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Differences Between Horse Racing Track Surfaces

Race Track

The greatest sports minds keep things simple. Others get lost in the fog. In Vince Lombardi’s first meeting with the Green Bay Packers, he asked a player what a power sweep had been called under the previous coach. When told it was called “Double X Inside-Outside Grace Pop,” the great tactician frowned. “From now on, we’ll call it 28,” he said. Winners believe in the basics.

Don’t say the word “basic” to a bookie with a calculator sitting in front of him. True enough, horse racing betting strategy can be based on subtle factors and complex math. How do a Thoroughbred’s Beyer Speed times stack up with others who have won similar sweepstakes? Do a jockey and trainer get along? Are the jumps in a steeplechase shaped too much like food? In case it sounds like we made that one up, we didn’t. It’s an annual debate at the Cheltenham Festival in England.

Yet not enough handicappers ask the simple questions.

  • Where are the horses racing?
  • What kind of surface are they racing on?
  • Are the tracks always consistent, or are some of them unpredictable even in fine conditions?
  • How does weather affect each kind of track?

It’s hard to find reviews of horse racing track surfaces all in one place. But not at! Scroll below for our guide to how a racetrack’s footing affects which animals – and which gamblers – win or lose.

Track Surfaces for Horses Around the World

In the movie Secretariat, the 1973 Belmont Stakes was portrayed as having been run on a synthetic surface. That was a blunder by Disney. There were no synthetic Thoroughbred horse racing tracks in the early ‘70s.

But it was still a pretty good movie, right? Track surface is an easy thing to overlook. Bettors can’t afford such oversight, however. Here are 3 types of Thoroughbred tracks which are currently popular in North America, Europe, and the Middle East.

Thoroughbreds on Dirt Tracks in America

DirtDirt tracks were the first common flat horse racing surfaces in western society. Dirt remains the most common type of track used in the United States. Dirt is more affordable than any artificial surface and even more affordable than maintaining grass.

Unlike other running and racing sports, natural surfaces create conditions in which Thoroughbreds run faster on average than on synthetic surfaces. That’s a far different scenario than human athletes are faced with. Field Turf, Astroturf, or even asphalt is a faster running surface than grass for football and baseball players. But horses are quickest on a real surface. The Serious Dangers of Dirt Tracks

A natural dirt track does not provide much shock absorption. The hard pounding of hooves on unforgiving packed earth can lead to increased stress on a Thoroughbred’s legs. Injuries can occur when horses run on a dirt track too often or without proper training.

Synthetic surfaces have reduced the number of fatal injuries suffered by horses on the track. There is no doubt about it.

12 years ago, the scientific study

“Comparison of racing fatality rates on dirt, synthetic, and turf at California racetracks”

Demonstrated that Thoroughbred deaths went down by 37% after dirt tracks were converted to synthetic surfaces at 4 tracks in the 2000s.

The study collected data from the storied Del Mar, Golden Gate Fields, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita racetracks. The fatality rate was found to be 3.09 fatalities per 1,000 starts on dirt and only 1.95 fatalities per 1,000 starts after conversion.

Some trainers are convinced that synthetic surfaces cause more long-term damage to Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses. The study’s findings did point out that synthetic surfaces can be inconsistent and difficult to maintain. California’s weather is sunny and stable. It’s not always so easy to increase horse safety by maintaining a synthetic track.

Turf Tracks in America and Europe

TurfA “turf” track is a natural grass track, not to be confused with artificial turf in other sports. Turf is the most popular flat track surface in Europe and is favored over the dirt surfaces preferred by American track owners.

The advantage of a turf track is that the horses slide and slip less often and are generally healthier after races as a result. Another advantage is that clods and dust are not being thrown in a horse or jockey’s face from the thundering hooves, as they almost always are on a dry dirt track.

Horses can more easily bunch together on turf tracks. Race times tend to be longer, as the grass will subtly grab and impede the stride of a Thoroughbred. American turf tracks are notorious for being almost unmanageable in the rain, however, and hard rain usually means a delay or cancellation of a sweepstakes.

The legendary Saratoga racetrack has an inner turf course as well as an outer one. Inner turf courses are similar to short-track Go Kart courses or speed skating tracks. Clever jockeys and agile colts can gain an advantage by timing their turns properly and by gaining the inside position.

Synthetic Horse Racing Surfaces

SyntheticThere are 3 main types of synthetic track surfaces: polytrack, tapeta footings, and cushion track.

Polytrack is made out of sand, carpet, spandex, and rubber and is an extremely popular surface. Tapeta footings are built with Tapeta™ mix at the top and a geo-textile membrane or porous blacktop underneath. Drainage layers are built underneath. Cushion track is relatively simple in comparison, a mix of sand, fiber, and wax.

A base of gravel is common to all 3 surfaces. A poly track is especially good at reducing the fatigue of a wet-weather race by limiting the amount of water that can be held saturated in the materials. However, synthetic track surfaces wear out quickly and are expensive to maintain.

How Weather Affects Dirt, Turf, and Synthetic Tracks

Rainy weather can change a horse race on dirt so severely that the analysis of wet tracks has become a science all its own. Even breeding is affected by the importance of weather.

Thoroughbreds whose bloodline includes racehorses who ran well in the mud are known as mudders. Steeplechase horses which have shown to be careless or timid in the rain are not put out to stud as enthusiastically as sires who can handle all conditions.

Here are some surface-condition terms used often by dirt track bettors:

  • Fast Track – Dry, even, and fast
  • Good Track – A little wet, but still pretty fast
  • Wet Fast – Soaked on the surface but still firm under the top layer
  • Muddy Track – Soaked and saturated. Ample amounts of mud
  • Sloppy – Similar to wet fast, “sloppy” describes track conditions which are firm underneath but present horses and jockeys with standing water or slick spots on top of the dirt
  • Slow – Somewhere between sloppy and heavy
  • Heavy – Heavy mud, the slowest possible racing conditions

Turf course conditions are easier to memorize. In order of dry to very wet, the conditions of a steeplechase or flat turf track may be referred to as firm, good, soft, yielding, or heavy.

A design flaw of synthetic tracks is that while they’re designed to help horses by providing more give with each stride, in wet conditions, it is a moot point, as the dirt, nay, mud tracks are soft anyway. Synthetics have also been criticized as not handling the rain as well as engineers claim.

How Track Surfaces Affect Betting Odds and Tactics

Volumes have been written about Thoroughbred betting on different surfaces in varying weather conditions. While we may not be able to replicate that kind of detail here, there a couple rules of thumb that gamblers should keep in mind as they play the ponies.

It doesn’t always matter what a track is made of as much as how much time, money, and effort is kept into keeping the surface consistent. At a local dirt track, rain will have a profound effect on the outcome of races. Mud and synthetic slop can change a big-time track as well, but not always as severely.

For Example

A Tomlinson score combines wet track speeds with pedigree to rank which horses are most likely to glide through a sloppy surface and handle traffic in the mud. The more quality a racing surface, the less important a comparison of Tomlinson scores becomes.

The track at Churchill Downs, on which the Kentucky Derby and other major sweepstakes are contested, is an example of a well-kept track. Irish War Cry was a 6-to-1 horse on Derby Day in 2017 and was touted as a value pick to win when pre-race rains made the track wet and heavy. The colt’s Tomlinson score was superior to those of the other 19 racehorses in Louisville.

But the Derby track’s expert mixture of clay and sand held up well, turning the wet surface into manageable clumps, which the Thoroughbreds easily romped through. Always Dreaming won a fairly quick race despite not being known as a champion mudder.

Another rule is to examine each horse individually and not with a betting system, especially not a system based on track surfaces. All Thoroughbreds are unique.

The trend of gamblers going all-in on the scenery and not the athlete is not just a horse racing phenomenon.

For Example

Some pundits are convinced that the performance of players going from one professional league to another in baseball, basketball, or hockey can be predicted based on strength of competition and statistics alone. “Outfielders Smith and Jones each averaged .350 in Japan,” a baseball tout might say, “so I expect them to each bat between .200 and .300 in Major League Baseball.”

That type of analysis overlooks many factors affecting an athlete who moves across the ocean to play in a new league. It just isn’t as simple as the touts make it out to be.

One widely-hailed betting system for poly tracks is to wager on turf horses to win on the synthetic dirt but not real dirt. Although there may be some truth to the idea that grass specialists race well on poly, the entire angle has also been blown out of proportion.

The betting system has grown to the point where lineage is brought into it. Some bettors feel that turf horses and poly specialists are better at siring future poly winners. But a study undertaken 12 years ago concluded that turf and dirt-track stallions had almost equal chances of siring poly winners.

A quick list of the most successful poly sires includes Crafty Prospector, Fit To Fight, Louis Quartorze, Presidential Order, Storm Boot, and Souvenir Copy. The Derby winner Real Quiet did demonstrate that it is harder for some dirt champions to sire turf or poly winner offspring, fathering only one grass sweepstakes winner during his formidable breeding career.

Final Note: Long-Term Track Surface Trends

How will dirt, grass, and poly tracks continue to develop? We can guess that track owners will continue to perfect ways to keep dirt softer and more forgiving without risking a flood. They’ll keep improving in the poly track-building department, too.


But a more interesting factor is how the 3 types of tracks will change breeding. Athletes in other sports have become more specialized over time. Running backs of ages past were often big, blocky players who could just as easily line up and block with the offensive line.

Not anymore. Tennis players were once expected to handle either a baseline power game or a net-dashing volley-fest. These days, either strategy works on every point, assuming the competitor can pull it off.

Horse breeding will go in a similar direction. Owners and trainers will begin developing Thoroughbreds for one single type of track. Dirt and synthetic dirt are so similar that American flat-track racehorses won’t have any real problems with multiple surfaces.

But breeders will count on the fact that social media and advanced communication make it easier to become rich with a one-trick pony. The days of older racehorses touring the continent and running wherever asked will be over.

Breeding will become so lucrative and specialized that more animals will be put out to stud after 2 years of racing. It won’t be as important to breed versatile horses. Dominating on one track surface or even one type of weather will be enough to turn Godolphin blood into gold.

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Remember, while it’s the horses we tune in to watch on TV, owners and breeders control the sport. The best way to keep a racing animal safe is to make sure he or she is prepared for the challenge every track presents.

The best way will be to limit the variety of surfaces a horse is allowed to run on.

Thoroughbreds are finicky beasts. But 20 years from now, the horses might seem rather easy-going compared to their fussy managers.