Horse Racing Track & Ground Types
Every horse race is run on grass, right? Well, no. Across the world most races are actually not held on grass-courses but rather on dirt tracks, and even sand in many less-temperate countries. In countries like the UK and US many courses are now opening synthetic or semi-synthetic all-weather tracks to accommodate racing year round, whatever the conditions, but how do these compare to traditional courses?
In this article we look at the various ground types that horses run on and how this affects racing speed and results. We also consider which surfaces are the most variable, both within a single course and between racetracks. Considering the effort many put into to studying horse form and conditions it is certainly worth looking at the type of ground races are run on as this can have a big impact on the outcome.
Turf & Grass Courses
This is the most common track type in Europe, and in many other temperate climates. Provided there is a good balance of rain and sun through the year turf is the ideal to run races on. Turf provides a cushioned surface for horses to land on (depending on the going) that makes it perfect for both jump and flat racing. It is also a fast surface with optimal frictional properties for quick take off following landing.
Turf conditions are directly related to the type of racing and has defined the flat and jump racing seasons in Europe for hundreds of years. Flat races are run over the summer months when turf tracks are generally firmer, and this suits high speed thorough bred racing. Over the winter months in Europe racing switches to the jump season with the generally softer ground more suited to the impacts seen in hurdles and steeplechases.
While grass has many benefits for racing it is also the most variable of surfaces with entirely different outcomes depending on whether the ground is hard or soft. Understanding the weather and ground conditions along with what suits individual horses and jockeys is critical to experienced punters. It is very hard for horses to go flat out for long periods on grass so in general on turf courses the strategy is to sprint in the stretches and save energy or jostle for position in other places.
The track condition for grass tracks is often referred to as the 'going'. This reflects how firm the ground is and for official racing in the UK and Ireland is measured by a penetrometer, which does exactly what the name would suggest. It measures how much force is needed to penetrate the ground is known as a 'going stick'. Very dry ground is termed hard, dry ground is firm, slightly moist ground is good or good to firm, wet ground is soft or good to soft (yielding in Ireland) and a very wet course is heavy.
Synthetic tracks (see later) provide more predictable conditions, which in theory levels the playing field. This also reduces falls and injuries by both horse and jockeys, relative to turf. Then again many argue this only plays into the bookmakers hands with less variation in the races to effect results.
Whatever happens in the future turf will continue to be the main ground type for racing in the UK and Europe, especially for traditional race meetings. I doubt you will ever see the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Grand National, Epsom Derby or St Leger held on a synthetic course. Although what is becoming common is for courses to feature both turf and synthetic tracks alongside each other, allowing them to feature a wider range of racing. In the US it is now even common to see grass and synthetic tracks alongside their traditional dirt circuits.
Dirt, Sand & Mud Tracks
Dirt is the fastest of all surfaces when very firm. They are the most common track type in North and South America, and although there are some high profile turf races too it is dirt that is king in the US and Canada. Dirt racing is also popular in Japan. The middle east and United Arab Emirates also use dirt tracks, although these tend to have higher sand mixtures.
Commonly dirt tracks are used in areas where grass is either hard to grow or maintain. This tends to be found in dryer climates, or climates where rain is infrequent or unpredictable, such as great swathes of the interior of the United States or Arab nations.
Dirt is faster than grass as it tends to be dryer but also because grass is slippery which can remove some of the energy from take off's and landings. Traditional racing in the US is held on dirt courses, such as the famous Kentucky Derby. This doesn't mean there are no big turf meetings, there are, and in fact most tracks tend to have turf or synthetic and dirt tracks together. This is partly a cultural difference, with dirt track racing simply being more popular amongst typical American's. Dirt racing also doesn't come with any of the elitism associated with turf racing that has been adopted from Europe.
Most dirt surfaces are made up of a combination of sand and mud, the mixture tending to reflect what is most available in the environment, e.g. more mud in the US, more sand in UAE. While dirt tracks are more predictable than grass when looking at any one specific track, variations in the mixture of dirt and sand can make conditions very variable between tracks. The depth of the dirt and what is underneath it too (e.g. bare ground vs asphalt) can influence speed, drainage and other factors between different tracks. You've all heard the phrase "horses-for-courses", and this is true of any track types, but for dirt tracks this is very typical.
The track condition terminology most commonly used for dirt racing is the US version, as this is where the racing is most popular. A dry track is termed fast, a moist track is good or wet fast, wet courses are called muddy, very wet dirt races are termed sloppy or slow. Some tracks are termed 'sealed', this means they have been designed to allow maximum water run off along with minimal absorption. In general most dirt racing is on dry or moist tracks. Wet racing doesn't tend to happen as much as with traditional European turf racing, although saying that it of course depends on the location of the track and time of year.
Dirt does have a serious downside, it may be the fastest surface but it is also the most deadly. Dirt racing causes around 178 deaths for every 100,000 races compared to 122 on grass and 118 on synthetic. This is a big driver in the introduction of artificial and cushioned tracks at many courses.
Synthetic, Artificial & All Weather Tracks
The term 'synthetic-track' when it comes to horse racing is a used to describe a huge range of different materials, this is why the image you see here is a 'synthetic race' rather than an image of an artificial track.
Synthetic courses are available to mimic both turf and dirt, grass-like surfaces more common in Europe, and dirt-like tracks in the US, although both exist worldwide. In general the premise of both is they are supposed to maintain the same reaction of turf or dirt but are designed to be safer and more resistant to weather. This is why many artificial tracks are called 'all weather surfaces', in reality they are not quite 'all weather' but they do a better job than their natural counterparts.
It is hard therefore to define the exact characteristics of synthetic racecourse as rarely are two the same. What is certain is they are designed to drain better and work when much wetter than natural surfaces. All artificial tracks are made of mixtures of sand, natural or synthetic fibres (usually a type of plastic such as nylon), wax and rubber. The type and combination of these materials can produce very different outcomes which is why form is so difficult to measure between different tracks. Here are a few examples:
- Polytrack - Most common in the UK (e.g. Kempton) and Ireland (e.g. Dundalk), this is a mixture of sand and fibres that have been recycled from old carpets and rubber. Polytrack has become a brand name, like Hoover, which is used to describe a range of similar designs.
- ProRide - Dirt like surface 6 inches deep and made from sand with nylon and spandex fibres bound together, common in Australia.
- Tapeta - US artificial dirt-like track material made from sand with rubber and other fibres along with was. Generally between 4 and 7 inches deep on top of asphalt.
- Rashit-Track - Used in Russia due to its temperature resistant properties, with a working range from -40 to +65 degrees centigrade. The material is a was coated mix of sand with recycled fibres and textiles.
There are variables other than the material the track is made from to consider, the depth of material is also important, the base on which it is built (more springy surfaces will produce faster racing) and how the surface copes with moisture. Artificial surfaces are generally more predictable than grass but not as fast and predictable as dirt, creating a type of racing that is in the middle of the two. The biggest selling point of course is the low fatality rate of horses and the reduced number of races that are called off due to bad weather.
The track conditions for UK and Irish all weather racing are termed; fast if dry, standard-fast if moist, standard to standard-slow if wet and slow if very wet.
The first ever race on a synthetic turf-like-track was run in 1966 at Florida's Tropical Park, the surface was largely plastic and a lot like astroturf, predictably it wasn't a big success. The first dirt-like-track was installed at Washington state Meadows Racetrack in 1963, again this early dirt replacement didn't catch on and was replaced with a natural surface in 1975.
The fact that synthetic surfaces haven't taken over the word yet kind of tells you everything you need to know. Artificial surfaces have many benefits but no one solution has yet been found that gives a good enough replication of grass or dirt to encourage replacement. It's like synthetic pitches in football, they will do where you can't get the grass to grow or where you need them to deal with the weather, but other than that they are not as good as the real thing. I'm sure one day perhaps the all racing will be synthetic, or part synthetic, but for now it will largely be a nice accessory to real racing.