Oct 19 2014

Breeders Cup 2014 – Navigating The Unique Santa Anita Turf Course

Breeders Cup Logo

Breeders’ Cup 2014 is right around the corner, and we thought it would be a good time to feature an article about the unique layout of the Santa Anita turf course and how it might impact the running of the Breeders’ Cup races this year.

We will limit our review to include only the four distances of Breeders’ Cup races contested over the turf course.  To begin, we will show a diagram of the turf course layout and include the starting gate position (in colored boxes) for each distance included in the 2-day set of Breeders’ Cup races.  And we will discuss how post positions are affected by the location of the starting gate and it’s proximity to the first turn at each distance.  Distances of 1-mile or more show the furlong equivalent for individuals (like myself) who think in terms of furlongs.

Santa Anita BC Turf3


61/2 Furlongs

Let’s start with the 6.5-furlong downhill turf course, which is quite unusual in a couple of ways. First, it’s not entirely flat, hence the downhill reference. The horses begin the race by running downhill into another unique feature … a right-hand turn, the only one of it’s kind in North America. This is most significant from the perspective of post positions, which are essentially flip-flopped. Inside positions behave like outside, and outside like inside. Which explains why outside post positions are generally thought of as an advantage at this distance.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then watch the video of last year’s Turf Sprint, from the perspective of the blimp. And try to keep an eye on the eventual winner, Mizdirection, who breaks from post position 11 (3rd in from the right).  She is in perfect position into that right hand turn and then crosses over smartly to the left hand turn.  Clearly the outside position worked out nicely for her.  Mizdirection is #12 and her jockey Mike Smith has a black cap.

Pretty cool layout, huh? After the right hand turn, follows an extended left-hand turn, and then the horses cross over the dirt track before their stretch run for home begins.  The sum total of these unique features creates an experience that is different for many of the horses in the race.  And, different isn’t always better when it comes to horses, who are very much creatures of habit.  This helps to explain the conventional wisdom that a horse with experience over this turf course has a distinct advantage.  From 2008-2013 there have been four Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprints run over this course, and all four winners (Mizdirection-twice, California Flag, and Desert Code) had racing experience over the downhill course prior to their BC victory.

The 61/2 furlong distance in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint race is particular to Santa Anita.  For example, in the two times this race was contested at Churchill Downs, the race was only 5 furlongs.  The 61/2 furlong distance inevitably creates situations where turf sprint specialists that are used to running shorter distances (5 to 51/2 furlongs) are asked to stretch their speed a bit further … and horses used to running longer (7 furlongs or more) try to cutback to a shorter distance.  Trying to figure out which one of these horses to favor is a big challenge for the handicapper.  Hey, no one said this was going to be easy!


11/4 Mile (10 Furlongs)

Jumping down the diagram, we see that turf races run at 11/4 miles (10-furlongs) start on the lower end of the same course, with a major difference.  Within five seconds of breaking from the gate they bear onto a left-hand turn, and within ten seconds they are crossing the dirt track before straightening away for their first run down the stretch.  Watch the replay from last year’s Filly & Mare Turf race, and see how Dank benefited from her inside position in the first fifteen seconds of the race to obtain a perfect early position. Dank is #1 and her jockey, Ryan Moore, has a turquoise hat.

Albeit a small sample of data, it might be telling that of the 15 horses that finished in-the-money in the last five Breeders’ Cup races run at the 11/4 mile distance on the Santa Anita turf, 12 broke from post positions 1-5.  Conversely, in these same five races, only 3 of 26 horses that started from post position six or higher managed to hit the board.

The Filly & Mare Turf race is the only Breeders’ Cup race contested at this distance at Santa Anita.  Also, just an FYI, in prior years, the Filly & Mare Turf race has been contested at either 11/4 miles (10f) or 13/8 miles (11f), depending on the racing venue.


Here is the Santa Anita track diagram repeated from above for easy reference.
Santa Anita BC Turf3


11/2 Mile (12 Furlongs)

Now that you’ve seen the challenges of the 11/4 mile turf distance, let’s back up the diagram to the longer 11/2 mile distance.  As with the first two distances we discussed, there is only one Breeders’ Cup race run at this distance.  Our diagram shows that the starting gate is located further “up” the downhill turf course in a location opposite the right hand turn of the sprint distance race.  The following video (2013 Breeders’ Cup Turf ) shows in the first fifteen seconds a nice diagram of the start and flow of the race, followed by the race with an excellent perspective from above.

Unlike the post position advantages noted at the 11/4 mile distance, a review of the result charts from the same five years of Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita revealed no such trends, with 8 of the 15 horses that finished in-the-money coming from post position seven or higher.

The most notable trend observed from these five races, was the dominance of horses that were shipped from Europe. Four of the five winners and 9 of 15 horses in-the-money came from Europe.  Apparently the long trek across “the pond” and over the continent did little to slow down these dominating distance steeds.


1 Mile (8 Furlongs)

The amusing thing about this distance, when the Breeders’ Cup is run at Santa Anita, is that it’s the ONLY turf distance that does not crossover the dirt course.  That’s probably a good thing when you consider that two of the three races run at this distance are for 2-year old horses.  If you watch enough races at Santa Anita, you can see that the transition from turf-to-dirt and then back to turf does cause some horses difficulty.  Keeping 2-year old horses away from this extra challenge is probably appreciated by the majority of trainers.

In total, three Breeders’ Cup races are presently run at this distance. They are:

  1. Juvenile Turf (2-years old only)
  2. Juvenile Fillies Turf (2-years old only)
  3. Turf Mile (3-years old and upward)

You can see from the above diagram that the starting gate at this distance is located in the stretch, and provides the horses ample opportunity to gain position before they hit the first turn.  With that said, the Santa Anita turns are tighter than other Breeders’ Cup venues, so extremely wide post positions can still be a disadvantage.  This could come into play, especially with the two Juvenile races, where they have averaged 14 starters per race in the past two years.

Below is a video replay of the 2013 Turf Mile if you’d like to see the start of the race for yourself.


Hopefully we now have you thinking it’s almost BREEDERS’ CUP time!

Well, at least you’ve got a better idea what to expect from the races over the turf course.  Check back as we will have a article coming up soon with a similar review of the various distances on the dirt track.


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By Neal Benoit


4 comments on “Breeders Cup 2014 – Navigating The Unique Santa Anita Turf Course

  1. Neal, I believe you have done a great job describing and illustrating the unique features of the downhill course. From my perspective, I’ve watched horses that appear to be in pretty good spots get completely taken out or shut off by horses that totally spin out or balk a bit when hitting the dirt surface. I always like to see my horses either easy on the lead or in a spot where they can’t be affected by other horses as they approach the dirt course. Sometimes a patient ride near the rail leads to an opening as horses seem to lose their line running over that dirt strip and carry contenders wide. It may be anecdotal and merely the camera angles offered by Santa Anita, so I can’t say it is a matter to take as a handicapping absolute, but I’d love to see the % rate of ITM finishes of jockeys that regularly ride there over the visiting jocks. The horse is always the key, but in these big fields horses need a bit of luck, which a top notch jock can provide.

    I really think your gate position graphics and videos are a logical and succinct way to illustrate your points. Thanks for a great kickoff article regarding the Breeders’ Cup.

  2. Neal…Thank You, great stats. As you know, these races are very competitive, so every angle is helpful. Can’t wait for next entry.Your research is appreciated….Tony

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