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Turf vs Dirt

Horse_Race_Finish_Line_(11888565543)MDC says, get ready for this weekends Breeders Cup Classic !!

I know most of you have been baffled when you see a horse switch surfaces. There are many that thinks 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, though. 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 track got on board with the idea of carding grass maidens. 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 too when dried. But it is also easier on a horse’s feet and leg because of the cushion underneath their feet. But it is also a much faster surface and speed horses tends to run faster than what their conditions allows them to. On dirt, a horse’s feet sinks in the dirt causing them to work harder to maintain that same speed and it usually tires them out quicker. The exception to this theory is dirt tracks that has very little cushion which helps horses run a faster pace but 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. And 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. There are many experts who feels the surfaces do not matter, much like breeding. But after many years of speaking with ordinary handicappers, like me, I have slowly learned that surface changes can make all the difference in the world. Most handicappers I spoke with often excel in picking winners on one surface or another, but rarely both.

The next question is how can one tell which horse will most likely excel on one surface over the other. While 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 favor the grass more than dirt. But American dirt breed was started mostly from Europe’s 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(average horses on grass) but more were through many generations of development. Actually, North America did not even run horses on grass much at all until the late 1910s and early 1920’s, when their breed became saturated with turf breeding.

Eventually, American breeders took horse that could only sprint a short distance and developed the quarter horse breeding. The easiest way to spot a horse that will enjoy quarter horse racing is almost all have thick chest muscles. Horses can build speed quicker if they are more muscle bound in the chest area(often almost twice as big as their hind). Even horses that are better proportion throughout their whole body will have a hard time keeping up. However, it starts evening out around 400-450 yards.

The best way to spot horses that will 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 in their strides because they can plant their hooves with less probability of slipping and/or sliding. Also, horses that are taller will tend to like turf more than dirt simply because they carry more body weight than average and dirt tends to cause them to “bog” down more, unless they are nimble on their feet(rare at best).

For dirt, horses that are evenly built tends to fare the best. 15 to 16 hands is ideal height for most dirt runners, as most are nimble enough to build speed and will use their hind legs to keep their speed up. For distance horses, their hind quarters will often be the deciding factor as these are the feet horses pushes 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.

While I, in no way, consider myself an expert but have learned from many mistakes that I have made through the years. I continued to make mistakes even today but I am a much better and more confident handicapper than when I first started. I used to second guess myself after the fact years ago but now I bet exactly what I feel and second guessing has been gone for years. I also feel if you check out everything I mentioned, it will make you a better handicapper and eventually lead you to some monster payoffs. Wish the best of luck to everyone!!