Santa Anita Picks, Tips and Handicapping

Santa Anita Park

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There are numerous reasons why Santa Anita Park is known as “The Great Race Place”. It’s as picturesque as any racetrack you will find in the United States, with the stunning San Gabriel Mountains looking down on the track, the backstretch is framed in natural beauty.

The art deco inspired grandstand is also one of the best in the nation, as is the track’s European style paddock. All advantages aside, though most of all, Santa Anita is about great racing.

As the West Coast’s premier racetrack, Santa Anita hosts some of the best racing events in the United States during early fall, winter, and spring. It is home to numerous important and historic races throughout the year, led by the Santa Anita Derby and the Santa Anita Handicap, also known as the “Big Cap”.

It has also become the most common destination for the year-end world championships. In 2019, Santa Anita hosted the Breeders’ Cup for a record tenth time. You can find all our expert Santa Anita picks right here.

Fast Facts

  • Location: Arcadia, California
  • Built in: 1934
  • Owned by: The Stronach Group
  • Track Type: Main track dirt – Inner track turf
  • Dirt Track Length: One mile
  • Turf Track Length: 7/8 of a mile
  • Capacity: 60,000 (Including infield)
  • The Santa Anita Derby is restricted to horses 3-years-old
  • Santa Anita Derby stakes record: 3 horses share the record at 1:47 – Lucky Debonair (1965), Sham (1973) and Indian Charlie (1998)
  • The Santa Anita Handicap is open to all horses 3-years-old and up
  • Santa Anita Handicap stakes record: Game On Dude (2014) 1:58.17
  • Major Events: Santa Anita Derby, Santa Anita Handicap, Santa Anita Oaks, Malibu Stakes, La Brea Stakes, Hollywood Gold Cup, Beholder Mile, American Pharoah Stakes, Awesome Again Stakes, Zenyatta Stakes, Shoemaker Mile, Breeders’ Cup (10 times in its 36-year history)

Santa Anita Park At a Glance

Located approximately 23 miles northeast of downtown, Los Angeles, Santa Anita Park has been the premier racetrack of the West Coast since its opening more than eight decades ago.

When many of the colder weather tracks are no place to be during the winter months, Santa Anita is a western oasis for race fans. Favorable weather throughout the year makes the racetrack not only a popular place to stable and run during the winter months, but a location to enjoy racing the entire year.

The venue itself is one of the most beautiful racetracks in the United States. Nestled in the foothills of the picturesque San Gabriel Mountains, the grandstand looks out on an excellent racetrack, with a backdrop that easily can be called the finest of any track in America.

While it does not boast any of the Triple Crown series, Santa Anita can rival any track in the nation for quality from the beginning of the calendar to the end. Meets in the Winter, spring, and fall all welcome Grade 1 racing and horses to the track, with important races during each time frame.

Because of all its attributes, Santa Anita has become the most popular racetrack to host the Breeders’ Cup. With ten runnings held there since its first in 1986, it holds the record for most editions hosted.

Santa Anita Park History

Following the legalization of pari-mutuel gambling in 1933, a San Francisco dentist Dr. Charles H. Strub, and a Hollywood movie mogul, Hal Roach, joined forces to form the Los Angeles Turf Club, which soon after created the new Santa Anita Park. A racetrack by the same name had been opened up nearly three decades before but was short-lived.

What we now know as Santa Anita Park opened for racing on Christmas Day in 1934, and despite the Great Depression, quickly became a success. The inaugural running of the Santa Anita Handicap came in 1935 carrying a purse of $100,000, the largest amount ever at the time. The big race was won by Azucar, and ever since it has been known as the “Big Cap”.

Racing was suspended in 1942 due to World War II, and Santa Anita was used as a holding center for Japanese Americans excluded from the West Coast. The track reopened in 1945 and soon regained its place as one of America’s finest places for racing.

After a major renovation to the facility took place in the 1960s, expanding the grandstand and adding seating additions, Del Mar Racetrack, a couple of hours to the south, relinquished their fall racing dates in 1968.

A non-profit Oak Tree Racing Association was created, and it became the operator of the fall meet which was held at Santa Anita Park. This important meeting hosted many important races and was done so as the annual Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita until 2009.

When Oak Tree disbanded and Santa Anita ran its own fall meeting, many familiar stakes races, which were formerly associated with Oak Tree, were renamed. Races such as the Goodwood, Yellow Ribbon, Lady’s Secret, Norfolk, and Oak Leaf, became the Awesome Again, Rodeo Drive, Zenyatta, FrontRunner and Chandelier respectively.

After the closing of Hollywood Park, Santa Anita began adding more racing cards in 2014, taking the place of their old spring dates from late April until June.

Traditions of Santa Anita Park

With weather, location, and surroundings to die for, it’s no wonder why Santa Anita has been such a popular fixture in American racing since its inception. For nearly a century, it’s been the track to run not only for the West Coast’s finest horses, but also top runners, jockeys, and trainers from around the globe. It also offers a unique flare that sets it apart from any other track in the United States.

Hollywood at the Track

Santa Anita, just a short distance from Hollywood, has always had deep ties to celebrities. From the early days, the rich and famous have always frequented the races at Santa Anita. In fact, among its initial investors included stars such as Hal Roach, Bing Crosby, and Al Jolson. Many cinema and TV celebrities have also tried their hand in owning racehorses, running their horses at the Arcadia oval over the years. The track can also be seen in major motion pictures like A Day at the Races, A Star is Born, Seabiscuit, as well as numerous other movies and television shows.

Down the Hill

One of the more unique features of the racing itself is the signature downhill turf course at Santa Anita. The European style course has features unlike anywhere else in American racing with both a rare right turn and crossing through the dirt track before hitting the home stretch.

Infield Open to the Fans

Blessed with the beautiful weather of the San Gabriel Valley, Santa Anita offers one of the most fan-friendly environments to watch the races, and one of the highlights is the infield. The multi-acre infield offers an outdoor park-like setting, including spacious picnic areas, food and drinks, and wagering windows. It also provides the opportunity for guests to create events of all types – from carnivals and picnics to elegant seated dinners with reception areas. And of course, it’s all surrounded by the excitement of top-notch Thoroughbred racing.

Corned Beef on Rye

A trip to Santa Anita would not be complete without a good meal, and their Grade One carving station features perhaps the finest sandwiches you can find at an American racetrack. Options include a roasted turkey, as well as a slow-roasted prime rib, but the star of the show is probably Santa Anita’s famous corned beef.

626 Night Market

Santa Anita is the flagship host of the original and largest Asia-inspired night market in the United States. 626 Night Market is an annual food festival located in the 626 area code region of San Gabriel Valley, northeast of Los Angeles. The 3-day night market draws up to 100,000 attendees with more than 250 participating food, merchandise, and craft vendors, as well as art and music attractions. It is believed to be the largest such market in the United States.

The Breeders’ Cup

As the most frequent host to the Breeders’ Cup, Santa Anita has been the site of some unforgettable editions of the world championships, including Zenyatta’s unbelievable rally to roll by her competition, becoming the only female ever to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2009.

Early on in Breeders’ Cup history, Santa Anita fans saw another great Breeders’ Cup female, when Lady’s Secret went wire to wire in the 1986 edition of the Distaff. It was the race that clinched the Horse of the Year title for racing’s “Iron Lady”.

Who can ever forget the biggest upset in Breeders’ Cup history? It happened at Santa Anita when the French runner Arcangues shocked the world by winning the 1993 edition of the Classic at odds of 133-to-1!

More recently, the champion older mare Beholder got up in the shadow of the wire to win the 2016 edition of the Distaff. The epic stretch battle between champions came at the direct expense of the previously undefeated 3-year-old filly Songbird. That same year, the mighty, but ill-fated Arrogate won the Classic with a big late burst to defeat the heavily favored older champion California Chrome.

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Legends of Santa Anita Park

Over the years, many of the greatest horses in the history of American racing have been stabled at Santa Anita to compete at “The Great Race Place”. Below are some of its’ greatest heroes.

Seabiscuit

Seabiscuit was the first horse to become a legend at Santa Anita. A multiple champion and Horse of the Year who came from very modest beginnings. He famously trounced the East Coast superstar and Triple Crown winner War Admiral in a match race at Pimlico, but it was at “The Great Race Place” where he was most beloved. His memorable efforts in the Santa Anita Handicap were a big reason why.

In his first try in the “Big Cap”, Seabiscuit lost by a nose in the 1937 edition, before coming back one week later to win the San Juan Capistrano by seven lengths. He returned for another try as a true champion by that time in 1938, but again lost by a nose while giving the winner of the 18-horse field 30 pounds. A serious injury kept him out the following year, before his triumphant return in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. There he defeated the defending champion in what would turn out to be his final career race.

Silky Sullivan

Silky Sullivan may not have been quite the champion as the other legends on this list, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more popular runner. With a running style seldom ever seen, the “California Comet” often came from hopelessly behind before kicking in his incredible late rally to win. Perhaps his biggest career win came when Silky Sullivan fell nearly 30 lengths behind in the 1958 edition of the Santa Anita Derby.

In front of a record crowd of more than 61,000, the late-running son of Sullivan left the crowd in amazement, falling that far behind in the early stages. But when his rider Willie Shoemaker asked him for speed, his charge responded, and then some. Silky Sullivan won the big race going away by 3 ½-lengths.

Affirmed

Though based on the East Coast as a juvenile, Affirmed quickly became a California favorite early in his 3-year-old season. Winning his first three races at Santa Anita, including an eight-length victory in the Santa Anita Derby, the Laz Barrera-trained chestnut embarked on a magical sophomore season which would see him sweep the Triple Crown over his great rival Alydar.

The following season he began his second Horse of the Year season with four straight races at Santa Anita, which included romping victories in the Strub Stakes and the  Santa Anita Handicap. In the latter, he set the track by running 10 furlongs in 1:58 ⅕.

John Henry

The bargain-basement horse that nobody wanted, the son of Ole Bob Bowers developed into one of the greatest geldings in American racing history. Based in Southern California with trainer Ron McAnally for much of his career, John Henry competed in 20 stake races over the years at Santa Anita and won 12 of them. In fact, if you only count earning from the Arcadia track alone, he earned nearly $1.7 million.

The Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984, John Henry won many of Santa Anita’s most important races for older horses on both turf and dirt, including multiple victories in the Santa Anita Handicap, Oak Tree Turf Championship, and San Luis Rey Handicap.

Zenyatta

Only one female horse has ever won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and her name is Zenyatta. In fact, the big mare won Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita Park in two consecutive years, winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 2008, before beating the boys in the Classic the following year.

Overall the great daughter of Street Cry raced six times at Santa Anita and won every time. All were in graded stakes, and five of the six were Grade 1. Arguably the most beloved horse so far of the 21st century, Zenyatta is now just one of three horses to be honored with a statue in the paddock of Santa Anita where she joins racing warriors Seabiscuit and John Henry.

Notable Jockeys and Trainers

On the human side, the legendary Willie Shoemaker had a remarkable run of 17 consecutive riding titles at Santa Anita. The amazing streak began in 1951, and included winning mounts on many of the greatest horses to run at “The Great Race Place”.  A winner of 11 total Triple Crown races, “the Shoe” stuck around, winning big races all the way until his ultimate retirement in 1990.

Shoemaker’s training counterpart is Bob Baffert who has won 15 Triple Crown races and counting. The Arizona native has made Santa Anita his base for more than three decades and has been a dominant figure in the track’s biggest stakes races for more than a quarter-century. The trainer of two Triple Crown winners in American Pharoah and Justify, Baffert has won both the Santa Anita Derby and the American Pharoah Stakes a record nine times each.

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