Betting On Dirt – Horse Racing 101

Daniel Collins

Written by: Daniel Collins

Last Updated:

Read Time: 10 minutes

In another guide about horse racing betting we have written about the core aspects of Turf racing, the running of horses on a grass surface.

Turf Racing is the most popular form of horse racing and most of the people betting around the world do so on turf racing.

In the USA and Canada however, the most common surface for horse racing is Dirt.

Dirt is a bit of a misnomer because it is normally not simple dirt or soil. Usually, the racetrack is composed of a mixture of clay, sand and soil and different racetracks will have slightly different dirt surfaces. This difference has an effect on the bias that a track might be showing and we will describe in more details the concept of horse racing track bias below.

Dirt track racing is a quite different sort than Turf racing and when handicapping the race and betting, the player should be aware of the key strategic differences between the surfaces.

Dirt track racing is also somewhat different from Synthetic surface racing. Synthetic surfaces have become popular in recent years for the supposed easier maintenance of these surfaces and the improved security for horses and jockeys alike of running on synthetic. There is a bit of return from the synthetic craze recently but we will still cover the core aspects to consider when betting on horse racing run on synthetic surfaces in a separate article.

Horse Racing on Dirt, a numbers game

American horse racing fans have a wealth of information at their disposal. As we have discussed in the article about the racing programs, there is a ton of information available to handicap races. If you are confused about the content of programs, don’t worry, it can be a bit overwhelming but our racing program reading guide can help you make the most of the information in it.

When handicapping a horse race run on dirt, the first thing to pay attention to is the speed figure of the racing horses. The speed figure is a composite number which attempts to put in a comparable number the racing time of different horses which ran on different racetracks in different races at different times.

No two racetracks are exactly alike and no two races are alike.

The racetracks vary in terms of format of the track, steepness of the turns, racing surface quality, etc.

Two races, especially if run on different days, will also be different, even if the track is the same. The weather will vary, the wind will vary, the quality of the track surface will vary (if it rains, it will be deeper and slower for instance), the race distance will vary, etc.

For this reason, it is not advisable to take the racing times at face value. It takes some adjusting to truly pinpoint how fast a race was run if you want to remove all the differences and external factors.

This is what horse racing speed figures try to accomplish: take into consideration the differences and daily variations to boil down the performance into a single number that can be compared even if horses have run completely different races.

A separate article will go into more details on the topic of speed figures, their history and strategies to consider while betting with them.

At a high level, using Speed figures is easy: the higher the number, the faster the horse has run his race.

If you compare the speed figures for all the horses in a race and find the highest number, this reveals the horse who is estimated to have run the fastest in his last race. That does not mean that he will run the fastest and win today but it is a sign that he has some quality compared to this field.

Speed figures let you find the fastest horses but multiple horses in the race are likely to have somewhat similar figures. They will need to be separated on other factors including their ability on the surface and for the race distance.

Find a shortcut by using speed figures comparison

A good shortcut to handicap a race is therefore to separate the likely contenders from the horses that are outmatched.

Try to find the few horses who have in their last 3 races run relatively fast races compared to the others. We use the last three races as another shortcut: earlier races might have been run when the horse was still a baby or on the contrary in his prime. By focusing on the last 3 races of each horse, we try to find relatively recent data on every horse to compare.

For instance, if you have 5 horses in the race whose best race recently had figures of respectively 75, 78, 98, 95, 96, you can probably disregard the first two horses entirely and only try to separate the last three on other factors.

If a horse appears to be completely outmatched in terms of speed figures, he can usually be safely written off…

The corollary exists if a horse appears to just tower over the others, speed figure wise.

If a horse has consistently earned better speed figures in his last races than any of the other horses, he probably is a notch above the field today.

Speed figures are not the only elements to consider

The above statements make it look like betting on horse racing is easy: just find the highest speed figure and you’ve got your winner.

Thankfully for the fun of the game, it is not the case! Multiple other factors might impact the performance of the horse today.

An important element to pay attention to is the surface of course. Only consider the speed figures that the horse has earned on today’s surface. If he ran on Turf last time and today moves to dirt, you can disregard the speed figure earned on turf, it is a different world.

Can he go the distance?

The same goes for the distance of the race. Some horses have a lot of endurance and others are sprinters… It is rare for a horse to perform well on both style of races: Sprints (short races) and Routes (longer race distances, above 1 mile).

If you find that the horse with the best speed figures earned those at another distance than today’s race, you probably should take the figure with a grain of salt. He might not be able to replicate the performance on the different race length.

If you look at the horse pedigree, you can find clues as to whether he should be a good horse on that distance but that’s more advanced handicapping. The easiest is to look for the Tomlinson figure distance in the horse performance box (if you are reading the Daily Racing Form) to see if the horse is supposed to perform well at the distance.

Even simpler, check his racing history to see if he ever performed well at the distance or close distances. If not, it might be better to pass on him today.

The pace of the race can make or break a winner

The pace of the race is a very important factor, some will say the most important… Another of our horse racing guides will go in more details on this key aspect.

The basic idea of pace handicapping is that a horse race is always run at the fastest at the beginning of it.

Horses, like humans, tire. They will start quite fast and gradually slow down. When you see some horse overtaking others in the last stretch and appearing to pick up speed, it is a fallacy. He is not accelerating, he is just slowing down less than the others!

The pace of the race is basically the way the race is going to shape up based on the horses that start strong and those who pace themselves more.

If you have multiple horses who on paper try to be on the lead at the first turn, horses that are very fast at the beginning of the race, you are likely to have a fast pace. You can find such horses by looking at their past performances and seeing if they were close to the lead in the first calls of the race.

These horses will battle each other in the early stages and that will create very fast race fractions in the early going. By going fast early and battling each other, it is likely that they will tire early too and that should give the chance for other horses to overtake them.

On the other hand, if you have a single horse who is a lot faster at the beginning that the rest of the field, he should be able to take the lead comfortably and not exert himself too much. He can then cruise gently the rest of the race and conserve energy, hopefully enough to not slow down so much in the stretch. By not being opposed in the early going, it gives a chance for the horse to go wire-to-wire.

The easiest scenario for a race handicapper is to find a horse with the best speed figures, who is likely to take an easy lead and not be opposed for the whole race. This is almost money in the bank but of course everyone knows it and the odds of the horse will be pummeled down… Betting on such a horse is in my opinion not very fun. You are not so happy when you win because of low odds and there is always the chance that the race does not pan out as it should…

Pace handicapping is a more advanced notion and we will cover it in detail in another article but the key takeaway is that if you have multiple horses who have historically tried to take the lead early, they are likely to battle and tire which will give a good chance to win to horses who come from behind…

Is there a strong track bias?

Due to the nature of the soil or the track configuration, some racetracks tend to favor a particular running style or starting position. In some cases, the bias is so extreme that it makes no sense betting on a horse that is not favored by the bias.

Monmouth Racetrack or Aqueduct Racetrack, for instance, tend to favor horses that take the lead at the start. On the other extreme, Tampa Bay Downs or Woodbine have surfaces that make it easier to come from behind.

Position in the starting gate is also important because some tracks tend to favor horses on the inside or the outside. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, tends to be better on the inside.

The Same goes for Gulfstream Park or Fair Grounds which both tend to be better on the inside.

Penn National and Del Mar are on the opposite side of the scale and horses running on the outside tend to perform better.

Important disclaimer, the track bias can change greatly based on the weather and season. More rain or sun changes the soil and the bias can disappear or be reinforced. The best way to keep tabs on the bias is to check regularly the results of your favorite tracks or use Equibase which publishes weekly reviews of the track bias.

Bet on winners

It might sound redundant but winners win.

Horses are herd animals, running is natural for them and in the wild they run in groups. The horse who takes the lead of the group is the Alpha male. Horses will therefore have a natural tendency to perform. Those who do not, have resigned themselves to being Beta.

In horse racing, it translates into the fact that some horses have a winning spirit and others do not. It is very rare for a horse to win all his races, but you will find horses who “go for it” or do not. They will have good winning percentage and generally more wins than second or third place.

Other horses are followers they will very often be “in the money” meaning first second or third but they will win far less than finishing second or third.

A horse who has shown a tendency to be unable to close the deal and win should be taken with a grain of salt, even if he has better speed figures. He might not have what it takes to win.

Horse racing class

Class on the grass is a popular saying in turf racing. It means that speed can be dismissed when racing on grass. What counts is the character, physical quality and breeding of the horse for that surface.

That does not mean that class is not important on the dirt, but the quality of the horse shows up more readily in numbers on that surface. Therefore, trying to assess the class of the horse is a bit less important.

Nonetheless, you should try to find horses who have won at today’s purse value or close to it. This is as a proxy to determine the class of the race. Races where there is more money to be won tend to be classier…

The class of the horse is an intangible notion but it is basically his ability to beat horses of a certain quality. There are OK horses who compete at the lower echelons of racing (for little prize money), good horses who toil in the middle class levels and great horses who compete in the Stakes races and attempt to win large prizes, for instance in the Triple Crown races.

What about the jockey and trainer?

Good news, the game gets simple!

On dirt, you can pay less attention to the trainer and jockey than when handicapping a turf horse race.

Dirt races are the main game in town and most trainers specialize in it. If a horse trainer is not so talented, it should reflect on the horse performance, speed figures and results. You don’t need to look so much into his stats except if they are abysmal (less than 10% win) or great (more than 30% winning percentage).

Same goes for the jockeys. Because of the nature of dirt racing where it is a speed game, the jockey can almost hang on to the horse and that’s it… We exaggerate a lot but in truth dirt racing is less strategic than Turf racing so the statistics of the jockey are not so important in determining the chances of today’s horse.

A good data point to look at is the success rate of the trainer/jockey combination however. This is a sign of the readiness of the horse. If the trainer choses a jockey with whom he had success before, he might be trying to give his horse the best chances today because the horse is ready to win, physically fit and primed for a big race.

Horse racing on dirt summary

Trying to boil down handicapping strategy in a single page is hard.

Hundreds of books have been written over decades on the art of handicapping and they all show that there is no easy way to win. That’s what makes horse racing betting fun and challenging!

However as we advise above, you can use some shortcuts to identify key horses and select betting choices that have a good chance to come in:

  1. Find a horse with competitive speed figures in his last three races
  2. Find a horse who has won on the surface and distance
  3. Check if some horses are likely to go all out battling for the lead in the early stages. If that’s the case, try to find a horse who has had success coming from behind. If only one horse is likely to go for the lead bet on him if the other factors tend to indicate that he has a chance.

As usual, don’t forget to look at the odds before betting.

The goal of the game is not to find winners. The goal of the game is to make a profit!

Betting on a horse at very low odds should be done only if he seems unbeatable. If you think that there is a kink in the armor, it is better and more fun to bet on an outsider.