Santa Anita to reopen downhill turf course for first time since 2019

Medina Spirit holds off Roman Centurian and Hot Rod Charlie to win the Robert B. Lewis Stakes.
Medina Spirit, right and jockey Abel Cedillo, right, hold off Roman Centurian, ridden by Juan Hernandez, left, and Hot Rod Charlie, ridden by Joel Rosario, to win the Grade III, $100,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes horse race on Jan. 30 at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia.
(Benoit Photo / Associated Press)

Racing will be returning to Santa Anita’s signature downhill turf course for sprint races on Oct. 1 after a 2½-year moratorium that stretches back to the track’s industry-changing spike in fatalities in 2019. The first sprint to be run on the 6½-furlong course will be the Grade 2 $200,000 Eddie D Stakes, named for Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, on opening day of the track’s 16-day fall meeting.

Santa Anita plans to use it on a limited basis for four turf sprint stakes and an unspecified number of allowance races. The flat turf course will also be used for sprints between 4½ and 6½ furlongs. Other stakes scheduled for the hillside course include the $75,000 Unzip Me Stakes on Oct. 3, the $100,000 California Distaff Handicap on Oct. 16 and the $100,000 California Flag Handicap on Oct. 17.

Racing on the course was suspended after Arms Runner, in the San Simeon Stakes, had a life-ending breakdown on the 80-foot dirt crossing at the bottom of the course on March 31, 2019.


Tim Ritvo, then-chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, tried to reinstitute racing down the hill before the fall meeting in 2019 but received pushback from the California Horse Racing Board. Ritvo has since left the company, replaced by Aiden Butler.

“Our fans, horsemen and Eddie Delahoussaye himself have told us they’d love to see a return to racing down the European-style course which has been unique to Santa Anita for more than six decades,” Butler said Wednesday.

Bold and Bossy, an Ellis Park horse, escaped from the track Saturday; Sunday morning, a track barn burned to the ground. There were no serious injuries.

Aug. 22, 2021

The downhill course was the vision of Dr. Charles Strub, the track’s owner, in the early 1950s, who wanted something very different. Gwynn Wilson, the track’s general manager at the time, studied European tracks and came up with the configuration of the downhill course.

It’s the only track in North America that has a slight right turn, which happens shortly out of the gate. Because of space limitations, races are listed as “about 6½ furlongs” as the distance is actually 6.4022 furlongs. Despite the optics being a big drop in elevation the difference between the top of the course and the finish line is only 29 feet.

At the time of the closure of the downhill course to sprints, a 10-year average showed a fatality rate of 2.87 every 1,000 starts on the downhill course compared to 2.3 on the flat turf course. Since 2019, TSG has instituted, and the CHRB has mandated, a series of safety measures that has greatly reduced the number of horse deaths.

The downhill course has been used since its closure to sprints for longer turf races where the horses have to pass through the homestretch twice and aren’t going very fast at the start of the race.