Breeders Cup 2012: Santa Anita 101

Santa Anita hosts Breeders Cup 2012

Santa Anita hosts Breeders Cup 2012

Breeders Cup 2012: Santa Anita 101

Continuing this week’s theme of ‘back to the future’, the Breeders Cup extravaganza returns to California, and specifically to Santa Anita, Arcadia, for the 2012 edition: the 29th renewal.

But, lest you should think you know what’s coming, brace yourself, because it’s (almost) all change.

Santa Anita Dirt Course Overview

Santa Anita has hosted the Breeders Cup five times previously. The first three renewals saw the ‘main track’ races run on a traditional US dirt surface. However, bowing to pressure from animal welfare campaigners led by Bo Derek (yes, her!), the dirt surface was ripped up in favour of a more forgiving synthetic ‘all weather’ surface, called Pro Ride.

Whilst this did serve its purpose in reducing the number of equine fatalities sustained at Santa Anita race course, it was far from popular with US trainers, because their ‘home advantage’ was stifled to the point where, for the first time in Breeders Cup history, a European horse – Raven’s Pass – won the Classic in 2008. Not only that, but a Euro also finished second that year (Henrythenavigator).

That was the beginning of the end of the short tenure of Pro Ride on the main track and it’s sad to have to report that the reinstatement of the traditional dirt surface at Santa Anita has coincided with a rise in equine fatalities.

In a kind of divine justice, the greatest racehorse of them all (for now, at least), Frankel, would have been far more likely to close out his racing career on the synthetic surface, and was never even considered to run on dirt. The horse named after a Californian Hall of Fame trainer will never grace the stage built – but then demolished – for him.

But that’s just the start of it with the Santa Anita main track.

Since reintroducing the dirt surface, the horsemen have been unhappy again. (It seems that these fellows are pretty much never happy). The ravages, such as they are in California, of the winter caused damage to the dirt track which led to a protracted bout of tampering, repair and otherwise buggering about with the course.

Earlier this year, Santa Anita added a ‘new kind of sand’, with the intention of making the course hardier and easier to maintain when the weather becomes inclement. It should be added that this additional ‘buffer’ was intended to make the main track safer for the horses as well, which should be commended as far as it goes.

So, comparisons with previous Breeders Cup meetings on the dirt here will be only partially valid, and more interest should perhaps be taken in the current ‘Fall’ (Autumn) meeting which began on 28th September.

Santa Anita Turf Course Overview

Santa Anita Track Layout

Santa Anita Track Layout

If the main dirt track is something of an unknown, what about the turf course? Surely that can be relied upon to deliver a consistency from year to year. After all, you can’t very easily plant a new kind of grass, can you?!

Well, whilst a new type of grass could have been planted, I’m pleased to report that it hasn’t. However, Santa Anita’s turf track is unique.

Whereas most North American turf tracks consist of a tight oval inside the main dirt track, many of them resembling a cross between Chester horse track and Hove dog track, Santa Anita is different. It does have an internal turf oval, but this is merely the part of the course where races finish!

Races over six and a half furlongs (Turf Sprint), a mile and a quarter (Filly and Mare Turf), and a mile and a half (Turf) all start somewhere on the outer turf loop – see image above – and cross the dirt track before either circling the inner loop (in the case of the longer races) or charging for the line (in the case of the Turf Sprint).

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The sprint course in particular is a real test of speed and agility. A fast start is essential, as the runners will hurtle through the downhill run into the stretch, chicaning a dogleg right (the only right hand turn in North American racing!) and a sweeping left turn, before crossing the dirt track and trying to hang on down the lane. It will be frenetic and it will be brutal, as the lactic acid builds and the strides shorten towards the shadow of the post.

In the longer races, horses might become unbalanced by this early test, but they ought to have time to adjust their position and make their challenges on the main turf oval, all other things being equal.

The Filly and Mare Turf is one of those races where the distance varies from year to year, depending on the host track. For the past two years at Churchill Downs, Kentucky, it has been run over a mile and three furlongs. This time it will be run over its originally designated mile and a quarter trip.

The turf course should be expected to be at least good to firm, in British parlance, and probably firm. If you’re looking for a Euro to wager, do make sure they are at home on quick ground.

Who is Favoured at a Santa Anita Breeders Cup?

It may also be instructive at this point to make a statement of the bleeding obvious. America is a very big country. You don’t say!

Let me explain why I make this point. A lot of people who are going to bet on the Breeders Cup from outside of North America will take the view that it’s Europe vs USA, a bit like the Ryder Cup in golf.

But it’s not. It’s Europe vs East Coast (and Chicago) vs West Coast. And there are a few ‘indies’ in there too: Canada, Florida and Kentucky.

The West Coast runners are STRONGLY favoured when the Cup comes to Cali.

On the main track (excluding Pro Ride), all six juvenile race winners were local (i.e. Southern Californian, or SoCal) horses. Four of the six Ladies’ Classic and Classic winners were SoCal horses too, with the other two split between New York and Europe. In the Sprint, one went to a local, one to a Kentucky horse and one to a frequent travelling New Yorker.

In other words, eleven of the fifteen dirt Breeders Cup races went to SoCal horses, and just TWO went all the way to the Eastern seaboard.

It’s a similar story for East Coast shippers on turf, where we have between two and five renewals to consider from a data perspective, depending on how long the race has been incepted. Clearly, European horses do better in turf events, and this is reflected in the tales of the tape, thus:

Europe has won 2.5 of the five BC Turf’s (one a dead heat), SoCal 1.5, and New York one. Europe has won four of the five BC Miles here, and New York one. Europe has won two of the three Filly and Mare Turf races here, with Kentucky bagging the other. Local runners have unsurprisingly bagged both Turf Sprints on the quirky Oak Tree strip. And Euro’s have won both Juvenile Turf races, with the two Juvenile Fillies’ Turf races split between Kentucky and New York (mainly because of the prior absence of a juvenile turf stakes program in California).

Now then, of those turf winners which were not local or European, two of the three New York-based horses had proven form when travelling away from their home tracks.

This gives the following breakdown:

Dirt: SoCal 11 NY 2 RoW 2

Turf: SoCal 3.5 Europe 10.5 New York 3 Kentucky 2

Phew! What does all that mean?

In a nutshell, it means that we should look for local horses on the dirt track and European challengers on the turf track (excluding Turf Sprint)… and we should be very wary of New York-based horses, unless they’ve shown their ability to win at multiple tracks, ideally away from NY.

That one piece of information may be enough to keep the time-tight punter from ruin during Breeders Cup weekend!

Favoured Running Style at Santa Anita

We’ve seen above the quirkiness of the turf track, and we’ve read about the changes to the main strip. But what type of running style is favoured here?

As usual, there is more than one answer. Nevertheless, there is a key thread which unites both courses, and it is this: the run in from the end of the home turn is very short.

Whereas at Churchill Downs, the run in is 1.87 furlongs (almost a quarter mile), here the main track run in is just 330 yards. Whilst that difference of 82 yards might not sound like a lot, when you’re trying to make ground in the stretch, it is comfortably the difference between winning and losing.

On the dirt course, you may see horses making their bid for glory from the end of the back straight, travelling wide around the turn to make use of the 5% gradient in the banking there, and almost ‘slingshotting’ down the final run.

Does all this mean that front runners will be favoured? Well, although it’s very difficult to be categorical, my perception is that they will not. The back stretch gets a lot more sun and generally sees quicker split times than the home straight. A lot of horses can be expected to have done too much too soon, especially on the newly sanded and slightly slower surface.

This should make for some fantastic finishes as all out horses either just hang on, or just get caught. Success and failure may well be separated by paper thin margins here.

The dirt course was quite strongly pace favouring this time last year, but the changes ahead of the Fall Meet which began in late September have levelled the playing field somewhat. This can change from day to day, though, so the advice is to keep a watchful eye on ATR (or your preferred telecaster!) for Thursday’s Santa Anita racing and Friday’s undercard.

It’s a similar story on the main turf course, although here the tightness of the final turn needs to be factored in still further, and a handy position going into that turn will likely be pivotal to a successful final fling.

It has historically been very difficult to lead all the way on the turf course, irrespective of the distance, and stalking types – those who skulk two to three lengths off the lead – may be best positioned to win. That said, closing types seem to fare better on the turf course here than at most tracks, and cannot (unfortunately) be discounted.

And that’s your lot from a course constitution perspective. I’ll have more views on the Breeders Cup nearer the time and, with the pre-entries declared tomorrow (Wednesday 24th), things are hotting up!


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