When the Going Gets Tough… Your Horse Just Might Win

When many punters look at their racing form guides, they examine the horses’ records for finishes, look at the trainers and scope out the jockeys to place their bets. But a big factor in race results often gets overlooked: track conditions. Here’s an overview of how track conditions affect turf racing and how you can take advantage of that knowledge to make more educated, and ultimately profitable, bets.

Definitions for Track Conditions

Track conditions used to be described by very poetic but somewhat subjective terms, like “cuppy,” “sloppy,” etc. While these words are still sometimes used in horse racing, especially in the US, racing in the UK and Ireland has developed a more standardized way of grading the track to describe the amount of water in the ground. Track conditions (known as “going” in the UK and “rating” in Australia) are determined by a race steward on race day:

● Hard
● Firm
● Good to firm
● Good
● Good to soft (AKA yielding in Ireland)
● Soft
● Heavy

Artificial tracks in the UK are graded as follows

● Fast
● Standard to fast
● Standard
● Standard to slow
● Slow

Races are usually cancelled when the going is rated as “hard,” as the impact is considered unsafe for most horses.

Implications of the Going on Horses

Why is the going so important to horses? Most horses are generally considered wet or dry trackers, meaning they prefer one type of track over another. (Horses that like it really wet are sometimes called “swimmers.”) It’s rare to find a horse that can perform equally well in all types of going. While wet trackers can do reasonably well in dry conditions, the reverse is almost never true.

The quality of the track has both short-term and long-term effects on the horse’s body. The softer the track, the slower the race. This is just common sense; imagine yourself trying to run through a field in mud up to your ankles versus sprinting across a dry lawn.

Going in the middle of the range is better for the horse over time. When the going is too mucky, the horse must strain on every stride, which can cause muscle fatigue and tendon injuries.

Very hard surfaces, on the other hand, present a higher impact. This might not seem like a big deal, but consider this. At top racing speeds, the hoof strikes the track roughly 150 times per minute. The hoof only touches the ground for one-sixth of a second, but that’s where impact injuries happen. Just like humans running on pavement over long periods of time, a horse who is run frequently on firm going might be expected to have earlier degenerative joint disease and other impact injuries.

Weather and Betting

Track going can be up or down graded in the middle of a race card based on the weather. If you’re placing all your bets at the start of the day, you could run into trouble if the weather turns drastically for the worse and you’ve bet on all dry trackers.

As the day wears on in the rain, the track surface can get quite chewed up, meaning it can become even slower and more undesirable to dry trackers. Some horses also have an aversion to having mud splattered in their faces. While a smart jockey can sometimes use this to advantage to encourage a horse to the front of the field, it can also cause horses to fall back to avoid this distress. If a horse has previously performed poorly in very wet, muddy going, it’s likely to keep doing so.

This is where your horse racing form can be your best friend. You need to track down the section of the form with previous racecourse going for your bets (or find the race data online). Match your current going with the horse’s past performance to see if they line up similarly. If you’re unsure about this, bet on the driest track possible, as this produces the most even race conditions.

If you don’t think the going as reported on a bad weather race day is accurate, take a look at the jockeys carefully in the parade ring, either in person on race video streams. Jockeys never wear just one pair of goggles when the weather turns foul. They wear multiple pairs and pull them down around their necks as they get dirty. Jockeys will even refer to an event as “a nine-goggle day” if it’s really rough. A jockey who has a stack of goggles on his helmet is anticipating a muddy course.

Turf Staying Race Generalities

There are some generalities you can make about turf races in all but the short sprints:

● They start off slow and pick up the pace at the finish.
● They are often won by a horse coming off the pace (versus a front runner).
● The slower pace means the field will stay bunched up longer.
● The slower pace also allows a horse buried in the pack to have enough energy reserves for a kick at the finish.

The beginning of most staying races is spent trying to get into a good position at the rail, as this requires the horse to cover less ground on the turns. This means post position at the starting gate is also important. A horse that doesn’t move well through the field from the outside is going to find it next to impossible to nab that rail position, unless it breaks remarkably fast from the gate and makes its move right away.

How Jockey Choice Affects Racing

Your horse racing form will list the jockey for each race, and this is another place where you need to look at previous performance, this time for the jockey (or the horse and jockey as a team). In a staying race, a good jockey can make all the difference in the outcome, especially on a very wet track. They can

● help the horse break well from a bad (outside) post position
● maneuver the horse through the pack to the rail
● know when to go wide and around the pack
● know how to hold the horse just off the pace then accelerate before the final straight

A Word About Shoes

Racing form guides usually don’t give a lot of information about shoes. Shoeing for turf courses has changed over the years to protect the health and longevity of race horses. As toe grabs and caulks, which provided traction at the expense of the horse’s leg, have been disallowed at many tracks, farriers have been challenged to develop shoes that offer superior performance on wet turf. Be wary, however, of trainers who have frequently switched shoes on their horses, and if a bar shoe is noted, it could indicate foot or hoof problems with the horse. Therefore, extremes in track going should be avoided.

Tips for Betting Turf Races in the US

On a final note, as an armchair punter, you have the ability to bet on horse races around the globe. Know that European horses are bred for stamina over speed, unlike most of their American counterparts, who also run more frequently on dirt tracks. European horses in US turf staying races, like the Breeders’ Cup events, tend to do exceedingly well and make good bets.

In general, the wetter the turf, the more the foreign horse is favored. However, turf is most often firmer in the US and softer in Europe. It’s possible that a horse shipped to the States to race may be thought to perform better on firmer going.