Horse Racing Track & Ground Types
Do you think that every horse race is run on grass? Well, this is not correct. Outside of the UK, in fact, the vast majority of races are not on grass but are on dirt or even on sand in some more exotic places. In the UK and in the US lots of races are on synthetic which allows racing with any weather but those are a bit of a different beast compared with traditional courses, and we will look into more details here.
We have looked at how the surfaces can change from a day to another and what effect can have on racing results. Punters rightly put a lot of efforts to study the form and conditions of horses, but it is imperative also to analyse carefully what is the ground as this will impact the outcome of a race significantly.
Turf & Grass Horse Racing
Turf – Very Variable Surface, Common in Europe & UK
Grass track is one of the most common in the UK, Europe and lots of rather temperate climates. As long as there is a good alternate of rain and sun during the year, turf is the best for horse races: not only give a cushioned surface for horses that they can run on, but it is also perfect for both flat racing and jump. Turf is also that kind of surface that has the right frictional properties to take off after landing from a jump quickly.
Turf conditions have had a direct effect on when the flat and jump racing seasons are taking place in Europe. Flat races are usually run over the summer when turf usually is firmer: this allows for high-speed racing to happen. During the winter months, racing will switch to jump season as the softer ground is better to reduce the impacts seen during steeplechases and hurdles races.
Grass Has Benefits
So, as we can see grass has lots of benefits as it is a very variable surface that can deliver different outcomes, hard or soft, depending on how the weather is. Since each horse prefers different ground conditions understanding what weather we will have during the race can provide vital insights into the final result.
In horse racing terminology, track condition is called ‘going’. This will tell how firm the ground is and it is measured in the UK and Ireland by a penetrometer which does exactly what it says on the tin: it describes what the force needed to penetrate the ground is. When the ground is very dry, it is called ‘hard’, dry ground is called ‘firm’, then moving down on the scale we have good, good to firm. The wet ground can be either soft or good to soft and if the course is very wet then it is called heavy.
New Synthetic tracks do offer a lot more predictable conditions, and in that sense, the impact of the ground on horses should be the same. They are also proven to reduce those falls and injuries that are due to the turf irregularities. For punters, though this is not really an advantage as with less variation in the races bookmakers have potentially a better job in making the book.
Turf, however, will continue to be the primary ground type for the top horse racing meetings both in the UK and Europe. It is very unlikely that classic races like the Cheltenham Gold Cup, The Grand National, St Leger or The Epsom Derby will take place on a synthetic course. Having said that, more and more courses are now featuring both turf and synthetic: this permits them to have a broader range of racing opportunities.
Sand, Mud and Dirt Horse Racing Tracks
Dirt – Common in US & Canada It Is Faster When Dry
When very firm dirty is without any doubts the fastest of all track surfaces. You will find dirt in most tracks in North & South America. Even though some classic races are run on turf, dirt is prevalent in the USA, Canada and Japan. Dirt is also used in the UAE, but in this country, due to the temperature they also have sand tracks.
Usually, dirt is used on tracks situated in areas where the grass is more difficult to maintain like dryer climates or where rain is not frequent. Dirt is significantly faster than grass as it can be dryer and also less slippery which makes things easier when taking off and landing.
In the US the tradition is to run on dirt courses like for example the famous Kentucky Derby. We have to mention that there are also some good turf meetings and the majority of courses tend to have both turf or synthetic in addition to dirt tracks. This is mostly due to the dirt track which is popular amongst American’s.
The majority of dirt surfaces are a combination of sand and mud with the mix that generally reflects the location where the track is situated: in the US it is more mud while in the UAE is more sand.
Even though generally dirt tracks are a lot more predictable than turf, a level of unpredictability is coming from the mixture of dirt and sand. The depth of the dirt and also what is below (ground or asphalt) can have a direct influence on the speed and others factors.
For dirt track, the terminology used is the US ones as this is the location where dirt racing is most popular. A dry track is indicated as fast while a moist track is either good or wet fast. Wet courses are called muddy while very wet dirt races are called sloppy or slow.
Some tracks are called ‘sealed’ to indicate that has been built to allow maximum water runoff with absorption that will be minimal. Usually, the majority of dirt tracks are dry or moist. Wet racing is unlikely to happen like in Europe although it does depend on the location of the track and also the period of the year.
A significant disadvantage of dirt is that is a lot more deadly than turf as it is more fast and dangerous. In comparison, there are 178 deaths for every 100,000 races on dirt compared with 122 on grass and 118 on synthetic.
Synthetic, All Weather and Artificial Racing Tracks
Synthetic – the safest but very variable between tracks
Synthetic courses can mimic both turf and dirt and as you would expect turf-like surfaces are more common in Europe while dirt-like tracks in the US. Having said that you can find both the types in both countries. They are designed to be more resistant to weather, and for this reason, the majority of those tracks are called ‘all-weather surfaces’: this is because they do a better job in more challenging situations than the natural tracks.
The majority of artificial tracks are made with a mixture of natural or synthetic fibres and sand plus rubber and wax. The combination of all these materials can create very different outcomes, and this is why it is challenging to measure the effect of different tracks on horses performances. Below are some examples of different artificial tracks:
Polytrack – this is mostly used in the UK and Ireland and it made by a mixture of sand and fibres that have been taken from old rubber and carpets.
ProRide – this is an artificial surface that resembles dirt. It is made from sand with the addition of nylon and spandex fibres. It is mostly used in Australia.
Tapeta – This is US artificial dirt-like track which is made from sand and rubber and also has other fibres and Wax. It is generally between 4 and 7 inches deep and below has asphalt.
Rashit-Track – this is usually used in Russia as it is very resistant and can stand temperatures from -40 to +65 degrees. The track is made of a mix of sand and recycled fibres and textiles.
In addition to the components, the track is made from it is also important to consider the depth of material and the base on which the track is built. Artificial surfaces usually are more predictable than turf but less than dirt: so they are sitting in the middle between turf and dirt concerning predictability.
One of the main advantages is the low death rate of horses and also the reduced number of races that are cancelled due to bad weather. In the UK and Ireland, all-weather racing is termed: this means that if dry it will be fast and if most it will be standard-fast. If wet it will be standard to standard-low and slow if it is very wet.
First Synthetic Turf
The first synthetic turf was created in 1966 at Florida’s Tropical Park. The surface was very plastic and didn’t have great success. The first dirt-like artificial track was built at Meadows Racetrack in 1963 and again wasn’t a positive result, and it was replaced by a natural surface in 1975.
The fact that all the top horse races are still on natural tracks highlight that there are still issues with artificial surfaces. They surely have lots of benefits, but they still are not an exact replacement of grass or dirt. It is a bit like artificial pitches in football: they will be used where it is impossible to have grass due to weather, but it is clear they are not as good as the natural one. Maybe one day all horse racing will be on artificial turf but for the time being, it is just a nice addition to true racing which is done on natural surfaces.