Santa Anita Park began construction on a new turf chute that allows the track to create more turf sprint races of varying distances. The track also announced it may reinstitute sprint races on its hallmark downhill turf course, which closed in March 2019.

Santa Anita New Turf Chute
Horses prepare to tackle the 80-foot dirt crossing on Santa Anita Park’s unique downhill turf course. Closed since March 2019, that course may reopen as the track builds a new turf chute on the first turn. (Image: Wikiwand)

The Southern California track announced the renovations during a California Horse Racing Board conference call Thursday afternoon. Aidan Butler, the chief strategy officer and executive director of California racing operations for Santa Anita owner, The Stronach Group, said the new turf chute won’t be ready for the fall meet, which begins on Sept. 19.

But he did say it will be ready by early 2021, which puts it in the mix during Santa Anita’s lengthy winter/spring meet, beginning on Dec. 26 and running into mid-June.

Once the new configuration is complete, Santa Anita can write turf sprints at six-furlong and 6 ½-furlong distances. Currently, the track’s dimensions and the closure of the unique downhill turf course mandate five- and 5 ½-furlong sprints that begin and end on the grass oval.

At last year’s Breeders’ Cup, which Santa Anita hosted for the 10th time, both the Turf Sprint and Juvenile Turf Sprint went from 6 ½ furlongs down the hillside to five furlongs on the oval.

Downhill Turf Course May Return

“Our intent is to not only have a 6 ½-(furlong) start on the turf oval, but to actually have a six-furlong (start). So that then would give us five-eighths, 5 ½, six furlong, and 6 ½ on the turf oval,” Butler told the CHRB commissioners.

One of Santa Anita’s unique racing features is its downhill turf course. The 6 ½-furlong course begins up a gradual hill alongside Santa Anita’s infield, brings the horses down a grassy hill before crossing them over a portion of the main dirt track. After that 80-foot dirt jaunt, horses rejoin the turf at the top of the stretch.

Santa Anita officials closed the downhill turf course in March 2019 during that season’s nightmarish winter/spring meet where 30 horses died. Arms Runner’s breakdown in the Grade 3 San Simeon Stakes led to his euthanization and subsequent closure of the course.

Sprint Races Particularly Hard on the Turf Course

Butler said the downhill turf course may re-join the racing schedule “for special purposes.” Along with the new chute on the first turn, this gives Santa Anita more starting-point options. That, in turn, produces less wear and tear on the turf course, especially for sprint races.

“What we’ve found is that the 6 ½ (furlongs) down the hill is potentially overutilized in our mindset,” Butler told the CHRB commissioners. “It’s such a spectacular race and we believe it should remain a spectacular race.”

Big-picture wise, this provides options for horsemen, who can get better reads on their charges’ sweet-spot distances. Some horses simply fire better at shorter or longer distances. A great five-furlong or 5 ½-furlong sprinter may struggle at 6 ½ furlongs, and vice-versa. It also provides handicappers another way of culling the herd while examining a race.

“So having both (options), if we can, down the hill and on the oval, will give us a lot more programmability,” Butler said. “And with the extra starting distances, primarily six furlongs, we think it’s good for the horsemen and good for the opportunities for owners.”