Whether you are handicapping a major horse racing event like the Breeders’ Cup or a regular day at a major track chances are pretty good that there will be dirt races and turf races. It might not seem like a big deal – it’s only the surface the races are run on – but it is really a fundamental difference, and it significantly affects how you handicap the races and what horses are likely to win.
A lot of casual horseplayers may not even know the difference between dirt and turf racing, never mind why it matters. Turf racing is simply racing on grass, while dirt racing is on a surface typically made up of some dirt and sand over top of clay and gravel. Dirt racing is far more common than turf racing in North America, and many smaller horse tracks don’t have a turf track at all. Turf racing is far more common in Europe, and is in fact the norm in many countries.
You can spend a lifetime trying to figure out the best way to deal with the differences between the two types of racing. To get you started, though, here are six concepts for handicappers of horse races to keep in mind if you are quickly trying to figure out the differences:
The basics – To put it simply, horses that are excellent on dirt are very different athletes than horses that excel on turf. You can draw parallels in a lot of different sports. Roger Federer, for example, was almost unbeatable in his prime while playing tennis on grass, but was not nearly as strong playing on clay. Some golfers are suited to links courses where they are rewarded for their accuracy and low ball flight, where others excel in wide-open American-style courses where length and aggressiveness are more important. In both examples, some athletes are suited for different environments, and the same is true in racing. Horses that do well on turf tend to be more methodical and strategic early in the race before exerting themselves in a hard charge later on. In dirt early speed is more common. The turf itself is more forgiving and easy for horses to get a grip on, so that can favor some builds of horses over others. On the other hand, turf courses often take more energy to move over than a dirt track does – especially if the turf is wet or soft – so turf can favor horses with more stamina and more efficient movement.
Importance of breeding – As a general rule, horses that are very good on turf are bred to run on turf, and dirt horses have dirt breeding. In simple terms that means that their sire and dam have shown the ability to run over turf. Pedigree analysis is far too complex for a lot of casual bettors to do themselves, but it is something you’ll read a lot about leading up to major races, and it’s an important thing to be aware of. A horse that is not bred for turf can still run well on turf, but it certainly isn’t as likely or as easy as if they have the bloodlines behind them and that means they may not be a good bet.
Past experience – The best way to tell how well a horse is likely to perform on a given surface is to look at how they have performed on it in the past. If a horse has had a lot of success in the past on turf then, obviously, he is a turf horse. If he has tried in the past and looked lousy then he may not be one. If a horse has never tried to run on a surface before then you could look at how well they have trained on that surface leading up to the race.
Condition of the surface – On both dirt and turf the condition of the surface can make as much difference to handicappers as the type of surface. The biggest factor in both cases is the amount of recent rainfall. If the rain has been falling then the turf course could be soft or yielding. That means that the horses will sink further into the track with each step than they normally would, so it takes more energy to move. That in turn means that endurance is a bigger factor, and that the impact of speed is less significant because it is hard for explosive speed horses to build their speed. If a turf track is too wet they won’t run on it – both to preserve the horses and the surface. In those cases they will move the race to the dirt and many of the horses will typically scratch from the race. If the weather is bad then it is very important to check to make sure that a turf race is actually on turf.
If there has been little rain then the turf can become very hard, and that can have a big impact as well on your betting. When the turf is hard it has far less give than it normally does, so each step is harder on the horse – there is less shock absorption. Hard turf is more like dirt in that way, s horses that don’t like the dirt often won’t like hard turf as well.
When the dirt gets wet it gets sloppy. There are two main impacts of that. First, horses that are not at the front of a race get a lot of mud kicked back into their faces. Some horses really don’t like that and won’t try as a result. The slop also changes the feel and grip of a track. In a lot of ways a sloppy track feels like a turf track, so a horse that runs particularly well on sloppy tracks may thrive on a sloppy track and vice versa. When handicapping a dirt race it is important to look at the breakdown of how they have performed on different conditions of tracks to see if they have a clear preference or weakness.
Jockeys – Jockeys play a significant role in all races, but in different ways depending upon the surface. Turf racing tends to be more tactical at the beginning of a race with jockeys looking to position themselves well for the late move. Dirt races aren’t usually as focused on the early portion, and can feature more aggressive moves and more speed. Some jockeys are better suited to turf than dirt and vice versa. When looking at a jockey you should make sure that their win percentage on the surface is reasonable, and that they know how to handle horses effectively.
Switching between surfaces – Horses will often change between surfaces, so as a handicapper you need to be on the lookout for that. Most often it happens because a horse isn’t reaching its potential and a surface change seems like it could have an impact. For the most part, when a change happens you just need to get a sense of whether the horse can handle the change. There are some situations, though, that can provide an edge for observant bettors. One, for example, is a dirt horse that has run a couple races on turf and is now going back to dirt. Since turf is more gentle on horses than dirt trainers will sometimes move a dirt horse that is sore or banged up to turf for a couple of races so that they can heal and return to full health. When they move back to dirt it can be a sign that they are healthy and ready to go, and they will often put forward a bigger than expected effort in that first dirt race. That can often lead to very nice value.