Why All Weather Racing Isn’t Really All Weather

Lingfield Racecourse
The All-Weather track at Lingfield Racecourse (Tom Walsingham / geograph.org.uk)

You have to be a hardy soul to be involved in horseracing. Whether training, riding or looking after horses it is an industry that demands a lot of hard work in almost every type of weather imaginable. Even racing fans who regularly attend meetings during the depths of winter need a certain constitution, especially with the growth in popularity of all-weather racing which allows the action to continue all year round and into the night.

There are six all-weather race tracks in Britain – Kempton, Wolverhampton, Newcastle, Chelmsford, Southwell and Lingfield – with three different surfaces used between them – Polytrack, Tapeta and Fibresand. They all allow racing to take place even when the weather is so bad that all the racing on turf has been abandoned for the day. But, sorry to break this news, all-weather racing can’t actually take place in all weather conditions. Allow us to explain.

All Weather Racing & Extreme Weather

Every all-weather racing surface is designed with the ability to quickly drain even the heaviest rain shower. All-weather racing provides some entertainment even during the wettest periods of the year but that does not mean the surface is unaffected by the rain and the elements. Moreover, all weather tracks are still liable to be declared unsafe for racing when the temperatures drop below freezing. Perhaps calling it a “most weather” surface just wasn’t as catchy?

Changing Going Conditions

Wolverhampton Racecourse
The All-Weather Track at Wolverhampton Racecourse (Derek Harper / geograph.org.uk)

The going is one of the most important pieces of information when it comes to racing on the turf. A race run on firm ground will likely play out very differently to the same contest run on heavy ground. Although there is less variance on all-weather tracks, going descriptions still apply as rain can affect the speed of any sort of synthetic track.

When having a bet on the all-weather racing it is important to take note of the track description. In Britain, the vast majority of all-weather racing takes place on what is described as Standard going. However, it can vary with Standard to Fast, Standard to Slow, Fast and Slow going descriptions all used.

The going on synthetic tracks doesn’t work in the same way as turf racing as wet weather will make sand-based tracks like the Tapeta tracks at Wolverhampton and Newcastle faster. Just like wetter sand on a beach provides an easier surface to run on, wet sand-based synthetic tracks have less give in them and tend to produce faster times.

Waterlogging Still an Issue

Kempton Park Racecourse
The All-Weather track at Kempton Park Racecourse (Simeon87 / Wikipedia.org)

While racecourses with all-weather tracks are usually cast in the role of saving a day’s racing which has been badly affected by rain elsewhere, they are still vulnerable to the heaviest storms. Elongated storms that bring days of very heavy localised rain are relatively common in Britain from early winter through to spring and they have been known to cause waterlogged and thus unraceable, all-weather tracks.

Slippery Paths & Large Puddles

There is a limit to how much rain even the most sophisticated of drainage systems can cope with. Lingfield, which hosts high quality all-weather racing all year round and is the site of the All-Weather Finals, has had to abandon meetings in the past because too much rain has fallen.

As with turf racing, the safety of the horses and jockeys is the primary concern before staging any meeting and if the course is deemed to be too slippery, or large puddles of standing water can’t be moved, then the course administrators are left with no option.

Freezing Temperatures a Major Concern

Newcastle Racecourse
The All-Weather Track at Newcastle Racecourse (Citrus Zest / Wikipedia.org)

On average, there are just under 24 days of snowfall in Britain each year. That is not a large number and when the white stuff does come it is rarely very heavy. For that reason, investment on infrastructure to deal with snow, be it on the roads or at airports, is relatively low.

It is a similar story in horse racing where ground staff at courses up and down the country only have a few tools at their disposal to cope with snow and frozen tracks. The application of vacuum dried salt and hard graft from the staff to keep turning the surface over are common tactics used to battle a deep freeze.

Often, clerks at racecourses must rely on the weather gods to get racing on. If overnight temperatures remain below freezing it can be impossible to thaw out tracks whether they are turf or synthetic. After an abandonment at Newcastle in February 2021, clerk of the course James Armstrong summed up the situation by saying: “On certain things you cannot beat nature, even on an all-weather track.”

Frozen Tracks a Hazard

It is the cold rather than the rain which is the most likely cause for a whole day of scheduled racing to be called off in Britain. Tracks which only have a small number of frozen patches are hazardous to run on so it is quite common to see all-weather meetings called off, especially at Newcastle which is the most susceptible to freezing weather.

In addition, cold weather can mean the kick-back at some courses becomes frozen solid and that can represent a major danger. Kick-back is unpleasant enough for horses and jockeys at the best of times but when frozen it is simply too dangerous for racing to continue.

Freezing cold temperatures can also make it impossible to get the snow out of synthetic surfaces. Whereas rain drains relatively quickly and easily, snow causes many more problems. A short burst of snowfall or sleet can undo all the benefit of even a long period of sun on an all-weather track.

Extreme Heat Another Worry

Southwell Racecourse
The All-Weather track at Southwell Racecourse (Tom Courtney / geograph.org.uk)

The maintenance of all-weather surfaces does not stop when the weather warms up. Indeed, the hotter the weather, the more often the ground staff will have to keep turning the surface over. This is because there is a danger that the wax which binds the surface together can solidify, compacting the surface. A surface that is too firm will not pass a safety inspection so staff have to put in more hard work when the mercury starts to rise.

Safety Concern for Horses

Away from the surface itself, hot temperatures are a safety concern for horses. Overheating can be a serious problem for horses which is why you’ll see buckets of water thrown over competitors in the summer immediately after races finish to try and lower their body temperature. It is vitally important to keep a close eye on the temperature during meetings and all-weather cards have been cancelled before in the middle of day’s racing because track temperatures became dangerously high.

So, whilst all-weather racing is certainly far more durable and weather resistant than racing on turf, sadly not even all-weather is truly all-weather and even it must bow to Mother Nature from time to time.