The grass is growing greener for turf racing
Number of dirt races declines as popularity of grass circuits takes hold in North America
For Mark Casse, the grass is greener.
The Canadian Hall of Fame thoroughbred trainer, seeking a second straight Grade 1 Woodbine Mile win on Saturday, has entered two horses, World Approval (7-2) and Conquest Panthera (12-1), in the race. Casse won the race last year with champion mare Tepin.
The Mile is part of a blockbuster weekend of turf racing at Woodbine Racetrack showcasing some of the best grass running horses in the world.
In addition to the Mile, Saturday’s card also features the Grade 1 Northern Dancer and the Grade 2 Canadian Stakes. Sunday features the Grade1Natalia and the Grade 2 Summer Stakes.
These races are important because the winners of the Mile, the Natalia and Summer Stakes are offered berths into the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 3 and 4 at Del Mar in California.
Casse, who currently sits third in earnings in turf races North America, never fashioned himself as a turf trainer when he started in the business 40 years ago. And still doesn’t. But his success with grass horses is due in large part to the renewed popularity in turf racing on the continent.
Despite being the preeminent surface for racing in Europe, Asia and Australia, grass racing here had taken a back seat to dirt racing, mostly because North America’s most famous races, such as the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, are run on dirt.
But not any more.
According to Equibase, a thoroughbred racing database, while the number of dirt races has declined over the last 20 years, turf racing has increased. There were 2,000 more turf races run in 2016 than in 1996, despite the drastically shrinking foal crop.
“There’s great money in it,” Casse said. “I think the fans enjoy it and I know the bettors do.”
Forty per cent of all graded stakes in North America are run on the turf, a reflection of this shift in attitudes about the surface.
Between April and August of this year, data shows that the average field size of a turf race at Woodbine is 8.8 horses, while the average field size for races on their Tapeta main track is 7.8 horses.
The same data shows payouts for win, exactas, trifectas and superfecta bets are significantly higher in turf races at Woodbine than the prices bettors get for races run on Woodbine’s Tapeta.
“Over the last decade or so, tracks started to realize that field size is probably bigger in the turf races, and you handle a little bit more money in the turf races,” said New York Racing Association racing secretary, Martin Panza.” Those are the more higherquality races. There aren’t too many tracks that are running cheap races on the turf.”
Panza added that horsemen have found they like that turf racing produces tighter finishes, where the difference from first to last can be just a few lengths. In dirt racing, often times the first horse out of the gate is the first horse across the finish line. Casse agrees “100 per cent.” “It’s one of the things for me, and why I find a lot of the dirt racing so aggravating is because, the trainers that run at these racetracks, they know what they are doing. There should not be separation of 20 or 30 lengths,” said Casse.
“In turf racing, it’s not uncommon to see all the finishers finish within five lengths of each other. So yeah, it’s a much better race. Dirt racing is not as fun to watch to watch and not as fun for the bettors.”