FeaturedGary West

America’s Best Racing Has Moved to the Turf

By Gary West

Equisport Photos

Whether you’re a devoted fan of American racing or simply a casual observer, you had to notice: More races are being run on the turf than ever before. And for a very good reason: The racing is better there.

For many years, horse racing has been blind to the perspective of the fans and the bettors and largely ignorant of their priorities. But from their point of view, races on the turf are superior to races on the dirt in almost every way.

In a country that has focused habitually on dirt racing, such an assertion might sound like apostasy. An examination of the facts, though, not only compels such an assertion but leads to this overwhelming conclusion: Turf racing is more exciting, more contentious and, for bettors, potentially more lucrative.

The nation’s most famous races, of course — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, with perhaps the Travers, Breeders’ Cup Classic and Santa Anita Handicap as lagniappe — traditionally have been run around dusty ovals. And so most breeders and owners still have dirty minds. In other words, just as they have done since the 19th century, they continue to aim most of their better horses, the ones for whom expectations are highest, in the direction of the main track and at careers intended, with considerable hopefulness, to include those traditionally celebrated races.

And so it wasn’t very long ago that owners and trainers generally moved horses to the turf only as a last resort, after exhausting other options and opportunities. And not very long ago, many and probably most American racetracks didn’t even have a turf course. Churchill Downs and Fair Grounds, for example, didn’t build their turf courses until the 1980s.

But all that has changed. The turf no longer represents a desperate option, but has become an expansion of opportunities. Animal Kingdom, for example, returned to the turf after his Triple Crown success and again after his Dubai World Cup victory. Nor is the turf a last resort. In recent years, many top American horses have begun their careers on grass before moving to the main track — Big Brown and Barbaro come quickly to mind. And, of course, many of the country’s most popular and accomplished horses focus on turf racing, frequently proving themselves not just capable of competing on a world stage but also capable of enlisting fans’ loyal affection. Wise Dan, for example, beat many of Europe’s best when they came here for the Breeders’ Cup Mile in 2012 and 2013, and, of course, as he piled up victories and honors the two-time Horse of the Year became wildly popular.

That probably couldn’t have happened 40 or even 20 years ago. But much has changed. Owners and breeders no longer shy away from stallions with only turf success or prospects with brightly green pedigrees. Three of the top 10 sires of 2016 yearlings sold in America (based on average auction price) had raced almost exclusively on turf. Kitten’s Joy, Tapit and Giant’s Causeway, who were among the top 10 turf sires of 2016, also ranked in the top 10 on the general sire list.

To enhance and encourage the greening of American racing, racetracks have added not only new turf courses but, over the last few decades, turf stakes with dazzling purses. In 2002, for example, Santa Anita created the $500,000 American Oaks. In 2014, the New York Racing Association created the Belmont Gold Cup Invitational. That same year, NYRA increased the purses of the Belmont Derby from $300,000 to $1.25 million and the Belmont Oaks from $300,000 to $1 Million. Grass racing has become so popular, with both horsemen and fans, that today some racetracks, such as Belmont Park and Saratoga and Gulfstream Park, might schedule more turf than dirt races on a card. And at Kentucky Downs in Franklin, Ky., which offers the richest purses in the country based on daily average ($1,577,197 in 2016), horses race exclusively on the turf.

In 2004, only 8.8 percent of the races in North America were run on turf, according to Equibase. Over the next five years, the number of turf races increased, but slightly, from 5,136 to 5,391, or to 10 percent of all races. Since then, however, the greening has deepened. It’s as if some racetracks finally saw the sport from the perspective of fans and bettors, as if they finally realized the importance of full fields, competitive races and rewarding payoffs. In other words, it’s as if racetracks realized that turf racing, quite simply, is better. And so in 2016, despite an overall decline in numbers, more North American races were run on the turf than ever before — 6,753, or 16.3 percent.

Years ago, the explanation for the large fields in turf races might have been the scarcity of green chances: Turf horses had to crowd into what few opportunities were available to them. But with the expansion of turf racing that explanation no longer suffices, if it ever did. No, something else is happening here, and that something is probably horsemen’s recognition and acknowledgement that the turf is more ergonomic, more horse friendly, than dirt. Horses are at home on grass; it’s their natural environment. And what has been obvious to any observer has recently been quantified. Each and every year since the Jockey Club established its Equine Industry Database in 2009, fewer catastrophic injuries have been recorded on turf than on dirt. In 2016, there were 1.09 such injuries for every thousand starts on turf, 1.70 on dirt.

Yes, the racing is just better there, on the turf. To test that hypothesis, I examined 28 days of racing, seven consecutive race days each at Belmont Park, Santa Anita, Churchill Downs and Gulfstream Park. I considered seven days to be sufficient to establish a trend. For Gulfstream and Santa Anita, I picked seven days in February; for Belmont, seven days in September; and for Churchill, seven days in May (after the Derby). I didn’t include races moved off the turf or run over hurdles. I didn’t include Kentucky Downs in the comparative study simply because there’s no comparable meeting of such lucrative purses that’s exclusive to dirt.

If there was a surprise in the findings, it was that the turf racing was so superior to the dirt racing and that the superiority stretched across the board, to each and every racetrack. By “superior” I mean, more than anything, appealing and rewarding. The turf races appealed in terms of their competitiveness, and they offered greater rewards in terms of their payoffs.

At Gulfstream, for example, the 40 dirt races attracted 325 horses, for an average of 8.13 starters; the 41 turf races on the same seven days attracted 426 horses, for an average of 10.39 starters. At all four racetracks, the turf races attracted larger fields: at Santa Anita, an average of 7.86 starters on dirt and 9.33 on turf; at Belmont, an average of 7.17 on dirt and 9.39 on turf; at Churchill, an average of 6.97 on dirt and 8.24 on turf.

Like Gulfstream, Belmont actually presented more turf than dirt races during the seven days examined. Both tracks, of course, have expansive courses that allow them to offer many opportunities on the grass, and that, it would seem, has proven to be a decisive advantage in attracting fans and betting dollars.

Even more, a turf race is much more likely than a dirt contest to go down to the wire, often concluding with a photo finish (with a winning margin of nose, a head or a neck) and a thrill for the fans observing from the grandstand and on television. At Gulfstream, for example, the typical winning margin on dirt was 2.43 lengths; on turf it was 1.45 lengths. In fact, 15 of the 41 turf races concluded with a photo finish. At Belmont Park, 13 of the 38 turf races run during the seven-day period required the clarification of the camera. And again, at all four tracks, the turf races were, based on winning margin, more exciting: At Santa Anita, the typical winning margin was 2.24 lengths on dirt, but 1.64 lengths on turf; at Belmont, the typical winning margin was 1.75 lengths on dirt, but 1.24 lengths on turf; and at Churchill, the typical winning margin was 2.87 lengths on dirt, but 1.13 lengths on turf.

To take that metric a step, or a placing, further as an indicator of exciting competitiveness, the first three horses at Gulfstream Park usually finished within 4.52 lengths of each other in a race on the dirt. But in the typical turf race, the first three horses across the wire were typically much closer, within 2.94 lengths of each other. At Belmont, they checked in closer still, with the first three horses in a turf race finishing within two lengths of each other, compared to 3.23 lengths on dirt. At Churchill Downs, to judge by the margins, many of the dirt races might have lost their audience by mid-stretch, with 5.44 lengths typically separating first from third. On the turf, however, that margin was just 2.06 lengths.

Even the most stoic fans that might be immune to the thrill of a close race would probably jump to their feet when they see the payoffs that frequently light up the tote board after turf races. At all four tracks, the winning return was typically greater for turf than dirt races, much greater in some cases. At Santa Anita, the winner of a dirt race during the seven days that were examined paid, on average, $9.87, compared to $13.13 on turf. At Churchill, the discrepancy in payoffs grew to $5.64, with the advantage going to the typical turf winner ($8.55 to $14.19), and at Gulfstream, somewhat remarkably, to $7.34 ($12.56 to $19.90). And this looked only at the winning payoffs. The exotic payoffs shimmered.

It’s clear: Fans looking for excitement should look for turf races; bettors looking for lucrative rewards should look for turf races; and racetracks looking for fans and bettors should offer more turf races. The racing is better there.

And for the sport, the implications are nothing less than profound.

Horse racing needs to improve its product if it’s to remain healthy and viable as a major sport, and the further proliferation of turf racing represents a meaningful improvement. Racetracks should schedule as many turf races as they can, even to the point of adding a second turf course if possible. Moreover, the sport should more frequently shift its focus, its glaring spotlight that engenders awareness and celebrity, to the turf, creating perhaps a Turf Triple Crown and a Turf Series for Older Horses. America’s best racing has moved to the turf, and the nation’s best horses are following, along with fans and bettors.

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