In 2023 Jennifer Morrison will be writing regular articles for Ontario Racing focused on educating bettors about different angles and techniques to use when handicapping on a race. This is the second installment in that series. Click here to read the first.
Turf racing has returned to Woodbine and Fort Erie racetracks and with it comes big fields and entirely unique handicapping puzzles where a $2 bet can lead to big payoffs. Sifting through a large field to identify contenders in a turf race may take a little more digging into a horse's race record. Factors to consider begin with whether a horse has raced on the grass before, horse pedigree, different turf course configurations, trips, class and speed.
Many grass races, in particular stakes events and non-condition races (races for multiple winners) tend to be filled with confirmed, experienced turf runners. That can make the handicapping process slightly more straightforward. In these cases the most significant handicapping approaches include how a turf race shaped up for your horse last time. Was the early pace slow (for example, in route races, was the half mile time on a firm turf course slower than :48.00) or fast (sub :47.00) and how did that work out for a horse's running style?
Trips, or a horse's journey in the race, can be key and taking a bit of time to review a previous race or two, utilizing race replays can be helpful. Most tracks offer previous day's replays on their websites and/or on YouTube.
Class and speed numbers play a big role in races of turf specialists.
Take a look at Trish the Dish and She Makes a Point, two mares who compete on Saturday, May 27 on the expansive E.P. Taylor turf course at Woodbine in race 8, an optional claiming race for $32,000 claiming or non-winners of two races lifetime or non-winners of a race of a race other than a maiden race, etc. (past performance examples courtesy of Daily Racing Form):
Trish the Dish/She Makes a Point past performance
This gal has made all but one of her starts on turf and the three wins that show on her page since 2021 have come at the $25,000 claiming level or lower. This weekend, Trish the Dish will try the $32,000 claiming class so this might be a a tougher field for her to conquer.
She Makes a Point does not have as many grass starts in her career as of yet but she has performed well at a higher level (optional claiming $50,000, non-winners of two races). In addition, her Beyer Speed Figures (found only in DRF) have been faster than those from Trish the Dish, including an 81 she earned in a near miss last June.
Differences in turf courses, know your symbols!
Traditional turf courses in North America are on the inside of the main track, thus the course is a bit tighter and the stretch run shorter.
At Woodbine, there are two turf courses; the E.P. Taylor is unique as it is outside of the main, Tapeta surface, with a long stretch run and wide, sweeping turn into the stretch. Woodbine's inner turf course has tighter turns and a shorter run to the wire and Fort Erie's turf course is also inside of its main track.
Using the example of Trish the Dish and She Makes a Point (above) different turf courses are noted by the symbols immediately to the right of the distance of the horse's last race.
A square around the letter T (for turf) for Woodbine races identifies the inner turf while a circle donates the Taylor course. However, note that Gulfstream Park in Florida, where Trish the Dish last raced, only has one turf course and it is marked by a circle.
Some horses prefer the Taylor course as they enjoy a longer, straight run from the last turn to the finish to complete their bids. Others, those with a bit more natural speed, do well on the inner turf as a winning move on that course often involves a quick bust around the final turn.
Both of Trish the Dish's turf wins in 2022 came on the inner course while She Makes a Point has yet to try the inner turf and has run well on the Taylor course. To be sure, there are horses who prefer one course configuration to the other.
Lanes! What do they mean?
In order to preserve turf courses through long racing seasons, portable rails may be put up in 'lanes'. This weekend at Woodbine, the first grass races, all of the Taylor course, will start in lane 3, in other words three paths off the permanent rail. This information can usually be found on the track's overnight entries. At this link you can find the May 28 entries for Woodbine and turf course lane information is at the top right of page two.
A general rule of thumb for Woodbine turf races on the Taylor course is that the further out the rails are, from lane 3 to lane 5, the more that front running horses can carry their speed as stretch runners tend to have more ground to cover.
A horse will often get its love for grass racing through his sire or dam. There are many sites that offer turf breeding formation such as Brisnet.com and BloodHorse,com which have up to the minute statistics on the leading sires of grass winners. Seeking out information on a horse's dam involves a bit more work but at Equibase.com you can type in any horse name and view a horse's career races.
In Daily Racing Form, the Tomlinson numbers (at the far right of a horse's record in brackets beside surface) have proven to be a useful tool for the casual racing fan. A turf rating of over 300 (derived from statistical analysis on horses with similar pedigree lines) is considered above average, the maximum number being 500.
Below is an excerpt from race 4 at Woodbine this Sunday, a 6 1/2 furlong sprint around on turn on the Taylor course. Justin's Way, who has a 348 Tomlinson rating, has proven to enjoy racing on the grass. This gelding has not yet won the turf but his five attempts last year resulted in a couple of second-place finishes, both in longer races around two turns on the inner course. He seems a very good fit for this race.
Beside him in the gate is Be Like Clint, who has only tried turf once and that was in March 2022 around two turns at Gulfstream Park at a much higher class level. Be Like Clint has a Tomlinson turf rating of 313 and his sire Point of Entry, and dam's sire, English Channel, were both Grade 1 winning grass horses. He could be a nice longshot play on Sunday.
Justin's Way/Be Like Clint
There are a few more variables when handicapping a grass race but casual racing fans love the excitement of a turf race finish, and you can often expect a longshot hitting the top three placings.
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Editor's Note: OR does not endorse any of these selections and Morrison's views are here own.
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