Triple Crown race tracks and how they ride

The Preakness is in just a few days. The track is thought to favor early speed and front runners . . . will that impact Orb?

While everyone is looking at who will be entered in the upcoming Preakness Stakes (besides Orb) one of the big factors in the race is the track itself. Like all of the Triple Crown race tracks, Pimlico has it’s own “personality” — although whether this is fact or fiction is up for debate.

Let’s take a look at the tracks and their reputations.

Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, is probably the most famous dirt track in the U.S. and it’s ranked fourth overall by the Horseplayers Association of North America (Keeneland is first, but it’s a polytrack surface; Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream are also dirt/sand ).

The Churchill Downs surface is known for being “cuppy”, which means that sometimes the track doesn’t maintain enough moisture to hold the sand together. Instead, the surface breaks away under the horse’s feet. Some horses love it; others don’t like to run on it.  For the 2013 Derby, the track was wet and sealed so moisture retention wasn’t an issue.

Churchill Downs Surface

  • 3” Sandy Loam Cushion
  • 5” Sandy Loam Cushion Compacted
  • 12” Clay Base
  • 25” Sandy Loam/Natural Soil

The track itself is a one mile oval. The backstretch and homestretch are both 80 feet wide and there is a 4% banking on the turns.

Handicappers generally seem to feel that the rail position at Churchill Downs is “dead” so inside post positions are not favorable, although Calvin Borel generally finds the inside line coming around the final turn to be favorable. In this year’s race, Orb broke from post position 16 and came wide around the final turn.


Churchill Downs - Pimlico
This image shows an overlay comparing Pimlico to Churchill Downs. No tight turns!

Pimlico race track in Maryland is the second oldest race track in the U.S. having opened October 25, 1870. Only the race course at Saratoga is older. Traditionally, this track is considered to be faster than Churchill Downs. Although both courses use the same dirt, Pimlico’s surface is firmer which allows horses to get better traction.

Historically, people claimed that Pimlico had tighter turns than Churchill Down, making it a more difficult race. Aerial photos disprove that. The turns at Pimlico are virtually identical to those at Churchill Downs. However, the Pimlico home stretch is only 70 feet wide instead of 80 which may make it feel tighter.

Pimlico is supposed to favor front-runners, especially because the home stretch is shorter, but that myth has also been disproved. Look at the stats over the past 15 or so years and you’ll see that seven recent Preakness winners were running sixth or or farther back at the quarter and/or the half mile points in the race. Last year I’ll Have Another was sitting in fourth place when he overcame Bodemeister, the early leader. Only one horse in the past 16 years — Rachel Alexandra — has led wire to wire.

Belmont Park

Belmont Park was built to be the grandest Thoroughbred racecourse, opening in 1905. Even today it’s a supersized track — although it’s length is really utilized only in the Belmont Stakes.

The Belmont track is known as “the Big Sandy”, named for it’s deeper sandy surface and it’s big sweeping turns. Temperatures can affect the track surface considerably I’ve read before that it’s important for jockeys to be familiar with the track before coming into the Belmont Stakes because it is easy to misjudge your move because of the size.

Because of the scale of the track and the length of the race, riders in the Belmont can utilize a different strategy. The Belmont doesn’t require such a fast break because there is more time to get into position for the first turn. Horses don’t need to be as nimble or show the same raw speed as they do on shorter, tighter tracks. The Belmont is more of an endurance race.


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