How does the racecourse going impact a horses chance of winning?
The racecourse going conditions, or the prevailing ground conditions are one of the many variables that you should consider when assessing a horse race. Do certain horses perform better on a certain type of ground? Does it affect the horses chance of winning a race?
All racehorses have optimum conditions under which they will record their best performance/s, the racecourse going conditions being one.
Using historical data of a horse’s performances it’s possible to identify on what going a horse has performed at its best. Some horses are quite versatile and able to run to ratings at near best under a variety of conditions.
Others will show they have quite specific requirements to deliver optimum performance.
Racing surfaces in the UK
In the UK, flat racing takes place on turf and all-weather surfaces. National Hunt, or jump racing is run solely on turf.
The going on turf tracks is measured in 2 ways.
- The racecourse clerk’s description of the going.
- The going stick reading.
An odd scenario. While the clerk is responsible for posting both the description of the going and taking the going stick reading, they are independent of each other and not necessarily reflective!
Further reading: SHOULD YOU TRUST THE OFFICIAL RACECOURSE GOING DESCRIPTION
The clerk of the course’s description of the racecourse going
- Good to Firm
- Good to Soft
Firm ground being the hardest and fastest ground horses will race on. This will usually be encountered during a spell of dry weeks and where artificial watering hasn’t taken place. Heavy ground, will be encountered after a period of sustained rainfall.
The time taken for a horse to run a distance will increase significantly as the scale moves from firm to heavy.
Going stick reading
The going stick readings range from 0 -15. Zero being the wettest and slowest ground, through to 15 being the hardest most compact ground conditions. Extremes in the scale have never been reported in the UK. The Going Stick readings usually fall within the 5 – 9 range. 5 being heavy ground, 9 being fast.
There are currently 6 All-Weather tracks in the UK. The All-Weather tracks have a synthetic surface, there are 3 types.
All have similar properties, but some key differences. A horse who performs to their optimum on Fibresand may not necessarily be as good on a Polytrack or Tapeta surface.
The surface at 3 racecourses, Chelmsford, Kempton and Lingfield. The Polytrack surface is a mixture of silica sand, synthetic fibres and rubber.
Newcastle and Wolverhampton, Tapeta is a mixture of silica sand, wax and fibres. The cushioned surfaced is renowned for fewer injuries to horses and very limited kickback.
As the name suggests, the surface found at Southwell is made up of a mixture of sand and fibres. The surface is deeper and looser than it’s synthetic counterparts and of the 3 gives the most kickback during races.
Going conditions at each All-Weather track is fairly consistent. In the main, the racecourse going description you will see is ‘Standard’ (there is no going stick reading taken).
Each track is individual, and the surfaces have different properties. They will ride faster or slower depending on how the surface has been prepared, how deep it is, and if it has been harrowed, cultivated or rolled in preparation for racing.
There are 3 variations of going reported on All-Weather tracks.
Why do horses have a preference for a certain type of racecourse going?
A horses predilection for certain underfoot conditions is thought to be down to its conformation.
Conformation, the way a horse is put together will affect its action and importantly its action at a full race speed gallop.
A high knee action is supposedly best suited to softer ground, a more fluent less pronounced knee lift to quicker conditions.
You may have heard a jockey report that “a horse wouldn’t let itself down” on certain ground conditions. Meaning the horse was protecting itself from potential jarring or injury by not exerting maximum effort on ground conditions that don’t suit its conformation.
This would tend to occur when say a horse conformed to be suited by softer conditions is asked to race on a quicker surface. Either fast ground turf, all-weather Tapeta or Polytrack surfaces. Consequently, the horse will not run as fast and perform below its optimum level.
Unearthing such situations can allow you to develop a solid betting strategy. More of this later.
Equating a horses conformation and action to a preference for ground conditions is an inexact science. To eliminate subjectivity, you can base your assumptions on the evidence recorded from a horse’s past performance.
How do you identify a horses going preference?
There are hereditary parallels that can be drawn from a racehorses sire and dam. In the same way humans pass on physical attributes to their children, size, weight, conformation, horses pass on physical attributes to their progeny.
This can manifest itself in a liking for certain going conditions. To cite a couple of examples.
DUTCH ART was a Group 1 winning performer who was at his best on soft ground. He has produced several high-class offspring who have produced their optimum performances with cut in the ground.
Top class miler CAPE CROSS did all his winning on a good or faster surface. Likewise, his top 3 rated offspring Sea The Stars, Golden Horn and Ouija Board, all champions of their generations were at their brilliant best on a quick surface.
It’s a specialist study and inexact science, particularly when you are also considering the dam’s influence on her offspring as part of the equation.
Using racehorses past performances
For establishing a horses going preference, an option is to base your views on the evidence of the individual’s past racecourse performances.
A racehorse throughout its career will often compete over a range of distances and ground conditions. This is an ideal scenario for researching optimum performance conditions.
Given the vagaries of the British weather, the racecourse going changes regularly. Plus, we have the range of unique conditions presented by the Fibresand, Polytrack and Tapeta surfaces.
Look for repeat efforts under the same conditions. It’s fraught with risk to take just one run in isolation and say with confidence ‘it is’ a horses optimum going conditions. There are too many other variables at play.
There is also risk attached to the notion that if a horse has proved best in the past at a certain distance or on a certain going, then that will be the case in the future.
Possibly the horse has had limited or no opportunity to test itself under certain conditions. How can you know if the opportunity hasn’t been tested? For a below-par performance, possibly the reason lies elsewhere rather than trip or going conditions. What if say for example the horse picked up a minor undetected injury during the race and that is the reason for a poor display?
Look for patterns, a sequence of best performances under certain going conditions backed up by a sequence of under performance on ground at the other end of the spectrum.
Applying optimum conditions to your betting
The form book is full of examples of horses who produce their best under specific conditions.
In building a strategy for your betting, focus on the extremes of going, either firm ground or heavy and soft ground.
These are very specialist conditions and those under which not all horses are capable of performing to their best. It’s straightforward to eliminate some runners who the extremes of ground won’t suit and focus on those contenders who have already proofed a liking for the prevailing conditions.
This is extremely obvious but still important – ‘you don’t get fast ground conditions all of a sudden, you can get soft conditions in a relatively short period’.
Why have I said it’s important? Because of how the betting markets react to this information.
Fast conditions are developed over several dry weeks, the betting population has witnessed this, it’s built into the market. Whereas, you can get ahead of the market and beat prices if you know which horses will benefit when a heavy rainfall arrives and there is a quicker shift in the racecourse going.
Is this info not in the public domain and already factored into the price?
I would say yes, the information is there for all to see, but there are still betting opportunities to be found. It’s helpful that there are some inaccuracies recorded with the going descriptions. You need to make your assessment on how accurate the reports are.
I find good betting opportunities occur when there is a fairly late change in the ground conditions or they change during racing. If it rains heavily on the morning of a meeting, or even while racing is taking place then the ground can soften considerably.
Final declaration stage
For flat racing, trainers declare their horses to run 48 hours in advance of the meeting starting. National Hunt racing has a 24 hr declaration period for final participants.
When there is significant rain post declarations, actual racing conditions can be very different from those expected when the horse was declared to run. This will benefit some horses and be negative for others. Trainers may for various reasons still run their horses on unsuitable conditions. Their chance of winning has changed quite significantly.
Under these circumstances, the betting market can turn on its head. With big swings for horses favoured or not by the new conditions. Anticipating these changes before the market reacts is an opportunity and can give you a big advantage.
Keep a keen eye on the weather forecasts, use localised knowledge and anticipate potential changes in the ground conditions. Very much this can put you ahead of the betting market and value betting opportunities can be found.
I find the most useful weather forecasting site is Accuweather. Not that its forecasting is any more accurate than any other organisation, but it lists past rainfall amounts for every day in a specific area.
I don’t particularly trust the accuracy of the official racecourse going descriptions, so this is a useful tool to gauge how much rainfall has landed in the area on the days preceding a race meeting.
High profile example
There have been some very high profile horses who have shown a predilection for soft and heavy conditions.
CRACKSMAN was a high-class horse from a couple of years back. He was a very good horse but an outstanding one on soft ground. He was unbeaten in any race with soft in the going description and demolished two very high-class fields in back to back Champion Stakes at Ascot on soft ground.
Despite his high profile, during his racing career, it seemed somewhat overlooked in certain quarters as to his requirement for soft ground to show his brilliant best.
Finding future winners
The form book is littered with examples of horses who prefer a particular type of going. You can use the Racing Post website (free) to complete your research.
On the site, select any horse by clicking on its name. You’ll then be presented with that horses lifetime form.
You can then filter each of the columns by clicking on the heading.
As an example, if you click on the heading starting ‘POS.’ it will arrange the horses runs in order of its finishing position.
In this example, we can see that Flying Pursuit has won 7 races on ground ranging from good to heavy. 5 of those wins have been with soft listed in the official racecourse going. If you look at the times he has run on ground recorded as good to firm of faster then he’s run 14 times, never won and been placed on just 2 occasions.
You can confidently say that in the past Flying Pursuit has produced his best on soft ground.
This is fairly basic analysis, you can use more sophisticated and advanced tools that will give you a more robust output.
Once you’ve identified some horses with a predilection for a certain type of going, it can be built on further.
Finding winning handicap marks
The official handicapper’s job is to allot all horses a weight that reflects their ability and allows them to compete on equal terms. In theory, in a handicap race, every horse is weighted to finish in a line. They have a hopeless task, and this never happens.
In basic terms, when a horse wins it will be given additional weight and go up the handicap ratings. When it loses it will be allocated less weight and drop down the handicap.
At some point in their career, a horse will reach there inherent racing ability. They will have a handicap mark that reflects that ability and their chance of winning. For example, a horse may be capable of winning off a mark of 80, but anything above that they’ll struggle in a competitive heat.
When horses run on ground conditions that don’t suit them, they perform below their best. The handicapper can give their official rating some respite by dropping it. This is a legitimate way for a trainer to get their horse to a handicap mark they are capable of winning from.
Look for horses with recent outings that have been on unsuitable conditions. Has their handicap mark dropped too or below a previous winning one? Are they now returning to run on their optimum going conditions?
With a little research, you’ll soon identify some qualifying horses to have on the watch list.
Spring and autumn are ideal for changeable weather conditions in the UK and give you the perfect situation to deploy these betting tactics.
In autumn, horses will maybe have been running all season on unsuitably quick ground. While they haven’t been able to perform at their best under these conditions their handicap mark is likely to have dropped to a level they may have already shown they are capable of winning from.
This presents some real opportunities.