Is all-weather racing no longer the poor relation?
By Amy Lynam
For much of 2018, racing fans waited with bated breath for the return of Enable. Musings on when and where the wonder mare would reappear were many and varied, but few predicted that the Arc De Triomphe heroine would make her seasonal debut at Kempton on the polytrack surface.
Almost two years prior, the regal Juddmonte homebred, who had garnered high regard at home, made her very first racecourse appearance on Newcastle’s Tapeta track. That fateful day was the 28th of November 2016, when, of course, flat racing had left the turf for the winter months, narrowing John Gosden’s choice to two: run his future star on the all-weather, or not until March.
Gosden did, however, have turf options in September of 2018, and when quizzed on the decision to run a then five-time Gp1 winner on the all-weather, he had no hesitation: “We had aimed Enable at York, but it came about a week or ten days too early, so Kempton came at exactly the right time. The fact that it was on the all-weather didn’t concern me, as I knew exactly what I was going to get.”
For Enable’s return in the Gp3 September Stakes, the going was described as standard to slow, whereas on the very same day, Ascot raced on good to firm (good in places), while the going at Haydock was heavy. There are few surprises in the going on the all-weather; after all, the clue is in the name, and its consistency is very much appreciated by John Gosden, who says, “When the ground goes too firm in the summer, or during drought, or it becomes bottomless at the end of autumn, the all-weather is a nice place to be. It’s consistent, with bounce, and you can ride a proper race on it.”
It would, however, be unfair to look at all-weather racing as one entity, with “all-weather” encompassing various surfaces, mainly fibresand, polytrack and Tapeta™. Not only this, but each racecourse has its own shape and quirks, as well as its own race programme. Just as on the turf, no two courses are the same.
Gosden is just one trainer who, unsurprisingly, has some favourites, as he shares, “The all-weather track I like the most is Newcastle; it’s very fair and has a good Tapeta surface. It has always been a fair, sweeping course; there are not too many hard luck stories there.” His favour for other all weather tracks is not quite so strong, as he continues, “There’s no doubt that at the likes of Lingfield, you get some unevenly-run races, where they slow the pace down early on and sprint in the straight.”
The opinions of trainers on particular tracks undoubtedly has a great influence on what horses, including what standard of horse, they will run at each. Though he has less hands-on experience with the all-weather racecourses in the UK, French-based trainer John Hammond is impressed by the surface at Lingfield, saying, “I have walked the all-weather track at Lingfield, and it is ‘night and day’ when compared to the all-weather tracks in France.”
When discussing all-weather racing, Hammond is keen to stress the importance of how each track is managed. “All-weather tracks need to be very well maintained and managed by very good groundsmen. I don’t think they pay enough attention to these tracks in France, and they often get too quick.” Hammond could not recommend French all-weather courses’ consistency as Gosden had, as he says, “The all-weather tracks here vary considerably. I wouldn’t mind running a good horse at Lingfield, or Kempton, but Chantilly can be a bit quick.”
All-weather surfaces have been touted for their lack of fatal injuries, but John Hammond sees a different type of injury on all-weather tracks, and this is one of the reasons he does not have many runners on the surface. “I do think young horses suffer from racing on the all-weather,” he says. “I see an increase in bone bruising to the hind cannon bone due to the fact that there is no slippage on synthetic surfaces.” Hammond gained experience in California before taking out his training licence, which has had some effect on his views. “America has torn up most of it’s all-weather tracks. They may have been applauded for fewer fatal injuries, but bone bruising causes intermittent lameness. This can leave a horse runnable but not performing at its best.”
When questioned on potentially running his stable stars on the all-weather, Hammond said, “I wouldn’t be keen on running my top horses on the all-weather in France. If the French all-weather tracks were a bit softer, I might be more keen on it. It didn’t do Enable any harm!”