Generally speaking, horse racing is quite a weather-resilient sport. It certainly takes more than a little bit of rain to get a meeting abandoned so cancellations are quite rare, especially in the warmer months. They do still occur though and usually there are two main causes. One is heavy rainfall, as this can lead to waterlogging on a racecourse track. Courses filled with large puddles are not safe to race on so there can be no action until the water has cleared.
The other most common reason for cancellations is sub-zero temperatures as this can lead to two often-linked problems, snow/frost or frozen ground. As before, racing is not permitted if there is snow/frost on the track, or is the turf is frozen solid, even just in patches. This is a problem limited to winter and early spring (and autumn too!) but this is when much National Hunt action takes place so significant disruption can occur.
Although it is National Hunt (jumps) racing that suffers far more cancellations due to the weather, all-weather racing is always contested without jumps. The benefit of having flat racing on an all-weather surface rather than turf is not as immediately obvious therefore, but there are several reasons why some courses have made the switch to an artificial surface.
All-Weather Racing: The Basics
Flat racing in Britain can either take place on a grass (turf) course, as has traditionally been the case, or it can take place on an all-weather surface. Racing that takes place on the latter is what is meant be the term ‘all-weather racing’. As the name suggests, all-weather tracks are designed to withstand all weather conditions, making them more reliable and durable than a turf course.
A love for tradition combined with the expense involve in building an all-weather course means that turf racing still dominates the flat scene. In Britain there are 36 courses that host flat racing (either exclusively or alongside National Hunt action) but only six have an all-weather track. Four of them have also retained at least one turf course so they are not solely reliant on the all-weather surface. As for overall fixtures, in 2020 all-weather courses were responsible for around a third of all flat racing to feature on the British fixture list and a fifth of all fixtures (jump and flat).
Types Of All-Weather Courses
All-weather courses are bundled together because they use man-made surfaces designed to withstand harsh weather conditions, but they are not all the same. From the six British racecourses to have an all-weather course, three of them use a material known as Tapeta and the other half use polytrack. Although these materials share many similarities, they do pose a slightly different test.
Polytrack consists of silica sand fibres, and recycled carpet, rubber and spandex which is all coated in wax. This is very similar to Tapeta which is formed by combining sand, fibre, rubber and wax together. Unlike with turf racing, the going is not measured by heavy/soft/good but instead it usually just reads ‘standard’. Most would agree though that polytrack and Tapteta both perform similarly to how a turf track would with ‘good’ going. There is some argument to say that polytrack is a little closer to good to firm but either way they are both quite quick surfaces.
For many years, the UK also had a fibresand all-weather course based at Southwell. Fibresand is a significantly different all-weather surface which provides a unique challenge compared to Tapeta or polytrack. Part of the reason for this is the kickback it creates, with horses literally kicking back the sandy surface into the face of the jockeys and horses behind them. Fibresand is also deeper and more absorbent than either Tapeta or polytrack, meaning the going often feels more akin to ‘soft’ ground, resulting in slower-run races.
Although some racing fans loved the unique test that Southwell’s fibresand course provided, the course swapped to Tapeta at the end of 2020. This left Britain without any fibresand racing, though the surface is still used in other countries.
Where To Watch All-Weather Racing?
There are six different venues where you can watch all-weather racing: Chelmsford City, Kempton Park, Lingfield, Newcastle, Southwell and Northampton.
The first three all use Polytrack while at the latter three you will find a Tapeta surface instead.
There are also plans to build an all-weather track at Newmarket, although this will be ready to host racing in 2026 at the very earliest, should the proposal receive the green light.
Benefits of All-Weather Surfaces
One of the major and obvious advantages of an all-weather track for racecourse owners is how resilient it is. By this we mean not only to the weather but actual wear and tear. Turf tracks can only withstand so many stampeding hooves before they get chewed up, especially if the going is soft or heavy. With an all-weather surface though, there is no real recovery time meaning they can host as much racing as can be organised.
Volume of Racing
Their durable nature combined with the fact that all-weather courses can cope with the harsher winter conditions allows for lots of racing to take place. This explains why all-weather tracks host a disproportionate number of meetings overall in the UK. In 2022 for instance, Wolverhampton had 79 scheduled meetings while Chelmsford City, Lingfield and Kempton Park had over 50 fixtures taking place on their all-weather tracks.
Whilst much of this is not high-quality racing, it is racing nonetheless, and that gets punters through the door and helps pay the bills. This sheer volume of racing would simply not be possible on a turf course as it could not take such a battering all-year round.
Floodlit Evening Racing
All-weather courses are usually designed with floodlights too, which makes evening racing a possibility all year round. This is not something seen at National Hunt courses (during the main season) because it is not feasible to have lots of energy-sapping floodlights installed around such a large course. All-weather courses on the other-hand tend to be much more compact, built with evening meetings in-mind. At the time of writing no turf course featured floodlights, although Chelmsford City have plans to become the first. They already have the floodlights for their all-weather course so it is simply a case of building a turf track.
Consistent Racing Surface
For trainers, owners and other connections, the benefits of all-weather are related to how ‘fair’ they are considered to be. With turf courses you may see jockeys gravitate towards either side of the course in search of better ground. This does not tend to happen with all-weather racing though as the surface is so consistent throughout.
This helps reduce the possibility of any significant draw bias although it is still possible for some to exist, especially over the course of a meeting if the surface becomes thicker in certain areas. More importantly though, both Tapeta and polytrack are seen as being safe surfaces, both with a low injury and fatality rate for the horses. This is a contrast to some older synthetic materials which tended to create a range of problems for the horses.
More Reliable Schedules
Another huge advantage of all-weather racing is that it minimises disruption. As we shall see, even artificial surfaces cannot withstand any weather. In addition, as we have already stated, by and large turf stands up pretty well and abandoned or postponed meetings are not a major issue. None the less, there is no denying that all-weather tracks fall foul of bad weather less often than grass. This is a plus for everyone involved in the sport, including track owners, fans and all those that work in racing.
Are All-Weather Courses Completely Weather Resistant?
Very occasionally, bad weather will lead to the cancellation of a race meeting at an all-weather course. Almost always though, it is not because the track itself is in an unsuitable condition for racing, but more that the weather has created an unrelated danger. In 2010 for example, snow and ice forced Kempton to cancel an all-weather fixture because there would have been a shortage of ambulances.
Similarly, in 2022, Lingfield and Southwell had to abandon the full card because of Storm Eunice and its red weather warnings. High wind speeds made it dangerous for people travelling to and from the racecourse so it was hard to justify keeping the racing on. They could not safely host racing behind closed doors either as flying/falling debris could have potentially hit a rider or horse.
It is also possible, albeit rare, for fog to pose an issue. This is something that saw Chelmsford scrap a meeting in 2020. Overall, the vast majority of weather-linked abandonments have nothing to do with the racing surface itself being in a dangerous state. Admittedly, this largely applies to flat turf racing as with it being held in the warmer months, snow and frost are never an issue. On the very odd occasion though, turf flat tracks do face waterlogging problems unlike their all-weather counterparts.
Overall, the chances of an all-weather meeting you are planning on going to being cancelled are incredibly slim. In 2018, which was an especially bad year for cancellations, there were a total of five at all-weather courses. With over 300 all-weather fixtures taking place year round, we would estimate there is an average cancellation of not much more than 1%, so it is not something you really need to worry about. When it does happen it, it is usually due to very extreme weather, such as torrential rain or extreme cold, the latter potentially freezing parts of the upper surface of the track and creating dangerous kickback.
Can I Watch All-Weather Jump Racing?
To watch all-weather jump racing you would need a time machine because it has not taken place in the UK for many years now. In 1989, Southwell hosted the first ever all-weather jumps card and this was followed by an identical initiative at Lingfield just two weeks later.
Although it began without issue, jump racing eventually proved too dangerous on an all-weather surface. The combination of fast racing plus low-quality horses proved a deadly combination and by 1994 all-weather tracks had recorded 13 deaths. This led to its indefinite suspension and there has been little appetite for it to return since.
Best All-Weather Races
The sheer volume of all-weather races inevitably means a lot of them are not top class and feature some low-quality horses. This does not apply to all races though as there are some all-weather contests that carry some real prestige with them. The races that feature in the climatic All-Weather Championship Final are certainly up there with the very best, not just because there is over £1m in prize money up for grabs. There are qualification events held earlier in the year, enabling horses to gain entry to this high-pedigree finale, and there are six major categories to choose from:
- 3-year-old Championships
- Fillies & Mares Championships
- Marathon Championships
- Middle Distance Championships
- Mile Championships
- Spring Championships
In addition to this day, there are some all-weather races that have managed to snag themselves Group status, making them some of the highest classified contests in the country. Kempton is home to a pair of Group 3 races, the September Stakes and Sirenia Stakes; and the same applies to Lingfield, that has the Winter Derby and the Chartwell Fillies’ Stakes. Newcastle also has one Group 3 all-weather offering in the Chipchase Stakes, although bigger than this is the extremely popular Northumberland Plate. First introduced in 1833, this historic event has run on an all-weather surface since 2016 and always attracts a large field.
All-Weather Racing History
Britain was not the first place to try out all-weather horse racing. Decades earlier, in the USA, racing had taken place on a synthetic surface called Tartan, although it failed to take off for a variety of reasons. Other surfaces were trialled elsewhere after this point but nothing ever proved satisfactory, until it reached the UK that is.
Initial discussions about installing the first all-weather surface in this country began in 1985 after a particularly gruelling winter that resulted in many abandoned cards. Persuaded by the idea, Lingfield Park were the first to bite the bullet, no doubt in part because their turf course was, and still is, prone to waterlogging. With the course ready to go, Lingfield hosted Britain’s first all-weather meeting on 16th November 1989. Initially they used an Equitrack surface but this was replaced with the current polytrack material in 2001.
Southwell followed with their own all-weather fibresand course a matter of weeks later and they created another milestone by opening with a jump racing card. For a while these were the only two all-weather courses Britain had but Wolverhampton completed their new track in 1993 and copied Southwell’s decision to go with fibresand. They have changed their mind twice since though, switching to polytrack in 2004 and then Tapeta a decade later.
Kempton became the fourth racing venue with all-weather facilities in 2006, followed by Chelmsford City (then known as Great Leighs) in 2008 and Newcastle in 2016. Great Leighs was forced to close a year after opening due to administration but it did return in 2015 under its current name. Over the years, the amount of prize money going to all-weather races has accelerated at some speed and more and more punters are less dismissive of these courses. Although they are yet to win everyone over, especially lovers of traditional grass and mud racing, most have come to appreciate what it offers to the sport.