Dirt, turf, and synthetic: An introduction to racing surfaces
You know how tennis is played across three court surfaces — hard courts, clay courts, and grass courts? Horse racing is pretty much the same.
In racing, three racetrack surfaces are commonplace around the globe — dirt, turf, and synthetic. But not all surfaces are created equal, and some horses show a preference for one footing over the others.
Let’s dive into the world of racing surfaces and take a closer look at each type.
Unlike in Europe, where the best horse racing takes place on grass, North America counts dirt as its primary racing surface. Dirt tracks have been around for centuries, and all three Triple Crown races (the Kentucky Derby, Preakness S., and Belmont S.) are contested on dirt.
Maintaining a modern dirt track is part science and part work of art. Compositions vary from track to track, depending on local weather conditions. Rainfall has a significant impact on dirt tracks and can reduce conditions from fast (the standard dry track) to good, sloppy, or muddy. When rain is in the forecast, maintenance crews often “seal” a dirt track, which means they compress the top layer, so water skims off the top instead of soaking into the ground.
Rainfall can also be tied to track biases, which can provide advantages to frontrunners, closers, or horses in certain lanes.
But as a general rule, early speed is an asset in dirt racing. Pace players enjoy an advantage over stretch-running rivals.
Turf (or grass) racing is prominent in Europe, where it has long been the surface of choice for historic racecourses in England, Ireland, and France. But turf racing also gained popularity in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s, and many tracks installed grass courses inside main dirt tracks.
Turf races tend to unfold differently than dirt races. Turf routes (held over one mile or farther) have a tendency to unfold at a slower early pace, followed by a rapid sprint to the finish line. Whereas early speed is a significant advantage on dirt, turf races are often won by the horse who can sprint the fastest over the final quarter-mile.
But turf shares one commonality with dirt — sensitivity to rain. A dry turf course is labeled firm, but this rating can be downgraded to good, yielding, or soft, depending on how much rain falls. On days when the grass is soaked with rain, tracks will often cancel turf racing and transfer the scheduled races to their dirt or synthetic tracks instead.
The term “synthetic” (or “all-weather”) is something of a catch-all category for a variety of manufactured racing surfaces comprised of materials like sand, rubber, synthetic fibers, wax, and more. They are suitable for racing under challenging weather conditions, as they’re not affected by cold weather or rain to the same extent as dirt and turf courses.
Synthetic racing surfaces are installed around the world and first rose to prominence in North America during the mid-2000s. At the time, many major racetracks replaced their dirt surfaces with synthetic options like Cushion Track, Polytrack, Pro-Ride, and Tapeta.
However, recent years have seen a widespread return to dirt, with only a handful of synthetic tracks remaining in North America. Golden Gate Fields, Presque Isle Downs, Turfway Park, and Woodbine all have Tapeta surfaces, while Arlington Park has a Polytrack course.
Early on, synthetic surfaces gained a reputation for playing more like turf than dirt, with grass horses enjoying more success over the synthetic footing than dirt horses. But it’s arguably better to view each synthetic surface as its own entity, with a special set of quirks, rather than group them as a whole.
It’s the opinion of this handicapper that Polytrack favors turf horses more strongly than Tapeta, with the latter serving as a fairer bridge between dirt and turf. But ask another handicapper and you might hear a different opinion.