Horse racing is a year-round sport and as such, it takes place in a massive variety of weather conditions. Understanding how the weather impacts the ground and what that means for the outcome of races is a vital tool in any punters’ armoury.
In this guide that examines all there is to know about “the going”, we look at exactly what the going is, how it is measured and categorised, how it is described around the world and what impact it has on finely tuned thoroughbreds.
Put simply, the going is a description of the ground conditions at a given racecourse on a given day. Such is the importance of the surface conditions on a race that the going is probably the most important single piece of information for a day’s racing.
Although the temperature, humidity and other weather conditions can have an impact on how horses (and jockeys) perform, the going is concerned only with the amount of moisture in the ground. The wetter the surface, the softer and therefore slower the course will be. Conversely, drier ground produces faster races.
Punters must pay close attention to the going to have an understanding of how well certain horses are likely to run (more on this later). For trainers and owners though the going can be even more important. Running a horse on unsuitable ground can sometimes be a serious safety concern which is why in-depth inspections take place on ground which is at either extreme of the scale, whether very wet or very dry.
Turf Racing Going
The going descriptions for British and Irish racing have been used for many years but it is well worth delving deeper into them to understand exactly what to expect the next time you read good to soft or heavy on a racecard.
You’ll doubtless have heard the term ‘hard going’ used in all manner of different situations to describe something which is a slog. The going description of hard is the opposite of a slog in that it is the firmest possible ground but it is certainly a difficult surface.
Hard going is rarely, if ever, seen on British racecourses. Improvements in the water systems used over the years mean that tracks are usually kept from the going tipping over to hard. Moreover, when the rules of racing have been changed in more recent years so that any ground officially recorded as hard must automatically be deemed as unfit for racing.
Firm ground is as fast as you will find in British and Irish racing. You’ll most often see firm conditions in the height of the summer months when the rainfall is at its lowest and the temperatures are at their highest.
The speed of firm ground means that it is best suited to sprint races. Consequently, it can be hard for meetings to fill race places for longer distance races on firm ground so you’ll often find water applied to firm tracks to make them that bit more versatile.
Good to Firm
When water is applied to firm tracks the goal is usually to ease the ground to the point that the going is given as good to firm. As the name suggests, good to firm ground is in the middle of good and firm ground.
Although good to firm ground is slower than just firm ground, it is still fast enough to favour the speediest horses. In dry summer months, racecourses will often aim for good to firm ground if genuinely good ground is unattainable.
Good ground is generally considered to be the fairest surface for all horses. It is firm enough for the speedier horses to be able to utilise their pace but has enough give in the surface so that those who prefer softer conditions are not put off.
It is no coincidence that good is the most common going description in British racing. Courses will specifically aim for this by keeping on top of the watering and the use of drainage systems to try and keep the worst effects of the rain at bay.
Good to Soft
Good to soft going is used to describe ground that is holding a fair amount of water but is still considered fair. Indeed, good ground may be the goal for Flat racing but when it comes to the jumps lots of horses find even good ground too firm so won’t be entered unless there is enough give in the turf.
It can be difficult to find good to soft ground in the depths of winter but by the time the big spring National Hunt meetings like the Cheltenham Festival and Aintree come around, good to soft ground is the norm.
In Ireland, good to soft ground is called yielding.
As a consequence of the wetter and colder weather in Britain and Ireland during the autumn, winter and even into spring, much of the jumps season is run on soft ground. You’ll often hear soft ground being described as deeper than good ground. This is because wetter ground has much more give in it and horses’ hooves will literally dig deeper into the ground.
The softer the ground, the more difficult it is for horses to run on. This has the dual effect of slowing down the pace of the racing and handing an advantage to horses with bigger reserves of stamina.
Heavy ground is the complete opposite of hard ground. With more give in the surface than soft ground, when the going is described as heavy you know that the day’s racing is going to prove to be a real test of stamina for the runners.
Heavy ground occurs after significant rainfall. Anybody who has walked on grass after a lot of rain knows how tricky it can be just to walk so heavy ground really is hard work for the horses who have to race on it. Many trainers won’t send certain horses to run on heavy ground but others absolutely relish the specific challenge it poses.
All Weather Race Going
The prestige and importance of all weather racing in Britain continues to improve. As more racing fans become engrossed in the all weather action so does interest in the going conditions of the various surfaces found at Britain’s six all weather tracks.
The firmest synthetic tracks in Britain and Ireland are described as fast. All weather tracks described as fast have little to no moisture and allow horses to post quick times. The problem with fast tracks is they can be a little too firm for some horses so courses hosting all weather meetings will aim for standard ground which is firm enough for quick times but easy enough so as not to be overly jarring.
All weather tracks do have very good drainage systems installed but the going is still affected when the rain falls. Hence wet all weather tracks are given a rating of slow, reflecting what happens to the times.
International Racing Going
The way that the going is announced differs from country to country. It is important to understand these differences just as it is important to know the difference between different going descriptions in turf and all weather racing.
If you are betting on Australian racing you may not even hear the term going used at all. The condition of racecourses is instead referred to as the track rating in Australia.
This track rating is a little more in-depth than British and Irish description of racing as each course is given a rating from one to 10 as follows.
|Firm 1||Bone dry, fast and very hard|
|Firm 2||Firm and fast but with more grass coverage than Firm 1|
|Good 3||Good grass coverage but with some cushion in the ground|
|Good 4||Slightly more give in the ground than Good 3|
|Soft 5||Still a fair surface but with a fair amount of give in it|
|Soft 6||Moist track, not badly affected by rain|
|Soft 7||Rain affected to the point it will cut up|
|Heavy 8||Wet ground that horses will get in to|
|Heavy 9||Wet, slow ground with squelchy areas|
|Heavy 10||Very wet ground that borders on being saturated|
In American racing, the term used to describe the going is the track condition. The descriptions for both turf and all weather racing are closer to what we’re used to in Britain and Ireland than the Australian system.
For turf meetings, the grades are firm, good, yielding, soft and heavy. Those grades have the same meaning as in Britain and Ireland but in practice, you’ll rarely find a heavy track. It’s dirt racing that is most common in the USA though and the going descriptions for that are in the table below.
|Fast||Dry throughout with little to no give|
|Wet Fast||A fast track that has recently been rained on, times can be quicker than on Fast|
|Good||Some give in the ground, almost Fast|
|Muddy||A wet track that has no standing water|
|Sloppy||Saturated with water with visible standing water|
|Slow||Wet both on the surface and the base|
|Sealed||A packed down wet track, reducing the effects of rain providing a fair surface|
How and When Is the Going Measured?
For the majority of horse racing’s history, the going was reported after an inspection from the clerk of the course. Despite these clerks having a huge wealth of experience in the sport and intimate knowledge of the tracks at which they were based, their reports of the going were subjective and led to inevitable complaints from jockeys and owners.
Around the turn of the 21st century the Jockey Club and others resolved to take a more scientific approach to how the ground responded to the heel of a clerk’s wellies, thus the GoingStick was born. At the same time, the internet had the same transformative impact on the flow of information in racing as every other industry so it became increasingly important for the reporting to be timely and accurate.
After failing to come up with a way of objectively measuring racecourse surfaces for a decade, the Jockey Club hired the TurfTrax to solve their problem. The sports data company worked alongside Cranfield University to produce what would eventually become known as the GoingStick.
As well as months and months of work in the lab measuring the amount of moisture in soil, the teams behind the GoingStick also took 100,000 measurements across the 59 UK racecourses. Those measurements were then compared with subjective assessments until TurfTrax and the racing authorities were happy with the results.
The use of the GoingStick is now mandatory across all British racecourses. The clerk of the course takes two separate measurements. The first is penetration – the amount of force required to push the tip of the GoingStick into the ground; and the second is shear – the energy required to pull the GoingStick back to an angle of 45 degrees from the ground. There are two different settings for jumps and flat racing.
It takes at least 30 readings to produce a reading that is deemed statistically significant. The usual method of operation in Britain is for clerks to take six readings – three vertical and three shear – at 30 different waypoints around the course for a total of 180.
The measurements are returned on a scale from 0-15 with nought being the wettest ground possible and 15 a tarmacked road. On any given raceday the 180 measurements are averaged out to give a reading. You will very rarely see an average reading lower than five or higher than 10.
This average does not automatically result in the ground being graded with a certain going reading as there are variations between different courses. The going description, therefore, remains subjective and is offered alongside the GoingStick reading so trainers and punters still need to factor in their own knowledge of specific courses. That is one reason why in Ireland clerks of the course still use a wooden stick and their own knowledge to determine the going.
When is the Going Announced?
There are several important stages along the way to the start of a horse race such as deadlines for entries and final declarations which come at 10.00 am two days before a race. The same doesn’t quite apply for the going in that there is no official announcement on the ground.
In British racing, the GoingStick must be used on the morning of the meeting to produce an official reading but the going is updated almost constantly so there is no big reveal. Courses will give readings in the days leading up to races and weather forecasts allow for accurate predictions so there are no big surprises on the day of the race.
What can happen on the day of the race is that the going changes. Some courses are more prone to holding water than others and so some wet weather on the day can see the going ease fairly quickly. Likewise, a warm day with high winds will often see the ground dry out and the going changed accordingly as the races are taking place.
Changes in the going are always communicated by racecourse officials to the media and, most importantly, to trainers and jockeys. Again, these changes won’t come as a surprise as jockeys will report their feelings on the ground to trainers and owners at the end of every race.
Differences Across the Track
Racecourses are big places. It is impossible for one going reading or description to encompass the whole of a course. For that reason, you’ll often see a caveat in the going description. A typical example of this would be at a jumps meeting where the going is described as good to soft, soft in places.
Certain areas of the course are always going to be more susceptible to the rain than others so these caveats to the going are seen regularly. Course officials will try to mitigate these differences by moving the rails to use the best ground available but it’s often unavoidable. This is also true for meetings which are abandoned due to frozen or waterlogged ground. Steps are taken to avoid bad ground but it is by no means guaranteed.
This difference in certain areas of the course will often have a major impact on races, especially on the flat where horses start from stalls. Horses who are drawn closest to faster ground will have a natural advantage over those who either have to cope with slower ground or move laterally to find the best ground. In flat and jumps racing you’ll also often see jockeys lead their horses to the stands or far side rail based on their judgement about where the best ground is.
Horses and the Going
The extent to which the going can change the chances of a horse winning a given race is a hot topic of debate in racing. Some very good judges will tell you that the state of the ground is something of a leveller at best while others will tell you that it fundamentally affects the makeup of a race.
Course Form is the Key
As we’ve seen already, the going description is ultimately a subjective call. That’s true even after the introduction of the GoingStick because of the differing nature of the ground at different racecourses. For that reason, the smart move for punters is not to just look at whether a horse has run well on the given going before but if they’ve run well on the going at the particular course they are running.
Take the example of the popular grey jumps horse Bristol De Mai. As a multiple winner of the Betfair Chase, he has an exemplary record at Haydock which is a course that tends to hold a lot of water and therefore comes up softer than most. For all that Bristol De Mai’s form on heavy ground at Haydock proves his tremendous stamina and ability to dig in when the ground is difficult to run on, it does not automatically transfer to every course that comes up soft or heavy.
By the same token, horses who have run well on heavy ground at other racecourses can’t simply be expected to be able to cope with heavy ground at Haydock. It is an important and helpful indicator for success but by no means constitutes proof so previous course form on the ground is the key element to look out for.
Keep an Eye on Running Styles and Action
When assessing which horses are likely to prefer which ground the first port of call (beyond previous form) is the pedigree. If a horse’s dam, sire or even slightly more distant relatives ran well on soft ground there is a good chance the same will be true for them. This is because the physique of a horse can have a significant effect on what sort of ground they prefer.
It takes real power for a horse to reach the top of the flat racing ratings over any distance but the quickest horses who prefer good to even firm ground often have shorter joints. The impact of their relatively short joints leads to more upright legs which in turn helps a horse make the most of better ground. You’ll often hear such horses referred to as “top of the ground horses” because they are better when their hooves stay on the top of the ground rather than penetrating deeper into the surface.
By contrast, horses who prefer running on softer conditions tend to have larger hooves (which helps mitigate some of that ground penetration) and what is called a sloping shoulder. In effect, sloping shoulders are longer as opposed to being more upright. This produces a higher knee action with the front legs especially moving in a round motion rather than more of an up and down motion and it is that which helps some horses cope better with soft ground.