New Turf Chute Will Give Santa Anita Extra Sprint Options

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Santa Anita Park has broken ground on a new turf chute adjacent to the main dirt track's seven-furlong chute that will allow sprints up to 6 1/2 furlongs to be conducted on the grass oval.

The new configuration won't be ready in time for the upcoming meet that commences Sept. 19. But once the extension is completed, track management is going to consider reopening the currently closed 6 1/2-furlong downhill turf course for select usage.

Aidan Butler, the chief strategy officer and executive director of California racing operations for The Stronach Group (TSG), which owns Santa Anita, detailed the plans during Thursday's California Horse Racing Board tele-meeting.

“We have just been granted the authority by the Arcadia planning [officials] to actually build a second chute for the turf racing,” Butler said. “A best guesstimation is we may be able to get it ready for the [Dec. 26] race meet. Our intent is to not only have a 6 1/2-[furlong] start on the turf oval, but to actually have a six-furlong [start]. So that then would give us five-eighths, 5 1/2, six furlongs, and 6 1/2 on the turf oval.

Butler said TSG would then begin to formulate plans for getting back up and running on Santa Anita's distinctive downhill turf course, “potentially bringing that back slowly and keeping it [available] for special purposes.”

Until the 2018 autumn meet, Santa Anita had never carded turf sprints that started on the back straight. But that October the racing department began writing some grass sprints for the first time at five furlongs to give greater flexibility in race distances.

Then came the 2019 winter/spring meet that produced a 30-horse fatality crisis at Santa Anita. At that time, track management flagged the downhill turf course as a safety concern and closed it after the death of a sprinter who suffered a catastrophic injury on the portion of the configuration that crosses the main dirt track and rejoins the inside of the grass home straight at the top of the stretch.

Turf sprints for the remainder of the 2019 spring meet were carded for five furlongs, starting on the back straightaway like at most other North American tracks.

When Santa Anita hosted the 2019 Breeders' Cup World Championships in November, both the GI Turf Sprint and the GII Juvenile Turf Sprint were changed from 6 1/2 furlongs down the hill to five furlongs on the oval.

After building a chute to accommodate a 5 1/2-furlong start point for turf sprints that actually begins on a portion of the main track, Santa Anita then started carding those races up until closing day of the 2020 spring season.

“What we've found is that the 6 1/2 [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.”

Aesthetics aside, Butler added that having two additional start points saves wear and tear on the course itself, which gets chewed up from horses blasting out of the starting gate at sprint distances.

“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 6 furlongs, we think it's good for the horsemen and good for the opportunities for owners.”

Alan Balch, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, told the CHRB the move would indeed be a “great step” forward.

“I went out and looked at it this morning. It's well underway,” Balch said. “That's going to add a tremendous amount of options and variety to the racing program, especially given how much more as a proportion of overall racing is on the turf…. Particularly in conjunction with the specialized use, we hope [to] return sometime [to the use of] the full hillside.”

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