key components of the Pick Six and Pick Four sequences. Since the course is downhill, these races routinely feature exceptionally fast quarter-mile and half-mile fractions. Due to the uniqueness of the course, these races are often won by tried-and-true horses for the course who often have already won one or more turf sprints down the hill on this course. Some other horses, meanwhile, repeatedly have trouble crossing over the main track coming into the stretch and don’t find the downhill races to be their cup of tea.
The down-the-hill 6 1/2-furlong turf sprints tend to play fairly to all running styles, and also tend to pose problems over the years for horses that draw far inside posts. As mentioned, Santa Anita’s downhill turf course features North American racing’s only right-hand turn, which comes up quick about a half-furlong out of the gate. Since the first turn in these races is a right turn, instead of a left turn, the inside posts essentially become the outside posts, and the outside posts essentially become the inside posts.
Turf Sprint Post Positions
Outside posts have long been considered an advantage in Santa Anita turf sprints, while conversely, the inside posts – particularly posts 1, 2, 3 – are considered a bad disadvantage. A horse will need to be much the best in order to win a 6 ½ furlong turf sprint from an inside post, and this disadvantage gets worse and worse as the field sizes get bigger and bigger. A look at the long term statistics from Santa Anita shows that inside posts perform poorly on a consistent basis. The rail post can occasionally spike a better win percentage, but posts 2 and 3 are pretty much always bad.
If you must bet a horse from any of the inside posts, at least let it be in a race with a relatively small field. In small fields, the inside posts are not quite as bad. In races with 8 or more horses, the chances of the runners from these post positions drops precipitously.
In correlation with the bad post position figures for the inside posts in turf sprints, the long term post position statistics from Santa Anita’s turf sprints also show that outside posts (especially the outside post in any given race) are the best places to draw in the starting gate. In Santa Anita turf sprint races that feature 8 or more starters, the far outside posts own the best win percentages, and are statistically better than any other part of the gate.
SANTA ANITA JOCKEYS AND TRAINERS
The stars are still in the Santa Anita jock’s room in the person of guys like Garrett Gomez and Rafael Bejarano, and Hall-of-Famer Mike Smith. Nevertheless, the jockey colony is much more deep than it is top-heavy these days thanks to a roll call of classy veterans such as Corey Nakatani, and a good amount of lunch-pale blue collar riders like David Flores, Jose Valdivia, Agapito Delgadillo, Martin Pedrosa, and Victor Espinoza. There’s also a good selection of young and rapidly coming of age up-and-comers in the mix including jockeys like Mario Gutierrez, Edwin Maldonado, Martin Garcia, and most notably Joe Talamo. Also, starting with the 2013 Santa Anita winter/spring season, former Eclipse Award winner Julien Leparoux was also a part of the the SoCal circuit. As always, his specialty at Santa Anita can be expected to be turf races.
Santa Anita Trainers
The Santa Anita meet’s projected top trainers will include John Sadler, Bob Baffert, Mike Mitchell, Doug O’Neill, and Jeff Mullins. Others to make money betting should include Mike Puype, Martin Jones, and several others if you can narrow it down to just their best categories.
A lot of trainers will do a lot better at Santa Anita than they do at the other SoCal racetracks with synthetic main track surfaces, and vice versa. Let’s face it, certain trainers have been hurt by the synthetic track era in California racing over the past several years, and will have much better numbers at Santa Anita as opposed to elsewhere. This list includes trainers such as Richard Mandella, Vladimir Cerin, Jack Carava, Bruce Headley, Jorge Periban, and many others including Jeff Mullins who will likely have higher winning percentages on the dirt than they do on synthetics.
Likewise, the opposite is also true. Other trainers will undoubtedly be hurt by a switch back to dirt track racing as opposed to the other SoCal tracks with artificial surfaces. This list of trainers could include the likes of Neil Drysdale, Peter Eurton, Carla Gaines, Paddy Gallagher, and Kathy Walsh.
Of course, when you’re talking strictly about turf racing, you don’t need to worry about things like switching from synthetics to dirt. The list of top turf trainers remains somewhat consistent.
One of the best ways horseplayers can gain an edge on the betting public is by studying trainer trends, looking for certain tendencies each individual trainer might have regularly excelled at, or failed at in the recent past. These trainer trends can lead astute handicappers to a better-than-average winning percentage, and a better-than-average return on investment (ROI), by allowing you to focus on a trainer’s most common winning moves while at the same time alerting you to the instances when a trainer is much less likely to win or show a profit.
Over the course of the entire Santa Anita winter/spring season, as many as 125 different trainers are likely to win at least one race, and roughly 250 different trainers are likely to start at least one horse, Based on those statistics, roughly 125 trainers – half of the overall total – will fail to win a single race. Of the 125 trainers who will win at least one race, easily over half of the meet’s total number of races will be won the 30+ top conditioners.
Just like any other track, Santa Anita has its own specific winning profile that includes running style and post position preferences at the various distances and surfaces, plus trainer trends. Pay close attention to the winning profiles, and the information contained in this season preview, and you will have a leg-up on the betting public. Have a great season at Santa Anita, and best of luck, and don't forget that my Best Bets are available EVERYDAY for purchase at www.nationalracemasters.com!
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