The ‘going’ in horse racing is essentially a description of underfoot track conditions.
It is measured and tested before racing, chiefly by the Clerk of the Course, and published along with any changes so that horsemen and punters know what sort of track the horses will be racing on.
Going conditions and descriptions change according to the weather. On the turf for example, it’s accepted that the more it rains the softer the ground will be, just like your local park or playing field. If there is a breeze and some warm weather, the track is bound to dry out.
The going plays a major role in the performance of horses and has a major role in betting calculations too.
In case you’re not familiar with them, there are a bunch of going descriptions used in racing. There is some wiggle room in them, which you should never forget, and they are always subject to change depending on the weather.
There are basic descriptions used, but often you’ll see “(xxxxx in places)” written on a race card too. That’s because over a track of around a mile-and-a-half in length, some patches may be harder or softer than others due to drainage, foliage etc.
In Britain, accepted going descriptions are:
- Soft (heavy in places)
- Good-to-soft (soft in places)
- Good (good-to-soft in places)
- Good-to-firm (good in places)
- Firm (good-to-firm in places)
A ‘heavy’ going description is fairly common after rainfall, especially in winter months, while firm and hard are extremely rare. Firm and hard descriptions are seen most commonly at Bath where watering of the track is not possible.
These descriptions can change depending on the racing territory. In Ireland, good-to-soft is essentially replaced by the term ‘yielding’.
On All Weather tracks, regardless of whether they are made up of Tapeta or Polytrack, the main going description is ‘standard’ though ‘standard-to-slow’ is most common at Kempton Park. On the dirt in America or Dubai for example, descriptions such as ‘fast’ and ‘sloppy’ are the most common.
Keep in mind when checking the weather before a race meeting that it has the reverse effect on the All Weather to what it has on turf. Generally speaking, rain means a softening of the ground on the turf which is to be expected.
If the ground started at ‘good’ and there is a downpour, you can expect the going to be changed to ‘good-to-soft’ or even ‘soft’ before the first race.
On Tapeta surfaces such as those at Newcastle, Wolverhampton and Southwell as well as on the dirt tracks in the States, the opposite is often true.
When there are very drying conditions the surface becomes a little loose, much like sand. This makes it slower for horses. When the rain comes it compacts the surface and makes it easier and quicker to run on.
Think of the difference between the wet sand near the sea and the loose sand further back. One is much easier to walk on than the other.
The Accuracy of Going Descriptions
Going description accuracy has long since been a bone of contention within horse racing, especially for trainers and owners.
Often, they have complained having called a Clerk of the Course to ask about the ground, only to find it what they believe to be significantly different when they get to the track.
This is one of the reasons not to be too hung up on the going as a punter. There is more to making a horse faster or more tired than the going description.
Take for example the case of Cracksman. In 2017 trainer John Gosden pulled him out of the Dante Stakes citing unsuitable ground. It was barely soft at the time.
Later, Cracksman would be described as “needing soft ground”, in fact he used very wet going to great effect when twice running to a mark of 130 on it in the Champion Stakes to become the highest rated horse in the world.
But, Gosden was right. Not only is the liking for a certain surface a learning curve, but also there are other factors to consider. On tiring ground, Gosden didn’t want to risk Cracksman going over an extended 1¼ miles in the Dante just 15 days before the Derby on his third ever racecourse start. Quite right too.
Had he been able to take in the Dante and skip over what was thought to be suitable fast ground at the time, he may not have used up as much energy before the big day.
How the Going is Measured
The days of just prodding a wooden stick into the ground before deciding on the official going are gone. Well, just about.
Trainers still use the stick and their heel to get an idea of the going, but these days the going stick is used with its measurements published alongside the official going description. Much like the image on the right.
The going stick works by prodding it into the ground three times close together, at least within a couple of yards.
The stick then measures downward penetration, how easily it probes into the ground vertically before it is pulled back at 45 degrees to create a numerical reading. That reading is derived from movement within the ground, grass and soil, essentially replicating what a horse’s hoof would do.
The stick then stores that information before the Clerk of the Course moves to the next waypoint and does it all again, coming out with an average reading which is then published.
Something to keep in mind for betting purposes are the going stick average readings.
|Going Description||Mean Stick Reading – Flat||Mean Stick Reading – Jump|
Knowing these by heart isn’t necessary, but having a general idea can be helpful.
What to Keep in Mind When Having a Bet
The going is important, we won’t deny that. But the fact is that most horses, not all of them of course but most, will be able to handle various types of going. If they didn’t, we’d have non-runners all over the shop!
The going should always be under consideration when you are looking to have a bet, but it should never be the main consideration unless it is known that a specific horse has a deep liking for certain conditions.
As well as the ground, consider these things:
- Pace. A horse may not necessarily be in need of fast ground, but a fast pace.
- Distance. A horse may take a while to get going, so may perform similarly on good ground over a mile-and-a-half or on softer ground over a mile-and-a-quarter.
- Topography. It may not be the firmer going that gets a horse unbalanced or out of its comfort zone, it could be going downhill or running round bends. Think of the shape and topography of a course as going straight or uphill may suit a horse much more regardless of the going.