Turf Betting 101 Guide

Daniel Collins

Written by: Daniel Collins


Read Time: 6 minutes

If you know anything about horse racing, you know that it is enjoyed all across the globe. Betting on horse racing started centuries ago and developed in almost all regions where there are horses and open fields…

But because of topographical differences and cultural differences, the type of races and the surface on which horses run diverged.

The most profound difference is of course the fact that in some countries thoroughbred racing is most popular while other countries might prefer Standardbred racing.

Thoroughbred racing is the type of running you will see in the Kentucky Derby: horses galloping at top speed.

Standardbred racing is the type of running where the horse needs to maintain a specific running style like trotting or pacing. Usually for this type of horse racing the Jockey (Driver) sits on a little cart (the sulky) behind the horse.

Standardbred racing is run almost exclusively on sand and ashes and is the topic of other in-depth articles on Bettingnews.com.

Thoroughbred racing is run on a variety of surfaces. The most popular is grass which we call Turf in the horse racing world.

In Europe, the vast majority of races are run on Turf. It is rare to find a horse racing track made of any other surface. The same goes in Australia and Latin America.

In the USA and Canada however, the preferred surface is Dirt: a mix of dirt and sand.

The USA racing scene has also produced a synthetic surface, often called Polytrack. The Polytrack is made mostly of pulverized rubber so it is hard but also absorbs the shocks better than dirt.

Turf is of course present in US and Canadian horse racing but only about 10-20% of the races are run on that surface. There are less races run on the surface but that is an advantage for the smart bettor.

In this article we concentrate exclusively on Thoroughbred Horse Racing and we focus on Turf racing which is the most popular style all across the world.

The advice below is suitable for any region but particularly in US horse racing as there are less turf races and therefore less knowledge about them. Turf racing in the USA is amongst the most

profitable avenues if you know what you are doing because of major differences with Dirt racing and how to handicap it.

The first key point to note is that Turf racing is a strategic game. It is all about saving ground and being in striking position for the mad dash in the last hundreds of yards of the race. The Jockey is therefore a more important factor on Turf than Dirt.

Second, Turf racing is easier on the body of horses as the ground is softer but for this same reason it requires specific physical attributes from horses.

The most important quality is endurance. This is especially true because the turf races are usually ran on longer distances than dirt races. To succeed in Turf Horse Racing, it helps having good endurance.

The Endurance aspect and strategic aspect means that it is a hard game to master for horse racing trainers and not everyone finds success on that surface. Some trainers have found the right recipe to train turf racehorses and when betting on turf racing you need to pay a lot of attention to the success of trainers on that particular surface.

In addition to a better endurance, a specific physical attribute helps horses win turf races: their feet (hooves) should ideally be large so as to not dig themselves to deep into the soil but rather stay on top of it. This of course helps keep speed and traction.

Obviously it will be hard to impossible for you to go examine the hooves of the horses or if he looks like he has endurance if you bet from an OTB or online…

You can instead rely on the horse racing program to find clues on whether or not this particular horse is suited for the Turf surface.

The main clue is of course whether the horse has won races on Turf previously. If a horse has a good win percentage on the Turf (20% or better) it is a safe bet to assume that it is well suited for the surface. If it has also won at that particular turf racing distance and even at that particular track, it is a pretty good bet today.

If the horse has lost a lot (90%+ of the time) on the surface you can probably dismiss it as not being suited for Turf racing…

But what if he has never run?

In this case you can look at the Pedigree of the horse (his parents). Because of the specific physical requirements to succeed on the Turf, the pedigree is particularly important to look at for first time out horses.

There are some Sires (Male parent) of horses that jump out of the page in the context of Turf Racing. If you see a horse coming from these sires or who are grandchildren of these sires, they are good bets to win on the turf:

  • Giant’s Causeway
  • Langfuhr
  • Medaglia D’Oro
  • Kitten’s Joy
  • Scat Daddy

Luckily for you, if you use the Daily Racing Form program, you can take a shortcut and look for the Tomlison figures.

Tomlison has developed an index of turf pedigree quality (and wet track racing quality) and you can find it in the lifetime results box of the horse (top right). The higher the figure, the better the horse’s pedigree when it comes to turf.

In general, Turf racing is quite different from Dirt or Polytrack racing and there is a saying that summarizes that very well: “Class on the grass”.

Because of the strategic aspect of turf racing, the endurance factor and the pedigree factor, it is not very useful to look at the horse’s speed figures or final times. The turf is much more unreliable than dirt when it comes to racing time and a little bit more moisture might make the track a lot slower that day or even two hours later. For that reason, it is very difficult to compare turf racing times with any accuracy.

Moreover, because the turf racing strategy dictates that the final hundreds of yards is when the real race starts, you could have a very classy horse with a ton of quality that could be showing terrible time in its last races but still be hard to beat today because of its class.

For that reason, follow the “Class on the grass” saying: pay little attention to the speed figures but try to find horses with proven success or proven pedigree on the surface and find such horses with a good jockey and a trainer with good success on turf.

Betting on Turf horses is amongst the most fun in all of racing. The races are usually quite exciting because the horses tend to stay in a tight group for most of the race before racing like mad in the last few hundred yards.

For this reason, the position of the horse during the race will be important in determining whether he has a shot at winning in the end. If the horse is saving ground on the inside and is taking cover from a horse in front, it is usually a great position. The horse can however get boxed in and not be able to deploy its speed in the end, being blocked by other horses. The inside, boxed in, position is therefore a two edged-sword…

On the other hand, because the turf races are usually won by little margins in a mad sprint in the end, being forced to the outside of the pack is detrimental. By being in the outside of the pack, the horse has free range to deploy its speed but it also loses ground in the turns and therefore runs a longer race…

It is hard to predict exactly how the group will form and where each horse will be so my advice is to bet on horses with a jockey with a good track record on the turf.

Because of the strategic aspect, the jockey’s talent is more important in turf racing than dirt racing. By finding a jockey with a good win record (20% or more) in turf racing you can trust that he can find a way to the inside track and save ground while finding the right second to get out of the box and unleash the speed of his horse.

In summary, when betting on horse racing run on turf, my advice is to pay most attention to these factors:

  • Find a horse with a proven winning record when running on turf (wins 20% or more of the time. Alternatively, find a horse with a good turf pedigree if first time out.
  • Find a horse who has ideally run well or won at this class category (same or bigger amount of money in the purse is a good shortcut)
  • Find a horse trained by a trainer with a 20+% win ratio on turf
  • Find a horse driven by a jockey with a 20+% win ratio on turf

If you find a horse that fits all these criteria or most of them, it is probably a good bet today but as usual, don’t bet if the odds offered on the pari-mutuel are too low…

A Horse at 1/1 odds needs to be a LOT better than the opposition to be worth it… Better to have fun with a 6/1 shot that meets most of the criteria.