How track surfaces impact horse handicapping

A lot of casual betters may not know the difference between dirt and turf racing. 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. Turf racing is the most popular form of racing in Europe and Australia while dirt racing is more popular in North America, especially the USA.

Basic Handicapping knowledge

To put it simply, horses that are excellent on turf are very different to those that excel on dirt. You can draw parallels in a lot of different sports. Roger Federer, for example, is almost unplayable while playing tennis on grass, but was not nearly as strong playing on clay.

Racing is the exact same, 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.

However, 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 favour some builds of horses over others.


As a general rule, horses that are very good on turf are bred to run on turf, and dirt horses are the same. Pedigree analysis is far too complex for a lot of casual betters to do themselves, but it is something you’ll read a lot about leading up to major races.

You will always see this kind of information in the lead up to big flat racing meetings, most notably Royal Ascot. 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 haven’t been bred for it and may mean it isn’t a good bet. This is mainly a rule in flat racing; it is still important with jump racing but not nearly as vital.

Form of the horse

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.

It is always worth noting that some horses perform better at specific courses too, just because a horse did well at Cheltenham on soft ground, it does not mean that it will perform exactly the same at Aintree on soft ground.

Condition of the surface (the ‘going’)

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.

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.

The jockey

Jockeys play a significant role in races, but in different ways depending on 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. It is also worth noting that some horses may ride well with a specific jockey on them.

Such as, jump racings Willie Mullins’ horses such as Annie Power, Douvan and Faugheen would always be ridden by Ruby Walsh- giving them the best chance of being a winner for punters.