Are horses faster on dirt or turf?

It has been constantly argued whether a horse would be faster on dirt or turf and whether a certain horse could race on both surfaces. Dirt racing is nearly non-existent in the United Kingdom and Ireland but immensely popular in the USA.

There are many that think surfaces are interchangeable and a fast horse on one surface will transfer it to another with little or no problem. History will tell you a different story. Sure, there are a few horses that made the switch without any noticeable problem, but these types of horses are some of the rarest in the breed.

Years ago, trainers in America would have to break a horse’s maiden on the dirt before he could be switched to the grass. This is where the main misunderstanding comes from. Back in the 1980’s, tracks in North America rarely carded any maiden races on turf to benefit horses that is bred to excel on the grass.

As the popularity of grass racing increased in North America, more trainers got on board with the idea of this kind of training. Before then, it was common a grass horse would languish on dirt for quite a few starts before finally breaking through.

Grass is a more slippery surface than dirt and harder to run when dried. But it is also easier on a horse’s feet and leg because of the cushion underneath their feet. It is also a much faster surface and speed horses tend to run faster than the conditions allow them to. On dirt however, a horse’s foot would sink in to the dirt causing them to work harder to maintain that same speed and it usually tires them out quicker.

The exception to this theory are dirt tracks that have very little cushion which would help horses run a faster pace but this way often leads to many injuries, many the public never hears about. On plastic or synthetics surfaces, this surfaces acts more like grass than it does dirt because horses’ feet does not bog down in plastics or synthetics like they do on dirt. Added to this, synthetics is not as slippery as grass, even when it is wet, but it is as easy on a horse’s feet and legs as grass.

How can you tell which surface a horse would prefer?

There are quite a few answers, it all begins with breeding. Since the thoroughbred breed was developed originally in Europe, a lot of horses will tend to favour the grass over dirt. But the American dirt breed was started mostly from European grass horses and developed more for dirt by adding known dirt horses through each generation over a period of 70-80 years.

Some were a natural fit but more were through many generations of development. In fact, North America didn’t even run horses on grass much until the late 1910s and early 1920’s, when their breed became saturated with turf breeding.

The best way to spot horses that would prefer turf over dirt is their hooves. The bigger and wider their hooves are, the more likely they will enjoy grass over horses with small or thin hooves.

The reason is horses with larger hooves tend to be more confident and comfortable in their strides because they can plant their hooves with less chance of slipping. Also, horses that are taller will tend to like turf more than dirt simply because they can carry more body weight than average.

Dirt horses that are evenly built tend to fare the best. One metre and a half is ideal height for most dirt runners, as most are nimble enough to build their speed and will use their legs to keep their speed up.

For distance horses, their quarters will often be the deciding factor as these are the feet that horses push off with, unless they are tired. The fuller a horse’s body and the flatter his back is, the more likely he will keep running long after others have tired.

Overall, there is no specific difference on whether a horse could be faster on turf or on dirt, it really depends on the horse themselves and where they were bred. Fans of turf racing would say that their surface is faster while fans of dirt racing would say the opposite.