How to Do Great at the Great Race Place

Santa Anita at the finish

Santa Anita is one of the country’s premier annual winter race meets, offering big purses and high-quality racing on both its turf course and its dirt main track. In fact, the Santa Anita winter meeting is not only one of the best winter race meets, it’s one of the year’s best race meets, period.

The six-month stand now continues throughout winter, spring and early summer — until June 24 — and is actually two meets, with the main winter-spring meet ending in early April and then the second spring meet opening and continuing until closing day. Along the way, a long list a major stakes races will be run in every non-juvenile division, including such traditional Grade 1 features such as the Santa Anita Handicap on March 11 and the Santa Anita Derby in April.

Kent Desormeaux

Kent Desormeaux

In the jock’s room, FLAVIEN PRAT won both Santa Anita meets last year, with 62 wins (23 percent) to take the winter-spring meet and, then, another 41 after April 9 to win the spring meet title as well. Prat will be the favorite to repeat that effort again in 2018. The only rider close to Prat last winter was TYLER BAZE, who enjoyed a very good season with 52 wins (16 percent) to finish a clear second in the standings. The distant third-place jockey was RAFAEL BEJARANO, who won 38 races (20 percent). KENT DESORMEAUX also enjoyed a solid meet last season, finishing fourth in the standings with 35 wins for 20 percent. Those jockeys can be expected to post similar totals this winter.

When comparing last year’s Santa Anita jockey standings to this season’s meet, the biggest difference, undoubtedly, will be the presence of super apprentice EVIN ROMAN, who debuted in the middle of 2017 and took the southern California circuit by storm at Del Mar and Santa Anita, where he won the jockey title at the Autumn Meet with 20 victories from 123 mounts for 16 percent wins. The runner-up was KENT DESORMEAUX, who fell five wins short with 15 victories, but nevertheless rode his heart out at the meet with a superior 25-percent win rate — tops among all regular riders.

Roman should contend with Prat for the riding title this season, just as he did all throughout the 2017 Del Mar summer meet. However, one date that should be marked on handicapper’s calendars is March 12, 2018. That’s the day Roman will lose his five-pound apprentice allowance.

Disappointing jockeys last winter at Santa Anita who will need major rebounds include SANTIAGO GONZALEZ who won 47 races at the meet in 2016 but only 17 races last year (10 percent) and MARIO GUTIERREZ, who won only 11 races last winter for nine percent, and really needs to ride for Baffert to be a factor.

MIKE SMITH doesn’t accept many mounts, but, once again, figures to make his presence felt, particularly in high-priced allowance and stakes races. Expect him to approach his totals from this meet last year when he had only 67 mounts, but still finished ninth in wins with 19 for a big 28 percent win rate and 63 percent in-the-money (ITM) rate and earnings of better than $2 million.

Bob-Baffert-121117

Bob Baffert

In the trainers’ ranks, PHIL D’AMATO won the 2016 winter meet title with 41 wins, but was only fourth in the standings last winter with 25 wins for a still-solid 20 percent winners. The defending champion trainer at the Santa Anita winter meet is JERRY HOLLENDORFER, who took the title with 38 victories in the main 2017 meet. Hollendorfer will be trying to defend his training title over a star-studded list of some of the game’s best conditioners who all call Santa Anita home over the winter, including (in order of last year’s Santa Anita winter/spring standings) PETER MILLER (who had 35 wins for 26 percent after notching 34 wins the season before), RICHARD BALTAS (26 wins) and D’Amato with 25.

After the top four trainers in terms of wins last season, you had DOUG O’NEIL with 23 wins and BOB BAFFERT with 19 wins. For handicappers, however, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Baffert was a more reliable win bet at Santa Anita last winter with a 24-percent win rate, while O’Neil won at only a 13-percent clip.

However, it should be noted that O’Neil had an incredible 83-percent ITM rate, which placed him second only to Hollendorfer’s 89-percent ITM rate. Baffert burned a lot of money in the exotics with only a 40-percent ITM rate. Based on his number of seconds and thirds last year, expect O’Neil to have better luck this year and place much higher in the trainer standings in terms of wins at this season’s meet.

Getting to Know Santa Anita — the Great Race Place

In order to get a really good gauge on a horse’s ability, you will need to rely on a horse’s past performances, specifically those at Santa Anita. Ignore most past performances that were established at the other California circuit tracks, particularly Golden Gate (synthetic), or Los Alamitos (lower caliber racing). Even Del Mar is different, particularly in terms of winning trends and in turf sprints, which are vastly different than Santa Anita’s down-the-hill staples.

Santa Anita Park Autumn 16

Training at Santa Anita Park (photo by Jim Safford).

Santa Anita’s main track is not particularly well known for having a lot of post position biases and angles, but the track does favor certain posts at certain distances. During the Santa Anita meet, some post position preferences spring up at various distances. Where post positions are concerned, based on the statistics, you can expect the rail and the inside posts (1-3) to be the preferred spots, overall, in dirt sprints. Route races at Santa Anita usually do not show much bias until you get to the far outside posts (8-beyond), which can occasionally be a disadvantage.

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 or middle posts, with any gate from 1-8 expected to do okay. 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 with 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.

Santa Anita Turf Racing

Santa-Anita-093017

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 as 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 frontrunners 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 frontrunners will cave-in up front, setting the races up for winners from farther off the pace.

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.

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 dropoff in winning percentage for horses starting outside post 7, with posts 11-14 rarely ever winning (albeit while 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 2-4, with about 40 percent of the winners 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-percent range at that distance. 

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, with one of these turf sprints being run on most days Santa Anita is able to offer turf racing. These downhill races usually host full fields and are often key components of the pick-6 and pick-4 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 horses who have already won one or more turf sprints down the hill over the 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 6 1/2-furlong turf sprints tend to play fairly to all running styles, and also tend to pose problems for horses that draw far inside posts. 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.

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 major 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 eight or more horses, the chances of the runners from these post positions drops sharply. 

Wrap-Up 

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 you will have a leg-up on the betting public.

Have a great season at Santa Anita, and best of luck!

Noel Michaels
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
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