Guest Blog: Dirt Returns to Santa Anita

By J. Keeler Johnson

The Great Race Place has long been known for its great races and its very fast racing surface. For the first seventy-four years of its existence, Santa Anita Park had a main track consisting of good old-fashioned dirt. However, the sudden rise of the synthetic tracks changed all of this. In 2006, the California Horse Racing Board mandated installation of synthetic main tracks at the majority of the California race tracks.

For Santa Anita, this mandate has proven costly and troublesome. It all began with the installation of the synthetic Cushion Track in late 2007. Due to the fact that the wrong sand was used during installation, the track didn’t drain properly, and eleven cards were canceled during the 2007-2008 Santa Anita meet, prompting the replacement of the Cushion Track in mid-2008.

The 2008 Oak Tree meet opened with a new Pro-Ride synthetic track in place. The Pro-Ride surface proved to be considerably better than the Cushion track, but the draining issues were far from over. Earlier this year, several cards were canceled due to rain, forcing a pair of important Triple Crown prep races to be postponed.

The draining issues were so serious that the California Horse Racing Board has allowed Santa Anita to revert back to a traditional dirt track. The announcement has been met with great enthusiasm, and the historic track will open its gates on Sunday with a brand new surface, consisting of 86% sand, 8% clay, and 6% silt. Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind is that the Santa Anita Derby, Sham Stakes, and other traditional prep races will once again have a major influence upon the Triple Crown. It’s not that the California prep races have had no influence in recent years; after all, 2009 Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile finished second in the Kentucky Derby, and the 2010 Santa Anita Derby third-place finisher, Lookin At Lucky, won the Preakness Stakes. But the return to dirt will no doubt make things easier on the Triple Crown hopefuls, as they will no longer have to leave the state to get experience on dirt.Things will also be more interesting, as Steve Asmussen has sent his promising juveniles Astrology and Tapizar to Santa Anita to prep for the Triple Crown.

One thing that I have been mulling over during the past few days is how the new track will play. Will it favor front-runners or closers? Will it be blazingly fast or incredibly slow? The old Santa Anita dirt track was a very fast surface, and I’m hoping that the new surface will play the same way. Although I’m very pleased to see Santa Anita returning to dirt, I am left feeling somewhat sad as well.

The foreign competition in the main track races during the 2008 and 2009 Breeders’ Cups was simply astonishing; due mainly to the fact that the track was synthetic. It was fun to see Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator run 1-2 in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic would not have been the same without Rip Van Winkle. Mastercraftsman added great excitement to the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, and watching Vale of York out-rally Lookin at Lucky in the stretch of the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Juveniles ranks as one of the most impressive performances I have ever seen. Sadly, the foreign competition this year at Churchill Downs over a traditional dirt track paled in comparison to those two years at Santa Anita.So you might say that I am happy for the Triple Crown and sad for the Breeders’ Cup.

As for the draining issues, they should all but disappear now that dirt has returned. Although training at Santa Anita has been canceled several times over the last week due to over seven inches of rainfall, sunny skies are in the forecast and the track has been handling the rain very well. Racing should continue as usual on opening day.

Speaking of opening day, there are some spectacular races carded for Sunday, including two grade I stakes races and a grade II. Altogether, there are $750,000-worth of stakes races to be run. Let’s take a look at the two grade I races, the Malibu and the La Brea Stakes.

MALIBU STAKES The grade I Malibu Stakes has drawn an impressive field of 11. The favorite in the seven furlong event will likely be Smiling Tiger, winner of two grade I races against older horses earlier this year and third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. However, he has drawn the far outside and may be better going six furlongs. Noble's Promise is a colt who would benefit from a sloppy track and should relish the seven furlongs. He finished a strong fifth in the Kentucky Derby earlier this year and most recently won the Jimmy V. Stakes last month at Churchill Downs in a very strong performance.

Twirling Candy should be well bet, considering that he has won four of his five starts and worked a brilliant six furlongs in 1:10 4/5 on Dec. 16. His only loss came in the nine furlong Goodwood Stakes against older horses, and this step down in distance should greatly help his chances. Don Tito is another intriguing colt. He has made only five starts thus far, making his debut in July, but finished a decent third to Noble's Promise in the Jimmy V. despite breaking poorly and racing wide. With a better trip on Sunday, he may outrun his odds.

Another notable runner is Caracortado, who returned from a long layoff to win a six furlong turf allowance race in sharp fashion. My picks for this race are Noble’s Promise to win, with Twirling Candy for second and Don Tito for third.

LA BREA STAKES The La Brea Stakes has attracted a large field of 13 sophomore fillies, led by Switch and Champagne d’Oro. Switch ran second to Zenyatta in the Lady’s Secret Stakes in October before finishing a strong second to Dubai Majesty in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Champagne d’Oro won a pair of grade I races during the summer, but failed as the mild favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, finishing fourth. But she was wide and unable to get to the lead that day and should run better on Sunday.

In a race filled with speed, it would come as a surprise to me if a closer didn’t get a piece of the money. That’s why I believe that Always a Princess, winner of the Indiana Oaks, will rally in time for a top three finish. She has proven herself over a sloppy track and if it continues to rain at Santa Anita she should run just fine. I’m going to go with Switch to win, based off of her fine form all year long. Champagne d’Oro is a very nice filly and I’ll take her for second, with Always a Princess for third.

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