Exploring the effects of left-handed, right-handed, and straight racecourses

October 19th, 2022

In the United States, practically all Thoroughbred horse races feature at least one left-handed turn for the runners to negotiate. But racing around left-handed turns is far from standard on the global stage.

Internationally, many races are contested over right-handed courses, with horses traveling clockwise instead of counterclockwise. Some races have turns in both directions. Other races (even some fairly long ones) don’t have any turns at all.

You might assume switching from one type of course to another has little impact on a horse’s performance. If they can run fast, won’t they excel over any course configuration?

Not necessarily. The differences between racing left-handed, right-handed, and straight can be significant. This is often apparent at the Breeders’ Cup, where talented horses from Europe take on North America’s best over the tight-turning, left-handed courses found in the United States.

Consider, for example, a horse named St. Nicholas Abbey. The 2011 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) winner prevailed in six top-level prizes during his decorated career. His talent was obvious, but—as a British racing acquaintance once pointed out to me—all six of his Grade 1 and Group 1 wins came over left-handed tracks. Try as he might (and he tried four times), St. Nicholas Abbey couldn’t win an elite prize racing over a right-handed course.

More extreme examples can be seen in races like the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1). It’s not uncommon for talented European juveniles to arrive at the Breeders’ Cup without any experience racing around a turn, and since the Juvenile Turf and Juvenile Fillies Turf are contested around two turns, the change in configuration is often too much to overcome.

A French filly named Vorda comes to mind. She was favored to win the 2014 Juvenile Fillies Turf after finishing second against males in the Prix Morny (G1) and beating fillies in the Cheveley Park S. (G1). But all five of Vorda’s starts had come over straight courses, and in the Breeders’ Cup she got outsprinted early before rallying only mildly to finish seventh. The winner was Chriselliam, a British filly with a victory over the tight-turning, left-handed course at Warwick to her credit.

The difference between a straight course and a turning course can be even more pronounced than the difference between left-handed and right-handed courses. A straight course provides ample room to maneuver and lots of time to accelerate, which stands in stark contrast to a typical U.S. course. In the United States, homestretches are short by European standards and the turns (especially on turf) are tight. Strong gallopers who excel over straight courses (or even turning courses with long homestretches) in Europe have limited time to get going once they enter a brief American homestretch. This was arguably the undoing of Toronado, who finished eighth as the favorite in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1).

The next time you’re handicapping an international horse competing in the United States for the first time, give their racing record a close look. Review the past performances, watch replays, and examine course maps to determine the types of courses over which they’ve competed. Be wary of straight-course specialists tackling turning courses, and consider upgrading the chances of runners who have excelled in left-handed events. Being thorough in your research may lead to some nicely profitable plays.