Throughout horse racing history, some types of racing track surfaces have been more popular than others. Over the last few decades, turf racing has gone from being a very niche surface to being a far more popular choice for horse races.
Online sports betting and racing fans, let’s take a look at these different types of surfaces, the history of turf racing in the US and then investigate why turf racing has started to become more popular amongst modern racers.
The different types of horse racing surfaces
There are a few different types of race track surfaces that professional horses have raced on throughout history. Here are the most common types:
- Synthetic: Synthetic racetrack surfaces are made from a variety of different materials, such as sand, fiber, rubber and even wax. These surfaces are more weather-proof than others, allowing races to take place when they would otherwise be canceled if the track was another type of surface. Synthetic tracks have also been proven to be safer than other surfaces. Courier Journal highlights in its article “We bury our heads” that “Horsemen prefer dirt tracks even though they lead to more fatalities” and that “synthetic tracks have averaged 1.2 fatalities per 1,000 starts; turf has averaged 1.47 and dirt 1.97.”
- Dirt: A dirt track is a soil surface without any grass or other material, and is the most common type of racing track surface in the US. This is likely due to the fact that it costs less to maintain than both synthetic and turf surfaces. A 2014 New York Times article “A Track’s Shift to Dirt Adds to Horses’ Risks” shares how dirt is likely the riskiest surface for horses and jockeys to race on because of the damaging effect that rain and cold have on it, but that doesn’t stop it being the most popular type of track in America.
- Turf: Turf refers to a completely natural grass track that horses race on. A recent study “Review of Safety of Turf Versus Non-Turf (Synthetic and Dirt) Racing Surfaces” has found that turf surfaces appear to be safer than synthetic, despite earlier studies claiming otherwise: “In summary, turf racing surfaces have historically provided the benchmark in terms of being the safest racing surface for horses and jockeys alike. The initial results attained with the new generation of synthetic tracks indicate that these surfaces are, in general terms, less safe than a turf surface. The safety of turf racing can be impacted by the quality and hardness of the turf surface.” Turf is the most popular track surface in Europe, and it seems like the rest of the world is following suit. Let’s take a look at why this appears to be the case.
What has caused turf racing’s rise in popularity?
Horse racing today takes place on turf surfaces much more often than it has in the past in the US. Thoroughbred Daily News shared in its article “Increased Turf Opportunities Will Re-Strengthen the Breed” how only 5% of all flat-race surfaces were turf, while that number had increased to 17% in 2017. However, it also noted that due to the decreasing number of races in total, and the fact that 39% of graded races took place on turf indicates that turf surfaces are becoming a much more popular option for races in the US. Even breeders expect this trend to continue, with more stallions that performed well in Grade I turf races on offer from nurseries.
But what has caused this change over time? Discussions have been taking place on horse racing news, opinion sites and on social media channels as to why this is the case. Unfortunately, this may be a bit of a chicken and egg situation (which came first, the chicken or the egg?) as it’s not exactly clear why turf surfaces are increasing in popularity in the US.
However, there are a number of factors that could be contributing to its increase, and the most likely cause of the increase in turf racing’s popularity is the increase in purse money. When it comes to betting on horse racing, the growing number of turf races prizes has resulted in a greater demand for turf horses. Thoroughbred Daily News shares how the greater demand for turf horses is becoming a problem for US breeders and domestic markets in its article “Global Views: Turf Racing, An American Dilemma.” This article shares examples of how the US is a “dirt-centric commercial industry” even as turf popularity continues to grow and how this impacts other areas of the sport, such as breeding.
Thoroughbredracing.com’s article “The future of turf racing is the future of racing in the US” discusses a number of other factors that have also likely led to the growing interest in turf racing in the US. These include:
- An increase in turf race quality, even though the number of dirt races still dominates in the US.
- Growing interest amongst US breeders in the international bloodstock market.
- Growing demand for turf stallions in Europe.
- A rising number of US turf programs, particularly long-distance.
As interest grows in turf surfaces, tracks will need to offer a turf surface to avoid losing out.
While the turf racing trend may not continue to grow forever, there’s no doubt that interest is growing in the dirt-focused US horse racing industry.
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