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    Horse racing: The price isn’t right for Santa Anita bettors
    • March 14, 2024

    Horseplayers at Santa Anita have a problem this season that non-gamblers might find puzzling.

    It’s too easy to pick winners.

    Betting favorites are winning 46% of the races since the meet opened Dec. 26. That’s much higher than normal in thoroughbred racing (about 33%), than the highest for any of Santa Anita’s 85 previous winter-spring seasons (38.9% in 2016-17), than at this stage of last season at Santa Anita (34%), than at Del Mar last summer (37%), than at Golden Gate Fields in the San Francisco Bay Area (37%), and than the next-highest such figure at a major North American track now in season (39% at Gulfstream Park near Miami).

    “It’s incredibly high,” said Jon Lindo, the veteran public handicapper, radio broadcaster and racehorse owner.

    An outsider might think this sounds good. Lots of winning favorites mean more predictable racing. More predictable racing means fans can pick more winners and cash more tickets. Cashing tickets is what it’s all about, no?

    Not exactly. Many racing fans choose this form of gambling for the potential to bet a little and win a lot by backing horses to win at tantalizing high odds and multiplying would-be payoffs with multi-horse and multi-race wagers.

    That potential shrinks when too many short-priced favorites come in. The average odds for a winner at Santa Anita (4.06-1) are nearly a dollar lower than is typical at other major tracks, and average payoffs here for pick-threes, fours, fives and sixes are lower too, based on statistics from Bloodstock Research Information Services.

    Why is this happening? What does it mean for racing fans? How can bettors make the best of the situation?

    I threw those questions out to people with various racetrack perspectives, and their answers are clarifying if not reassuring.

    Basically, favorites’ sky-high win percentage is an accurate reflection of the challenges Santa Anita faces in putting together competitive races.

    That challenge begins with the general decline in thoroughbred breeding, the horse shortage compounded in California by the lack of other nearby major tracks to draw equine talent from and the lack of the on-site casinos that supplement race purses at many American tracks.

    Race fields are smaller than they used to be, raising the win percentage for any single horse, not just favorites. A few “supertrainers” now manage many of the best runners at major tracks, and they can afford to wait for the softest spots and even dictate which races “fill” by entering more than one horse. Certain types of races are most popular at the entry box, leading them to be carded with the same contenders over and over, making them a little too easy to handicap.

    One factor that’s different at Santa Anita in 2024 is the unusually rainy winter. Under current protocols, training is curtailed in inclement weather, which further reduces the number of horses ready to race.

    Trainer Phil D’Amato noted that favorites’ win percentages are different from surface to surface and condition to condition. By my count, favorites are winning at 52% in dirt (main-track) races at Santa Anita, 41% in turf races. Claiming races are the only category of races in which favorites are winning at a significantly higher percentage on turf than on dirt.

    “Everybody knows Bob Baffert(-trained) maidens on the dirt (are contenders to win),” D’Amato said.

    By my count, though, Baffert-trained favorites in dirt maiden races are only 2 for 10 this season. Nothing is simple in this game.

    Betting on all of the favorites actually would have been a marginally profitable strategy on some recent days. But favorites are by definition the horses that get the most public money, and making a go of betting on races in the long run requires finding winners the crowd isn’t. Fans should be more picky about which races to play, though that’s worthwhile advice at any track, anytime.

    Santa Anita morning-line maker Jon White says the unusual reliability of favorites should make bettors more confident in “singling” short-priced horses in multi-race bets.

    White also advises expecting the favorites’ win percentage to come back to normal as Santa Anita races through June 16.

    “The law of averages suggests that’s a distinct possibility,” White said.

    Lindo said he’s looking beyond Arcadia to bets like the Coast to Coast Pick 5, which combines races from Santa Anita and Gulfstream (with a relatively low 15% takeout).

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    One bit of good news about a high favorites’ win percentage is that more fans get money back on their bets more often, allowing more cash to “churn” through the parimutuel economy.

    But overall, less competitive racing is a problem.

    “I don’t see a short-term fix, and I’ve thought about this a lot,” Lindo said.

    It’s the elephant in the room at Santa Anita, and the elephant is odds-on.

    Follow Kevin Modesti on Twitter (formerly X) @KevinModesti.

    ​ Orange County Register