Mike Watchmaker: Santa Anita Track Profile

The right way to get a really accurate handle on the way a track is playing is to thoroughly handicap races first, and then closely scrutinize the running of those races to see if key horses might be outperforming or underperforming due to the racing surface. You have to do the work to not only tell if a perceived bias is real, but also to latch onto it early enough before too many other like-minded horseplayers start wrecking the odds of horses you think can capitalize on a bias.

Unfortunately, there are only so many hours in a day, and it is not always possible to do this. So short of that, a study of recent result charts is in order, to see if certain running styles win more frequently than the norm. And that's what I did for the last 10 racing days at Santa Anita, from Oct. 12 through Saturday, Oct. 26 (this is being written on Sunday morning, before Sundays results are in).

Why? Because Santa Anita will host the Breeders' Cup again on Friday and Saturday, and it is worthwhile knowing if we might see a reoccurrence of the main track speed bias that was in effect at last year's Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita, a bias that had an undeniable impact (both good and bad) on the performances of many Breeders' Cup participants. The general perception is the main track at Santa Anita is playing much more fairly than it did at this time last year. Let's see if that's true.

Years ago, I did many track profile studies for print in columns I wrote for the DRF, and I came up with this method: I determine the success rate of speed horses in certain types of races, such as dirt sprints, dirt routes, and turf. I identify speed horses as horses who are running either first or second in the first call of the result charts, or are within (less than) two lengths off the lead in the first call. If speed horses are unusually successful, it would be a compelling argument that the track is playing kindly to speed. Conversely, if speed horses are winning well below the norm, it could indicate a closer's track. Importantly, over time, I came to find that speed as I define it won about 50 to 55% of dirt races, giving credence to the theory that speed is the universal bias, in U. S. racing, anyway. Speed won somewhere between 33 and 40% of races on turf.

So, with this in mind, I looked at the 10 most recent cards at Santa Anita to see if there is a foundation for the perception of a fairer main track there. I separated dirt sprints from dirt routes, and to be inclusive, I also looked at turf races, grouping them all together.

Let's get the turf results right out of the way because they were unremarkable. There were 31 turf races run the last 10 racing days at Santa Anita, and 12 were won by speed (including four front running winners) for a success rate of 39%. There were also no special trends over the three full or partial weeks the 10 cards covered. This week, before Sunday, there were nine turf races at Santa Anita and three (33%) were won by speed. Last week, six of the 12 turf races there (50%) were won by speed, including three by front-runners. And in the three cards we looked at from two weeks ago, three of 10 turf races (30%) were won by speed, including one front-running winner.

Dirt is a different matter. There were 41 dirt sprints on the last 10 cards at Santa Anita, and 28 of them (68%) were won by what I define as speed, including seven front-running winners. Notably, speed improved from week to week. In the three cards looked at two weeks ago, speed won seven of 14 sprints (50%), including two front-running winners. In the full week last week, speed won 13 of 17 sprints (76%), including three front-running winners. And this week, before Sunday, speed won eight of 10 dirt sprints (80%), including two front-running winners.

Let's check out dirt routes. There were 16 such races the last 10 cards at Santa Anita, and 10 of them (63%) were won by speed, including four front-running winners. The week by week breakdown is as follows: In the three cards looked at two weeks ago, three of five dirt routes (60%) were won by speed, including one front-running winner. In the full week last week, two of five dirt routes (40%) were won by speed. This week, prior to Sunday, five of six dirt routes were won by speed (83%), including three front-running winners.

My view on this data is, the relatively low percentage of front-running speed winners to overall speed winners suggests that there is not a developing, or existing, speed bias on the main track at Santa Anita that is so dominating as to render secondary all other handicapping considerations. That said, it is undeniable that there is a trend over this given period where it has become increasingly preferable to be very close, if not right on the early pace on dirt at Santa Anita.

However, it is also critical to keep in mind that track biases can be fickle, and can often disappear as quickly as they surface due to weather (which is not a factor right now in Southern California), or adjustments in track maintenance. So while we can enter Breeders' Cup week at Santa Anita with the thought that speed is good on the main track, it will be incumbent on us horseplayers to watch what happens Thursday and early Friday to see if that remains the case.

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