Submitted by Noel Michaels on Monday, October 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM
CRUNCH TIME FOR BREEDERS’ CUP NUMBER-CRUNCHING
BY NOEL MICHAELS - OTB Learning Labs.com
The Breeders’ Cup is almost here, and the prep race season is over with key races at tracks like Belmont, Keeneland, Churchill Downs, and the host track Santa Anita all setting up the fields for the 14 Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships events to be run on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 1-2.
This will be the fourth Breeders’ Cup to be held at Santa Anita in the past six years, and second recent SoCal Breeders’ Cup contested on a dirt main track (vastly different Breeders’ Cups than the ones held in Southern California in 2008-2009 when Santa Anita was a synthetic surface and the main track races were overwhelmingly dominated by West Coast horses, Europeans, and/or turf horses).
This year’s (and last year’s) Santa Anita Breeders’ Cup main track races will be contested on dirt, and this fact should result in fairer and more form-full Breeders’ Cup races similar to in 2012 when the best horses from all parts of the country and the world all have a fair chances to shine. This includes the Eastern-based horses, which should be able to do at least a little bit better after they were largely shut out of the top finishes in the SoCal synthetic Breeders’ Cup era at Santa Anita in ’08-’09.
The Santa Anita Breeders’ Cup prep race schedule is of obvious importance with the SA main track BC races now back on a dirt surface, and all of Keeneland’s prep races this month occurring on a synthetic track. The multiple Breeders’ Cup preps run over the same track and surface that the Breeders’ Cup will be run over are always key, so Santa Anita’s BC preps will be paramount for this year’s Breeders’ Cup handicapping.
The long list of Breeders’ Cup prep races at Santa Anita (re-named since the old Oak Tree days), include races such as the Yellow Ribbon (now the Rodeo Drive, prep for the F&M Turf, won by Tiz Flirtatious over defending champ Marketing Mix), the John Henry (prep for the Turf), won by Indy Point, the Chandelier (Juvenile Fillies), won by Secret Compass over She’s a Tiger and Fascinating, the Zenyatta (Distaff), won by Beholder), the Awesome Again (Classic), won in dominant fashion by Mucho Macho Man, the Frontrunner (Juvenile), won by Bond Holder, the L.A. Woman (F&M Sprint), won by Teddy’s Promise, the SA Sprint Championship (Sprint), won by Points Offthebench over Goldencents, and the City of Hope Mile (Mile), won by No Jet Lag over Obviously, as others.
Lessons From Breeders’ Cup 2012 at Santa Anita
First and foremost, goodbye to the short-lived Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint, gone this year from the Breeders’ Cup program. The Breeders’ Cup Distaff, which was for a few years called the "Ladies Classic," is thankfully back to being called the Distaff again. The rest of the two-day card sets up pretty much like it did last season.
This history of the Breeders’ Cup in Southern California has not been an illustrious one for Eastern-based horses, and while this might be difficult for East Coast horseracing fans to swallow, there is a bit of good news in this category. The East Coast horses did fairly well and won their share of races in 2012 proving that they can’t be counted out at Santa Anita.
The 2012 honor roll of Eastern horses in the Breeders’ Cup included Distaff winner Royal Delta (trained by Bill Mott), Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Little Mike (trained by Dale Romans, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Shanghai Bobby (trained by Todd Pletcher), Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare turf winner Zagora (trained by Chad Brown), and Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Trinniberg (trained by Sherry Parbhoo).
Other horses of East/Midwest connections like Classic winner Fort Larned (trained by Ian Wilkes), Horse of the Year Wise Dan (trained by Charles Lopestri), Filly & Mare Sprint winner Groupie Doll (trained by Bill Bradley), and Dirt Mile winner Tapizar (trained by Steve Asmussen) also won in 2012. In fact, these horses as a group, as well as the Europeans, who won both of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf races, did better than SoCal horses in 2012. Bob Baffert, for example, was shut-out in a disastrous Breeders’ Cup showing in 2012, and it was only Beholder, trained by Richard Mandella, and horse-for-the-course Mizdirection in the turf sprints, who saved face for the home team in 2012 when she won the Juvenile Fillies.
This year, many of the same horses will be big contenders, and/or the horses to beat in their respective divisions. The Distaff will feature a tremendous showdown between Royal Delta and Beholder, with Beholder holding the edge in my book. Wise Dan will be a heavy favorite to repeat despite losing his last race in an upset, Fort Larned will be amongst the favorites in the Classic, and Little Mike will be one of the contenders again in the Turf (he showed a new pace pressing dimension in his last race winning the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont). Mizdirection might well win yet again on the turf sprint course she dominates.
Getting To Know Santa Anita - The Great Race Place
The current Santa Anita meet is in full swing, and it will behoove handicappers to pay attention to what is happening there, not just for the Breeders’ Cup preps, but also for the day-to-day racing as well. Watching the day-to-day racing at Santa Anita leading up to the Breeders Cup can give handicappers valuable insights as to the winning track profiles for all of the various distances to be run on Cup weekend.
First, let’s look at the Santa Anita dirt surface. According to the track superintendant, the Santa Anita dirt track consists of nine inches of sand and clay on top of an eight-inch base. This track composition makes the surface very similar to the dirt tracks at places like Churchill Downs, Gulfstream, and the Oklahoma training track at Saratoga. The main difference between all of these tracks and Santa Anita, however, is that Santa Anita receives much less rain than those other tracks, particularly during its fall race meet. This phenomenon tends to "bake" the track and often make it conducive to early speed and vulnerable to inside/outside track biases.
In other words, you’ve gotta pay attention to track biases throughout the current Santa Anita fall meet, and you must be diligent in this regard, taking note of how the track is playing on the day before the Breeders’ Cup (Thursday, Oct. 31), as well as early on the card on both Breeders’ Cup Friday, Nov. 1 and Saturday, Nov. 2.
One big example of how track bias information could come in handy at the current Santa Anita meet was on Saturday, Sept. 28, which was the day of Santa Anita’s "Super Saturday" major Breeders’ Cup preps. That day featured a main track that favored outside posts and paths, often helping off-the-pace horses and hurting speed in the process. In my opinion, this is a good reason to upgrade a front-running winner of that day like Beholder (won the Zenyatta wire-to-wire, not on the best part of the track), and meanwhile think about downgrading with-the-bias horses that day like Secret Compass (perfect-trip win in the Chandelier), Bond Holder (perfect trip win in the Frontrunner), every horse that finished behind Beholder in the Zenyatta, and even though it’s difficult, maybe even Mucho Macho Man, whose perfect see-up on the best part of the track could have played a role in his dominant Awesome Again score (no excuses here for Paynter, who has been awful twice in a row now).
Of course, this could all change on Breeders’ Cup weekend if you notice a speed bias once again in place on the Santa Anita main track on Thursday, Oct. 31 and especially in the early races on Friday and Saturday Nov. 1-2 . . .
Santa Anita Dirt Track Trends
Aside from the different surfaces and bias, the next strategy you’ll want to use to get ahead of the betting public will hinge on horses’ running styles.
On Santa Anita’s main track, we usually look for an emphasis for early speed in sprints, especially at the two most popular sprint distances of 6 furlongs and 6- 1/2 furlongs.
At Santa Anita, roughly 38 percent of the 6 furlong races can be expected to be won in wire-to-wire fashion, and at 6-1/2 furlongs, 32 percent of the races can be expected to be won wire-to-wire. At 7 furlongs, that win percentage for wire-to-wire front-runners jumps back up to roughly 38 percent.
The average beaten lengths at the first call in races at these sprint distances is about 2.08 lengths behind at the quarter-mile mark. In other words, horses definitely didn’t want to be too far back early in Santa Anita main track sprints. This is based on the stat that 93 percent of the dirt sprint winners at Santa Anita race within 5.00 lengths of the lead at the first call (quarter mile). Therefore, throughout the Santa Anita meet, expect it to be difficult for a horse to win from very far back in the pack. Clearly it helps immensely for a horse to have at least tactical speed if it wants to win with any regularity in Santa Anita main track sprints.
In Santa Anita dirt track routes, roughly 23 percent of the dirt route races are won wire-to-wire, and 66 percent are won by horses classified either as early speed horses or pace pressers.
If these numbers are too general for you, perhaps you should instead look at the results of past Breeders’ Cup races specifically for your Breeders’ Cup winning dirt track profile. This is particularly true in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, which, in its short history, has been dominated by non-front runners who can sit off a predictably blazing fast pace and rally past the leader in the stretch. In the Dirt Mile, look out for an even better angle... every year the race is won by a route horse cutting back to a mile, and not a sprinter trying to stretch out to a mile. Just some food for thought for an angle that has been iron-clad so far.
Where post positions are concerned, take a look at the statistics for the current meet once the meet reaches the end of October to decipher if any post position trends have developed at the specific distances of the Breeders’ Cup races. Based on past figures, I would expect the rail and the inside posts (1-3) to be the preferred spots in dirt sprints. Route races usually tend to not show much bias in terms of post positions at Santa Anita until you get to the far outside posts, which can occasionally be a disadvantage outside post 8 or 9 in two-turn races.
Shippers And Horses That Excelled At Del Mar
When handicapping Breeders’ Cup dirt races, only take into account a horse’s past performances and form on dirt tracks, concentrating on the dirt past performance lines as opposed to the synthetic races. This should lead to a lot of overlays because the majority of the betting public will be relying too heavily on horses’ most recent past performances, which may, in some cases, have been on artificial surfaces such as Keeneland or Del Mar. If the recent past performances were not on dirt, their relevance realistically, is limited only to evaluating a horse’s current form and/or fitness.
Just as you wouldn’t want to handicap turf races by looking at a horse’s dirt form, and you wouldn’t want to handicap a dirt race by looking at turf form, the same holds true for artificial tracks. You don’t want to end up handicapping dirt races by using anything but dirt-race past performances.
Santa Anita Turf Racing
Post positions are very important on the Santa Anita turf course, because the course is smaller and the turns are tighter than at any other Breeders’ Cup venue. The other important aspect about Santa Anita’s grass course is its unique downhill turf course, which will play a major role in not only the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, but also in the long distance turf races - the Breeders’ Cup Turf, and Filly & Mare Turf - because both of those races will begin up the hill before the field races downhill, crosses the dirt track, and then makes one full circuit around the oval to the finish.
Because of the unique aspect of the Santa Anita grass course, the handicapping preference should be given to local "horses for the course" (a perfect case-in-point is 2012 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Mizdirection, the ultimate horse-for-the-course) as well as European horses that will largely be unfazed by any kind of quirky North American turf course. Horses for the course will be particularly enticing to bet in the Turf Sprint, so watch the entries on Breeders’ Cup Day for horses that have already won down the hill on turf at Santa Anita.
Getting back to post positions, they are of utmost importance at Santa Anita in both 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 not a left turn, but a right turn. This essentially flip flops the starting gate, making the outside posts basically the inside posts, and vice versa. Outside posts have long been considered a big advantage in Santa Anita turf sprints (especially in big fields), while conversely, the inside posts - particularly posts 1, 2, 3 - are considered a bad disadvantage. A horse will need to be much, much the best in order to win the Breeders’ Cup turf sprint from an inside post.
In Santa Anita turf routes, inside posts are good, but middle posts are just fine as well, all the way on out to posts 8 or 9. However, the far outside posts, particularly posts outside post 9, and major disadvantages at most distances on the Santa Anita grass. This impacts a lot of races, including the Turf, the Mile, the Filly & Mare Turf, the Juvenile Turf, and the Juvenile Filly Turf. The worst races for outside posts will definitely be the Mile and the two Breeders’ Cup turf races for Juveniles.
Again, just like the inside-drawn horses in the Turf Sprint, a horse will need to be much the best in the race in order to win the Mile, the Juvenile Turf, or the Juvenile Filly Turf from a post position 9 or wider. In those races, give favoritism to the horses from inside and middle post positions.
The Breeders’ Cup is only days away, and it is never too early to start looking and trends and angles to help you get ready to handicap the two biggest days of the year in Thoroughbred racing. I recommend spending as much time as possible in the coming week watching and wagering on the races from Santa Anita in order to get the feel for the big event. If you do this, and then follow some of the simple tips in this article, you will have a great advantage over your fellow horseplayers on November 1-2. Best of luck, and enjoy the Breeders’ Cup from from Santa Anita!