Analysis: Would synthetic at Santa Anita scare away bettors?

November 20, 2019 11:19am
In light of safety concerns about Santa Anita Park's dirt surface, the prospects of a return to racing there over a synthetic track are growing. And from a handicapper's perspective, that's a tough sell.

Although betting wisely on racing is always difficult, having to do so for horses on synthetic takes it to a new level. The style of synthetic racing and other factors make it difficult to wager on, especially if horses are transitioning from dirt races at neighboring tracks.

The first rule is that synthetic racing is not the same as dirt. Santa Anita tried two synthetic surfaces from 2007 to 2010, starting off with the Cushion Track that brought it in line with now-defunct Hollywood Park. But after some drainage problems, Santa Anita switched to Pro-Ride in 2008.

Del Mar used the more popular Polytrack, which racetracks east of the Rockies including Turfway Park and Keeneland ran on as well. Canada's Woodbine currently uses Tapeta, developed by the trainer Michael Dickinson.

Although there are different types of synthetics, for the most part they all take the main track a step closer to turf racing. Out in California, our turf horses and Europeans suddenly could take races normally won by dirt horses.

For example, Raven's Pass won the 2008 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita after making his 11 previous starts in Europe. Fellow European Henrythenavigator ran second, while dirt star Curlin faded to fourth.

Why did this happen?

In dirt racing, the race is typically won on the far turn by speed or tactical speed horses. They create separation and make it difficult on closers.

The separation on the far turn is less common in turf racing.

As seen above, the field became tightly-packed like in most turf races as Curlin unwound his move outside. Curlin led by a head at the top of the stretch. But with eight other horses within a measly 4 ¾ lengths of him, he was passed in the stretch by two European turf horses and even Tiago.

Think about how Zenyatta won her races on synthetic. Except in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic, her competitors usually put up slow fractions. But in the process, the fields bunched up like in turf races and she circled them.

With those examples in mind, it might seem easy to just choose Europeans or horses with good late speed, especially during the Breeders' Cup.

But other synthetic fields might include mostly dirt horses with no synthetic experience, and no European stars to fall back on either. In those cases, how do bettors know which horses like synthetic? It's a guessing game.

Granted, if every racetrack in California switched back to synthetic, there would be more consistency for handicappers. But there are no indications that Santa Anita's southern California counterparts, Del Mar and Los Alamitos, are thinking that way.

Synthetic races at Santa Anita would become confusing with horses so regularly switching surfaces and likely drive away bettors.

Think about how difficult the cards are up north during the California fair season, when tracks such as Pleasanton, Santa Rosa and Sacramento open. Because most of those horses come out of synthetic races at Golden Gate Fields, it makes almost every race feel like a guess.

If Santa Anita switches back to synthetic, the same scenario applies. On major race days such as the Breeders' Cup, you'd have proven synthetic horses on the grounds But on a day-to-day basis, these initial cards especially would be impossible to handicap correctly.

With the style of synthetic racing closer to turf and the uncertainty of surface switches, bettors could become turned off and look elsewhere. Then we might begin the same cycle of talking about a return to dirt. Otherwise, why did Santa Anita and Del Mar switch back in the first place?

But what's important to note this time is, in addition to providing an apparently safer setting for racing, synthetic surfaces can offer some betting-related edges if handicappers could figure the surface out.

For one, synthetic surfaces attract larger fields more often than not. The fields are not necessarily quality ones, but higher in entries because turf horses fill them out. Most bettors prefer large fields for better value.

Handicappers who prefer synthetic racing will cash in as the rest of the public struggles to make sense of the different racing style.

If synthetic racing is safer than dirt, then it is hard to argue with those who want the synthetic era to return to Santa Anita. At the end of the day, the safety and well-being of horses is more important than cashing bets now more than ever.

However, the debate over whether dirt or synthetic is safer is an ongoing discussion. It is possible Santa Anita can continue improving upon the safety of its dirt.

If it's possible to better tune in Santa Anita's main track -- the deep, tiring makeup of it currently is not a longterm fix -- that's the preferred option for this handicapper. Bettors would not need to drastically change their approach, nor will they feel like most races are a complete guessing game. 


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