If you have attended live racing in Australia or watched Australian horse racing on a live stream from your favorite online racebook, you may have noticed that the horses race almost exclusively on grass surfaces. Turf racing is a long-held tradition in Australia and Europe. It can be challenging to handicap races on the grass, but the rewards can be great. Here’s a look at why horses in Australia race on grass.
An Old Horse Racing Tradition
Horse racing is a very old sport. It is often referred to as the Sport of Kings thanks to its history. In the earliest days of the sport the contests were reserved for royalty. These were the only class of people who could afford to breed and race horses competitively.
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The old kings of Europe built beautiful race courses that contained grass tracks that often became a part of the countryside landscape. Attending these events was about more than just betting on horses. It was also about taking in the scenery and enjoying the event in a tranquil setting. Compare this with today in the US where many race tracks have been built in cities, surrounded today by buildings and neighborhoods.
There was another reason that the fathers of horse racing chose to race their horses on grass. Grass is the natural habitat of the horse. Many people mistakenly believe that dirt is the natural habitat because they are used to seeing horses race on dirt in the US and other areas. In the wild, a horse lives the entirety of its life on a grass surface. This is where it learns to stand, to walk, and to run. Grass even provides the nourishment that a horse needs to survive.
The Three Categories of Racing Surfaces
There are three primary racing surfaces that are used in thoroughbred racing today. Each of them is used throughout the world, but in some areas one surface is considered traditional. In Australia, the traditional racing surface is grass.
Grass hourses are those which are made of manicured grass that is maintained throughout the racing season. When watching a race on television or your computer, it often appears that the grass is cut very short. In reality, the grass on many horse racing tracks will reach almost to the knees of a horse. This type of surface is often softer on the horses’ hooves.
In America the traditional racing surface is dirt. This came about when horsemen in America sought to construct elegant racing venues that would rival those of their European counterparts. A dirt track usually consists of a sandy bottom with loose dirt on top.
There is a third type of surface that is being used in many horse racing locations. This is an artificial surface that is made up of silica gel or other substances. Some tracks have adopted the artificial track because they believe that it is a safer option for horses and contributes to fewer injuries.
The Excitement of Grass Racing in Australia
The inherent nature of grass racing is the production of exciting race finishes. This is very true in Australia. There, many races are not decided until the final stages of the race. Specifically, the final 1/8th of a mile can produce many exciting duels between horses that are trying to cross the finish line first and claim victory.
It is the natural manner of turf racing to encourage horses to go slow in the early stages and conserve their speed. A front-runner will usually emerge and set a pace that the other horses will then follow. Once the horses have cleared the final turn and are headed for home, all the jockeys ask the horses to give their best effort.
The horses then unleash the energy that they have conserved for a final run to the wire. It is not uncommon to see a horse come from the back of the pack to win in Australia. Many times the races are decided by the margin of a nose!
When handicapping the grass races in Australia, always factor in the running styles of turf horses. You generally want to back horses that have strong closing speed.
Concerns Over Racing Surfaces
Critics of horse racing are quick to point out that some surfaces appear to cause injury to horses more often than others. The introduction of artificial horse racing surfaces in America was a direct response to the safety concerns expressed by those outside of the thoroughbred racing industry.
Turf racing does seem to be one of the more safer contests of horse racing. Horses are fragile animals and can still suffer injuries on the turf, but many believe that the surface yields better to the weight of the horses as they run.
Sadly, those beliefs may be in error. Some individuals have pointed to the largest race in Australia as evidence that turf racing can be just as deadly as racing on dirt. One news report claims that the Melbourne Cup has been responsible for five horse deaths since 2013. In 2014 there were two horses that were euthanized as a result of injuries sustained in the race.
Nevertheless, Australia remains one of the safest places for horses to race competitively. In Australia there are fewer fatal injuries than in Great Britain or the USA. This would seem to support the notion that racing on a grass surface is safer for horses. However, there are some who claim that the use of illicit medications in the US and the UK is truly responsible for the injuries and deaths.
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