When turf turns soft, look for longshot speed horses

October 25th, 2023

When heavy rain strikes and a turf course becomes soft, consider upgrading the chances of frontrunners and speed horses. It can reap lucrative dividends.

Bettors aren’t normally keen on playing speed horses in grass races. Powerful finishes from off the pace are often successful when turf is firm. But genuinely soft ground—the kind that produces incredibly slow fractions and final times—can make it difficult for late runners to unleash their typical acceleration and catch the early leaders.

One prominent example came in the 2009 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1) at Belmont Park. The prestigious 1 1/2-mile grass race featured an odds-on favorite in Gio Ponti, who entered off four consecutive Grade 1 wins. No one paid any attention to 43-1 longshot Interpatation, who hadn’t won a race in the previous two years. But when Interpatation got out in front through fractions of :26.01, :54.22, and 1:22.20, he saved enough stamina to turn back Gio Ponti’s bid and win by 1 3/4 lengths. Gio Ponti made his move and actually led at the eighth pole, but couldn’t sustain his effort over soft ground and weakened in the final furlong.

Memories of the Interpatation/Gio Ponti battle came to mind on 2023 British Champions Day at Ascot Racecourse in England. Five prestigious group stakes races were contested over soft ground, and four of them were won by speed horses.

First up was the British Champions Long Distance Cup (G2), in which multiple Group 1 winner Kyprios started as the heavy favorite. Kyprios launched a strong challenge in the homestretch and took over the lead, but began to grow leg-weary in the final furlong. That allowed the pace-tracking Trawlerman (a 10-1 longshot in the World Pool) to re-rally after being passed and prevail by a neck.

The British Champions Sprint (G1) unfolded in practically identical fashion. 42-1 longshot Art Power raced up front, got passed in the final furlong by the rallying favorite Kinross, and fought back as Kinross ran out of steam to win by a neck.

The British Champions Fillies & Mares (G1) was a bit less dramatic as 17-1 longshot Poptronic set the pace and turned back all challengers to win by a neck. And the result of the Queen Elizabeth II (G1) was never much in doubt as 5-1 shot Big Rock got out in front and widened his advantage in the drive to dominate by six lengths. More accomplished rivals like Tahiyra, Nashwa, and Paddington failed to mount serious challenges after racing off the pace.

Not every race contested over soft turf will hand victory to a speed horse. And even when a race does unfold kindly to speed, predicting which horse(s) will race to the front and benefit can be challenging.

But as 2023 British Champions Day illustrates, finding (and betting) those speed horses can be well worth the effort.