Course Guide: Santa Anita

One of the most iconic racecourses in the world, US expert Peter T Fornatale highlights the key trends at the West Coast's premier track.

  • Wednesday 03 June
  • Blog
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Santa Anita Park is known as the Great Race Place and it’s easy to see why – it’s a picturesque, art deco inspired jewel of a racetrack, set just south of the San Gabriel Mountains, which appear like a Hollywood set across the backstretch.

It is famous for hosting some of the best racing in the USA with Grade 1 events like the Santa Anita Derby and Santa Anita Handicap and has hosted by far the most Breeders’ Cups of any venue, holding the event ten times.

Its history is nearly too rich to even get into in a piece like this but we’ll hot a few highlights and a notable lowlight. The track opened on Christmas Day 1934, and hosted the first $100,000 race in the USA with the inaugural Santa Anita Handicap in 1935. Five years later, the legendary Seabiscuit won that race in his final start. In 2020 the race went to Combatant, who provided Long Beach trainer John Sadler with his third consecutive win in the race (replay below).

During World War II, racing was suspended and the facility was used as an internment camp for Japanese Americans.

The track has always had deep ties to Hollywood, with movie stars among its initial investors and many celebrities running their horses at the oval over the years. It can also be seen in films like A Day at the Races, A Star is Born (x2), Seabiscuit, and dozens of others.

It is currently owned by the Stronach Group.

 

RACING SCHEDULE

The winter-spring Santa Anita meet begins on Boxing Day and carries on through mid-June. The Autumn meet usually begins in late-September and continues through late October or early November. Days of the week vary slightly but of late they are racing Friday through Sunday with the occasional Monday holiday thrown in for good measure. Racing typically starts around 9pm GMT and carries on until the early morning hours.

 
THE COURSES

Santa Anita has a one-mile dirt track and a turf course that is nine-tenths of a mile. On both surfaces, races run at a mile or over are contested around two turns. Turf races nine furlongs and longer start on the downhill turf course. There is also a relatively new 5.5-furlong turf course where races start (briefly) on the dirt.

Lamentably, the famous “European-style” downhill turf course isn’t being used at present for 6.5-furlong races as some believe that the cross-over to the dirt course with horses travelling at full speed presented a safety issue. Hopefully a workaround will be discovered at some point.
 

TOP JOCKEYS, TRAINERS AND SIRES

Except where noted, the stats in this piece were compiled with the help of self-professed “numbers geek,” and regular contributor to inthemoneypodcast.com, John Camardo. The sample started at the beginning of 2016 and carried through the first few days after the restart of racing: May 17, 2020. The charts have been edited for clarity (retired/suspended jocks removed etc.)

Where possible, two stats we like to track are ROI (return on investment, looking at what happen if you wagered a dollar via the tote on every mount), and IV (Impact Value, how often connections win compared to have often they “should” win, as implied by the odds. When evaluating ROI, keep in mind that any number over $0.85 should be considered a positive result, in the sense that $0.15 is taken out of every wagering dollar via the tote pools. If you’re “beating the takeout,” you are doing very well. With Impact Values, a number of 1.0 means something happens exactly as much as it should, with negative numbers indicating they don’t happen as often as they should and positive values indicating just the opposite.
 

JOCKEYS ON DIRT

It’s a mixed bag of results for the biggest name jockeys on dirt at Santa Anita as you can see from our table. As one might surmise, when “Money” Mike Smith picks up a dirt mount, you should pay attention. In our sample, his number are strong: 32 percent winners, a 1.17 IV and a return of $1.06 on the dollar. Just wow.

Another veteran who has done well in limited opportunities on our advanced stats is Aaron Gryder. Gryder – the lone jockey with a Sopranos appearance on his resume – has an 18 percent strike rate, 1.26 IV and $1.06 ROI.

Here’s our criteria for “riders to watch” on dirt at Santa Anita: 17 percent wins, IV over 1, takeout beating ROI. Not a ton of signal here as it’s basically the top of the jockeys table with a couple of savvy veterans thrown in. The complete list: Mike Smith, Aaron Gryder, Kent Desormeaux, Joel Rosario, Victor Espinoza, Rafael Bejarano, Drayden Van Dyke.

Interestingly, the rider I consider the best right now in SoCal just misses this list, Flavien Prat. I think this is just a case of the market fully understanding how good he is and depressing the price. He doesn’t miss by much.
 

Data up to 17th May 2020

 
JOCKEYS IN TURF ROUTES

The revelation here is Umberto Rispoli. With limited starters, he’s got 26 percent winner, a 1.55 IV and a $1.32 ROI. This is a rider to follow on grass.

I’d have guessed Prat’s numbers would be excellent on turf and they are: 22 percent winners /1.07 IV /$0.86 ROI. Also, it’s worth noting that when Prat is on a runner projecting to run the fastest closing sectionals, that win percentage goes to a sky-high 64 percent (not a typo!) and his ROI goes above $1.50.

The only other rider to meet our “watch” criteria in turf routes is Joel Rosario: 21 percent winners, 1.08 IV, $1.05 ROI.

It’s worth noting that Mike Smith just misses here 17 percent winners, 1.02 IV, $0.86 ROI. The crowd has him pretty well sussed but it’s certainly no negative to see him in the irons on the grass.
 

Data up to 17th May 2020

 
TRAINERS ON DIRT

By wins, it’s no surprise to see Bob Baffert come out on top by a long way in our table. In terms of IV, the market seems to understand him perfectly, with his charges winning almost as exactly as often as they are supposed to. In ROI terms, don’t even think about betting all of his runners blindly or you’re going to lose a lot of money. His ROI is just $0.53.

Let’s take a quick glance at the other active trainers with over 100 wins in our sample. Peter Miller checks in with a 22 percent strike rate, a 1.08 IV and a $0.66 ROI. Phil D’Amato is in nearly the same point – strike rate and IV identical to Miller’s. he comes out a little better still in ROI terms: $0.74, getting within hailing distance of the takeout. Among the most famous trainers at Santa, these would be the two I’d be most comfortable giving extra credit to.

Doug O’Neill’s numbers were surprising: a prolific amount of wins but a modest 16 percent strike rate, a sub-1 IV and a $0.56 ROI. My main takeaway here is that with two Kentucky Derby wins on his resume, perhaps the crowd is overrating O’Neill runners at this point.

Looking at our advanced metrics, a few trainers stand out: J. Eric Kruljac, for example, whose horses win a lot more than the odds suggest they do: a 1.39 ROI. You can nearly turn a flat bet profit on his charges as well – his ROI is $0.95.

One bit of info here that surprised me was to see how poorly one of my favorite trainers of all time fared in the data – the great Richard Mandella. In our sample, his IV was .75 and ROI just $0.42. I’m not going to be downgrading his runners personally but it seems undeniable that the crowd overbets his dirt runners.

We pay particular attention to trainers with an ROI that beats the takeout and an IV of 1 or higher. Here’s that list: J. Eric Kruljac, Hector Palma, Peter Eurton, Bruce Headley, Clifford Sise, William Morey, Leonard Powell (technically misses by $.02 but I’m keeping him).
 

Data up to 17th May 2020

 
TRAINERS ON TURF

The overall win leaders on the green are Richard Baltas, Phil D’Amato, Doug O’Neill, and Peter Miller. They are all well in the plus on IV. O’Neill’s ROI is a very good $1.03 with the others all checking in with solid numbers in the $0.90s. Miller tops all trainers in turf strike rate, winning nearly 19 percent of the time. As good as they are, if anything they are still a little underrated.

One name that stands out with limited starters is George Papaprodromou: with a plus ROI and a 1.33 IV I plan to give his starters an extra look this meet.

Turf is where Mandella’s numbers make him look like the Hall of Famer he is: 1.05 IV and a stellar $1.04 ROI.

Bob Baffert has never been known for his turf stock and the numbers bear this out: .83 IV and a $0.71 ROI suggest he’s typically best avoided on grass.

We pay particular attention to trainers with an ROI that beats the takeout and an IV of 1 or higher. Here’s that list for turf: George Papaprodroumou, Doug O’Neill, Richard Mandella, Simon Callaghan, and Carla Gaines (technically misses by .01 but I’m keeping her on the list).
 

Data up to 17th May 2020

 
DIRT SIRES

Scanning the list of dirt sires at Santa Anita a few really stand out, none moreso than Uncle Mo with 28 percent wins and a massive ROI. Tapizar, Blame, and Curlin also sport impressive marks.

In conclusion, the sample size is small enough here that it would be a mistake to make too much out of these numbers but given Santa Anita’s importance nationally, it’s no surprise to see many of the best and trendiest sires having a lot of success.

 
TURF SIRES

It’s interesting to note that while Square Eddie is best by a lot in terms of winners, he is one of the few in our top 20 who does not post a positive ROI, suggesting that while he’s quality, he’s routinely overbet on turf.

Also interesting here is a bunch of names that do not appear: horses with big reputations who have fared poorly on the Santa Anita grass. Names like Tapit (1 for 20), Blame (0 for 13), and Declaration of War (0 for 21) have not done well at all on the green.

In conclusion, I’m inclined to move up runners from the list with win percentages of 20 percent and positive ROIs: Clubhouse Ride, Candy Ride, Grazen, City Zip, Goldencents, Giant’s Causeway, Stormy Atlantic, Bodemeister, Colonel John, Medaglia d’Oro and Midnight Lute.

 

SPEED FIGURE PARS

The Beyer Speed Figures are the gold standard in speed figures. They are available from Daily Racing Form. The numbers presented below were arrived at with the help of professional horseplayer Sean Boarman, who has been making his own Beyer-style figures for 15 years.

For three-year-old males and up, the average winning figure of a maiden special weight is 83. Bottom-level maiden claimers for the same runners typically go in a 64. Bottom-level open claiming winners also typically run a 74. First-level allowance winners typically run an 80. High level allowance horses run around 90. Listed stakes caliber types are more likely to run around a 96. On average, Grade 3 stakes go in 100, G2 in 103 and G1 in 106.

As a general rule, you can adjust your pars down for fillies and mares (7 pts), statebreds (7-10 pts), and on a sliding scale for younger three-year-olds and two-year-olds (the younger the runners, the slower the figures).
 

OTHER SPECIFIC ANGLES

POST POSITIONS

(Stats in this section come from our friends at STATS Race Lens and were filtered by STATS power user Matt Vagvolgyi)

The draw data didn’t yield too much to get excited about it but we did find one that was truly surprising looking at post-position data for Turf routes. The numbers for horses drawn in the one through three gates at Santa Anita were decidedly mediocre: just 10 percent winners and a loss of 29 cents on every dollar wagered. Not surprisingly at all, the numbers on runners drawn 10 or higher are poor: 6 percent winners and a 43-cent loss on the dollar

Conclusion: While I’m not going to downgrade the inside posts in Turf routes, these numbers do make me want to give a little extra credit to those drawn in the middle of the field, say four through seven. Be wary of runners drawn 10 or higher.

 
JONATHAN WONG ON TURF

Jonathan Wong, who crushes it in Northern California as you’ll recall from our Golden Gate profile, doesn’t do nearly as well in SoCal (despite the high-profile success of Keeper Ofthe Stars). That said, the crowd still bets him in a robust manner. During our sample, he won at 14 percent but you’d have lost 45 cents on the dollar betting them all.

Conclusion: Be wary of backing Wong turf runners at short prices at Santa Anita.

 
NYRA SHIPPERS ON DIRT

It’s a small sample of just 18 starters, but horses shipping from NYRA have overperformed with a 28 percent win rate and $2.00 + ROI.

Conclusion: Many including myself are always looking to upgrade East Coast turf horses when they run in SoCal, but there may be value in upgrading all NY-based runners in California at this point.

 
STALKERS IN TURF SPRINTS

While the market logically focuses most of its attention on projected leaders in turf sprints in the new 5.5-furlong configuration, horses positioned between 2nd and 5th early have returned a flat-bet profit and 12 percent winners.

Conclusion: Don’t rule out horses who project to come from off the pace in turf sprints if they have enough tactical speed to stay in touch and the ability to run fast closing sectionals.

 
FANCIED BAFFERT DEBUTANTS

I wasn’t surprised at all that Bob Baffert has a high win percentage with firsters but I was shocked that you could have made a profit during our sample backing his runners at odds-on. He clicks at 57 percent with a $1.05 ROI.

Conclusion: You can still make money betting the right Baffert firsters.

Course Guide: Santa Anita
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