Duffer’s Guide to racing: we all need it sometime
The summer is populated by racing fixtures in which many of our spectators have only a passing interest in the sport. Innovative racecourse executives have staged music after racing ever since the pioneering Newmarket Nights were brought in 40 years ago by Nick Lees, and mid-summer brings a flurry of Ladies Days. It’s easy to assume therefore that these occasional visitors actually understand the sport unfolding in front of them.
The task of racecourses, the wider media, and indeed us as fellow spectators, is to educate them to the nuances of the sport, without alienating those who know it the nth degree. This is not always an easy path.
Horse racing is as old as the hills, and wherever there has been racing, there has been betting, formalized or otherwise. I’ll wager that there was a Fred Binns equivalent at the Coliseum in the days of ancient Rome, even if he didn’t carry a satchel and computerized odds screen like today’s on-course bookies. If Coral had existed then, they would have had a rails position for sure.
Most British racegoers are as likely to be introduced to racing at their local track, or by attending a marquee event like Ascot. Subsequent experiences may have taken them into one of the high street’s 7,000 betting shops, or online where google searches like 2022 breeders cup live odds get you instantly to further detail on events, often faster than you could by trawling the event site itself. But even betting sites assume a certain know-how among visitors. The what, how and when of betting is not always as clear as one might imagine.
So here’s an idiot’s guide to avoid making a fool of yourself when you embark upon your first punt.
Where To Make Your Bets?
First, you need to know where you will be making your bets. If you live locally to Ludlow, you can come┬á down here and catch some live action as you make your bets, which is quite the best way to enjoy racing and betting. The variety of British racecourses is remarkable, from the grandeur of Ascot to the bucolic simplicity of Ludlow or Hexham; each has its place.┬á But, you do not need a local track to enjoy the sport if you are not nearby.
Racecourses are most often known by the town where they are, or as a downs, park, racecourse, or track. Cheltenham is sometimes referred to as Prestbury Park, whilst elsewhere, the race venues are titled after the feature race, like the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup, or Willowdale Steeplechase. If you are lucky enough to live locally to a racecourse, this will be a great opportunity as you can converse with other racing enthusiasts and punters and learn quicker this way. You’ll also learn the jargon that accompanies both the sport and its betting foibles.
If you’re not blessed with a racecourse nearby, there is a legion of other sources, from racecourse web sites, news web sites like Racing Post, and independent sites like online betting websites. All you need is a bank account or paying system attached to the site to transfer fees for your bets. Then you can place bets on and watch races from anywhere in the country on your phone, laptop, or tablet! A whole generation of millennials has grown up used to betting on football online through their phones, yet don’t always assume that similar rules apply to betting on racing or the next Prime Minister.
Off-track is also an option. In the UK, this means casinos, the occasional sports bar, and high street betting shops, and all will simulcast a race as you gamble. Elsewhere across Europe, this availability of off-course betting is not so prevalent, other than in France where the Pari-mutuel is available through cafes virtually everywhere.
What Are The Types Of Races?
In a country like the UK, where our sport is well publicized, there’s an inherent background knowledge of the types of racing.
We don’t do any of this at Ludlow! Flat races take place at 35 racecourses across Britain focused around a turf season from late March to early November. There is also a winter season on all-weather surfaces, pioneered by the Muddle family 35 years ago who re-invented the tracks at Lingfield and Wolverhampton to allow for sand, and then added floodlights too. The contrast between Royal Ascot or Glorious Goodwood and a day’s winter racing is as chalk to cheese however; the champagne flows rather slower in the winter.
Around the Borders, you’ll also find “flapping”. This is unlicensed flat racing but nevertheless quite competitive and very informal.
If you’re in Wales or the North, then you can find harness racing, aka trotting. These horses race by pulling a 2 wheel cart or sulky, on which the jockey sits. The horses need to trot or pace, you should seek out horses that are specialized in this type of racing. You won’t find this in betting shops, nor publicized in the national papers. It’s a small sport in the UK, although huge the other side of the Channel.
What you see at Ludlow and 38 other UK courses is colloquially known as Jump or National Hunt racing. Steeplechases are over the bigger obstacles, of a minimum 4ft 6 height and 6ft spread. There is a minimum 8 obstacles per mile, including some variants, like the bigger spread of an open ditch, or the water, which always makes for good photos even if it is easier to jump than other fences.
Hurdle racing uses a type of obstacle whose heritage is in fencing off sheep, angled into the ground at 45degrees so that if a horse hits the obstacle hard enough, it will fall.
Interestingly, some recent research has proved that horses see white better than fluorescent orange, which has led courses to change the colour of all take-off boards.
Whilst there are only a little more than a third as many Jumps fixtures as Flat each year, these are supplemented by Point-to-Points, where amateur riders ride steeplechases in what amount to pop-up events, staged over private land. There are around 150 of these stretching from Wadebridge in Devon to Fife in Scotland, with a bewildering array of different courses – over 100 at the last count.
Many of our top riders and trainers cut their teeth “between the flags” as the phrase goes, and graduated to professional racing thereafter. Among present riders, Charlie Deutsch, Connor Brace and Sam Twiston-Davies are just a few of those legged up first in a pony race then a Point-to-Point after their 16th birthday.
Different territories of the world use different descriptions to describe their bets, especially what we call the “exotics” – those that are multiple or accumulator bets.
In the USA, a Place bet is where you choose a single horse to finish in second place as they cross the finish line a Show where you select a single horse to take third place. In the UK, these two places are generally not distinguished but both described as Each-Way, meaning you stake half your bet at winning odds, half at a quarter or fifth the odds on any one of the first three places.
The Exacta allows you to choose two horses to come first and second place as they cross the line, you choose which is which, whilst a Quinella gives you discretion to choose two horses to come first and second as they cross the line, in either order. For the really ambitious, a Trifecta gets you to choose three horses which will come in the first 3 positions, in the order you think they will finish.
The Superfecta is the same as Trifecta, but with four horses instead of three.
Win bets of course are exactly what they describe, whatever country you are racing in.
Then there are Accumulator bets: doubles, trebles and Yankees. Winnings from your first bet in a double go onto your second, and again on to your third in a treble. These occasionally deliver spectacular odds where an outsider is included at long odds. A Yankee consists of 11bets of equal value on selections in four separate events: six doubles, four trebles and one four-fold.
Most popular on the racecourse is the Placepot, offering you a chance to win or be placed on each of six different races that day. At the largest meetings like the Festival or Aintree, the Placepot pool can be very large, but of course, winnings are shared out among an infinite number of winners so the prices aren’t fixed.
There is also a colourful language around betting which is worth learning, from Burlington Bertie (100/30) to Double Carpet (33/1) and plenty in between. Descriptions of money too come in various guises, dictated by cockney rhyming slang. A monkey is ┬ú500 for example, a score or a Bobby Moore ┬ú20, a pony ┬ú25. You can improve your credibility no end by genning up on the lingo . However, you may not get very far using cockney outside the UK!
Picking A Winner
Knowing the terms to place a bet is one thing, but knowing how to bet on a good horse is a whole different thing. Liking its colour is all very well, but it’s not very scientific if you’re going to come racing more frequently. So, how do you pick a winning horse?
You could look up online at a company such as Timeform or more broadly the IFHA, which ranks horses based on their performances. Look at stats and see how the horses rank. Then assess this against the conditions of the race to see if they are favourably treated or not. Many top flight races are conditions races, where horses are weighted according to age or gender, and given penalties or allowances depending on previous success (or failure).
Jockeys may also be given allowances for inexperience, although these don’t apply in top races.
Racing performance is the be-all and end-all and will give you chapter and verse about the horse – career history, where they have finished in relation to others in the same race, affinity to a particular track, time of year, etc. You might want to see a C, D, or even a CD, meaning they have won at that course, distance, or have won at both. BF stands for beaten favourite, whilst each horse will have a number bracketed after its name, being the number of days since it last ran. For example, you might avoid a horse that hasn’t run for 600 days, as clearly it has been unsound.
The ritual of the paddock parade allows you to see horses close-up before they canter to post. Look at your selection as they warm up. Do they look alert? How do they move? A crabby walker may well be a crabby galloper too. STable talk says that four white socks are to be avoided! Some┬á horses move poorly because of a condition called Stringhalt. Don’t always be put off; vets will have looked over each horse pre-race so there are no welfare issues.┬á However, if anything gives you the feeling that the horse is a bit off, trust your instincts.
Starting stalls aren’t used for Jump racing, but position is important. There’s an old saying that you can give away weight but not distance. If a rider is left at the start, it’s an inauspicious beginning to the race. The leading riders will tend to line up on the inside unless under instruction to drop their horse out and come late. “Scraping the paint” is where every leading contender aspires to be. Ultimately, however, position matters not a jot if the horses is fast enough to scythe down the opposition or hold them at bay. Some of the most loved horses are those that lead from flag fall, like Desert Orchid.