Each track location has its own personality, yet there are several features in common. Almost every generality about a race track can be contradicted by a counterexample somewhere.
The principal feature common to all tracks, naturally, is the oval itself. Racing in the United States is always counter-clockwise. Turns are always to the left. (At least one track has a limited right turn in a certain configuration.)
The layout of the oval may vary, but it stays generally between 8 and 10 furlongs around. (There are 8 furlongs in a mile. Races are always specified in furlongs.) Thus the track is between 1 mile and 11/8 miles in length. Normally, the length is 9 furlongs. Along the far side of the oval (from the grandstand) a straight stretch extends towards the right, past the oval. There may likewise be a straight extension on the near side to the left. These segments, called “chutes,” are used to create races of different lengths. The starting gate is mobile, so it can move to the correct location. The finish line is fixed, right in front of the grandstand (where all the high-tech photo finish equipment is poised).
For example, a standard track may be 9 furlongs around. The chutes allow for races of 6½, 7, 7½ and 8 (1 mile), as well as longer races from the front side. The last straight stretch (the “home stretch”) is 1,049 feet. Rails line both the inside and outside of the track.
Inside the inner rail is the “infield,” which often contains a turf track. The infield is also the traditional location for the “board,” which posts the status of pari-mutuel betting for the upcoming race. While there is still a board in the infield, this information is now more widely available on screens throughout the race track facilities. Outside the outer rail on the grandstand side is the “apron.” The term “railbirds” refers to the racing fans that like to go down on the apron and watch the race from the outer rail.
The track itself is 90 feet wide on the straights and slightly banked on the curves. Tracks have a slight crown in the middle, to permit drainage into the infield or out to the apron. Otherwise, tracks are flat (but there are a couple of exceptions).
Each track is marked with “poles” that indicate how much distance remains to the finish line. They are colored in stripes according to their measure (quarter miles are orchid and white, eighths are green and white and sixteenths are black and yellow). The “quarter pole” is a quarter mile (2 furlongs) away from the finish line. These markers are very important to spotters, who record the positions of the horses at various stages of the race.
After horse and jockey, the track is the third strongest influence on the outcome of a race. There is a racing expression, "Horses for Courses," which refers to the fact that some horses simply do better at certain tracks than at any of the others. Even though an effort is made to make the track level, smooth and (except for the turns) straight, sometimes local conditions can affect the horse's concentration, and cause a change in performance. If a horse is racing at the track where he has most of his wins, you can handicap that as a "home field advantage."
Peculiarities of a specific race course can affect how a horse runs. If the race is started out of a chute, or if the course is thus a little unusual (for example, a temporary rail across the main track to the horse's left), a horse may be startled by it. Also, in chute situations, the inside post positions are not that advantageous anyway. In all sprints that start from a chute, the track will have only one turn. This means there is less of a discrepancy between the inner post positions and those in the middle and outside. Even though some horses seem to enjoy some tracks more than others, main track variables are the racing surface and the distance.
The main surface variables are the type (turf or dirt) and the condition (fast, good, sloppy, muddy). Handicapping materials disclose how horses have performed under differing types and conditions of tracks. Some do well only on turf or on fast tracks; others come into their own in the mud.
Turf tracks can be wet down to keep them from drying out. When they are too wet for a race, the race may be transferred over to the dirt track. Normally, a horse will be a better performer on one or the other surface. That is, handicapping a horse will change according to the surface it is to race on. To keep a turf track from wearing too much, especially along the inside lanes, the inner rail may be moved out to give the inner portion of the track a rest. (The starting gate is adjusted to account for the change in distance). These nuances with turf tracks do make a difference for many handicappers.
It is the dirt track, however, that can change the handicapping by a lot, depending on the surface. For that reason, track conditions are reported in the past performance statistics of each race a horse has run in the past.
Dirt tracks have a "base" of compacted soil, covered by several inches of other material, which provide for drainage and cushion the hoof falls of the horses. Between the base and the surface is a layer of limestone, finely crushed, which can take up a foot or more of depth. On the surface is about 5½ inches of a mixture of sand, clay and silt, which is rolled or compacted. The track crew will drive different types of equipment over the track to ensure that it is compacted, drained and smooth.
Two considerations of track condition are essential to handicapping. One is that the track be nearly, but not perfectly level. There is a slight cant from near the outside of the track down to-ward the inner rail, to permit drainage. The top of the cant is called the crown, and the slope from crown to the rail is about 2%. Usually the outside thirty feet or so of track may be canted from the crown outwards towards the outside rail for drainage. In the turns the slope to the crown is banked to about 4 or 6% to assist the horses in turning.
The other consideration of track condition is the moisture content. If the track is too dry, it be-comes sandy, and the horses tire more easily, risking injury. Track maintenance will wet down a dry track to correct the problem. If the track is too wet, it slows down the performance of the horses, as described below.
The ideal track is called a "fast track" because the surface has the right degree of moisture and therefore is soft enough for the horses, but not too soft. When the track is in this condition, the crew will run a harrow behind a tractor to ensure that the track is smooth and level. Small grooves can be seen in the track in its pristine condition before a race.
A "good track" is almost as desirable as a fast track, but may have more than the ideal moisture content. Though crews can always add water to a dry track, there is no fast way to remove mois-ture from a wet one. So the race goes on anyway. Sometimes this sort of track will lead to fast running times anyway. Handicappers refer to a "good track" that is still fast as "wet fast."
"Muddy" is a specification that tells the bettor that the track could not be harrowed because of excessive water content. A "float" is attached to the tractors instead, to smooth out and level the surface, which can be seen to be a little sticky.
"Sloppy" describes a track when it is raining hard and the water is standing on the track. The crew puts heavy floats on the equipment to squeeze as much water out of the cushion of the track as possible, and to keep the track as smooth and level as possible, to avoid any injury to the horses. Racing goes on, rain or shine. The historical record will always reflect the track condition con-fronted by the horses and jockeys.
The distance of the race is key to outcome. Some horses are sprinters, some run routes, and a few are good performers either way. A speed horse, running without much competition, wire to wire in a sprint race, is probably the closest thing to a sure bet in horse racing. As races grow longer, more opportunities open for pace horses and closers. The energy required to move a half-ton of horse at 37 miles per hour down 5,000 feet of track is enormous, burning, almost literally, a lot of hay. Many horses who are quick out of the gate just can't go past the mile mark. They might "spit the bit," meaning they just quit running once they become too tired. Handicapping materials will show which horses promise to have a style that matches the distance. Related to the question of distance is the matter of turns in the race. Most tracks will have two turns in a route race, and the turns will be about the same radius and banking across many tracks. It is more common in turf racing to have tighter and irregular (non-standard) radius turns. Either way, some horses will take all turns "in stride," while others may object or become confused. The skill of the jockey enters into this aspect of considering the track.