Breeders' Cup Betting: Track Trends from Santa Anita
by Trevor Whanham - 10/26/2013
The Breeders’ Cup is back at Santa Anita for the second year in a row and the fourth time in six years. That gives us what used to be a unique opportunity for this series of races — a chance to look at what trends have emerged from the track in recent past editions that we can use to guide our handicapping this year. Which Breeders’ Cup track trends are useful this year, and which are misleading? Let’s take a look:
The dirt surface
Just thinking about the surface at Santa Anita gives me a headache.
Though we have seen Breeders’ Cup races run on the one-mile track three times in the last five years, we really know nothing about what to expect this year — at least not based on that past.
The first two years there was a synthetic surface, but it was a disaster — too bouncy and incapable of handling poor weather. They did the right thing and put a dirt track back in 2011. Last year, though, drainage was an issue through the season, so in September they added a whole lot of sand to the surface. Even the local horses hadn’t run on it in a meaningful way before the Breeders’ Cup, so the bias of that track came as a total surprise. In fact, the surface made a farce of the event. Throughout the dirt races we saw time and time again that if a horse wasn’t on the pace or pressing it after the first quarter of the race then he was in trouble. Closers or even stalkers were unable to overcome a major speed bias. Bob Baffert, for example, had an absolutely loaded stable heading into the races, but he wound up not winning a race in 10 tries because time and again his horses settled off the pace early and couldn’t overcome.
This year the speed bias seems to have been significantly diminished in the days and months leading up to the Breeders’ Cup. More significantly, this is the same basic surface that they have been racing on all year, so there won’t be any ugly surprises like last year.
The downhill turf
When you handicap sprint turf races at Santa Anita, you have to consider the downhill run at the start. Santa Anita is the only track to have such a setup.
The turf course is seven furlongs inside the mile long dirt track. To avoid having to run around a turn at the start of sprints, those races are started up a chute that branches off the top of the stretch. Horses run down that chute, cross the dirt track briefly, then enter the main turf track and run down the stretch to the finish line.
What makes the chute unique in North America, though, is that it is quite significantly downhill. This can be a problem for horses that have not experienced it. More significantly, it can be a major advantage for horses that have run on it and proven to take to it. Defending Turf Sprint winner Mizdirection, for example, is a perfect 5-for-5 on the downhill course. In the Turf Sprint this course quirk creates the biggest home-field advantage of the day.
The turf course hasn’t changed in a significant way since the Breeders’ Cup was first held at Santa Anita in 1986. It doesn’t always react like you might expect it to, though. It has tight turns and a short stretch due to the layout. You would generally assume that that would favor stalking trips and tactical speed over closing moves. In fact, that is only true on races below about 9 furlongs. In longer races, like both the Filly and Mare Turf and the Turf on the Breeders’ Cup card, we have actually seen a small majority of races at Santa Anita won by closers.
Early in the current Santa Anita meet the bias towards closers was particularly strong on the turf. Recently that tendency has leveled out somewhat and pressers or pace-setters have done better. The important factor to remember, though, is not to make assumptions about the track based on the layout.
This fall we have seen an interesting and potentially-valuable trend emerge on the dirt track in one-turn sprint races. Up to Oct. 20, there had been 68 races run around one turn, and just four had been won by the horse in the inside post of the gate. That is well behind expectations, and indicates that watching the post position draw closely could be key in the dirt sprints.
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