By Noel Michaels
Horse racing fans get the holiday gift they really want – albeit a couple of days late – when the SoCal winter racing season celebrates its traditional post-Christmas opening day – this year on Saturday Dec. 28 – at Santa Anita. That date marks the kickoff not only one of the country’s premier annual winter race meets, but actually one of the year’s best race meets of any season.
The Santa Anita winter-spring meet will continue until Santa Anita Derby weekend, with the running of the Santa Anita Derby and five other stakes on April 4. Later, Santa Anita continues with its summer meet through June 21. But the real action happens during the winter when racing will be conducted mainly on a four-day-a-week basis, Thursdays through Sundays, plus assorted holidays. Along the way, a list of 60 stakes races will be run in every non-juvenile division this winter at Santa Anita, including 34 graded stakes with eight Grade 1 races headlined by the 83rd running of the $600,000 Santa Anita Handicap on March 7.
Of course, any meet big or small is always a lot better when you win, so let’s get to know the “Great Race Place” by taking a quick look at some prevailing biases at the Santa Anita in various kinds of races.
In terms of running style preferences and the winning track profile on the main track at Santa Anita, speed tends to be very good in the shorter sprints, particularly 5 ½ furlongs and 6 furlongs. At 5 ½ furlongs, about 40% of the winners can be expected to go wire-to-wire, and even at the most commonly-run sprint distance of 6 furlongs, front-runners still win one-third of the races. Really, early speed types tend to enjoy a tactical advantage at all distances on the main track. The best distance to bet off-the-pace runners is at one mile, where front runners win only 25% of the time and the preferred running style belongs to the pace pressers, and perhaps close-up stalkers.
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. Based on past statistics the inside posts usually are preferred, but that was not the case in 2018 when middle posts did the best in dirt sprints. It should be noted that at the most recent meet run at Santa Anita, in fall 2019, three inside posts were good again in sprints in most of the season, with post 1 (19%), post 2 (14%), and post 3 (22%) all racking-up good percentages. Overall, however, the post positions in dirt sprints at that meet really were fair to horses from all parts of the gate, with no strong disadvantages.
In Santa Anita route races, the rail post is often the place to be at both one mile and 1 1/16 miles. Beyond the rail being good, you usually do not see 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. At the most recent Santa Anita meet – fall 2019 – the vast majority of dirt route winners came from posts 1 thru 6. Starters breaking from outside post 6 in Santa Anita dirt routes were a combined 4-for-47 for 9% wins.
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 (20% wire-to-wire winners in turf routes), or from various margins off the pace as well. Obviously it is better to save as much ground and possible and stay within a workable striking distance of the lead, and this is evidenced by the fact that the rail is the preferred post draw in Santa Anita turf routes, and all the inside posts outperform all of the middle and outside posts in terms of win percentage. Deep closers can win, but often they lose too much ground making those wide late moves, and that gives the leaders, pressers, and stalkers a good shot at holding on in the relatively short grass course stretch run. Days when the turf is less-than-firm provide the best chance for winners to come from a bit further off-the-pace.
And then there are the turf sprints, which are a work-in-progress these days since Santa Anita closed its signature downhill turf course for the 2019 fall meet and for the Breeders’ Cup and instead opted to run turf sprints at 5 furlongs. Santa Anita is the North American capital of turf sprints thanks to its unique down-the-hill turf course, and we will have to wait and see if those races return in the upcoming winter season. If the track does continue to run the short non-downhill turf sprints, keep in mind that those races favor speed or horses able to stay within one or two lengths of the lead at the first call. With post position for the short turf sprints, based on figures from the 2019 fall meet, most of the winners will come from post positions 1 thru 4. No less than 22 of the 31 (71%) turf sprints run in the fall were won by horses breaking from posts 1-4. Starters from all other gates went a combined 9-for-123. The downhill turf sprints, meanwhile, favor horses with outside posts and horses drawn in posts 1-2-3 have a tough time winning in big fields.
Pay close attention to the winning profiles at Santa Anita and you will have a leg up on the betting public at Santa Anita. Most of all, have a great season at The Great Race Place, and best of luck at Santa Anita!