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A Beginner's guide to Thoroughbred Racing in Britain

Updated: Dec 23, 2023

Horse Racing is a sport steeped in history. Whether it’s legendary flat horses, iconic hurdlers or breath-taking chasers, there are memorable moments that I’m sure everyone can appreciate. Known as “The Sport of Kings”, horse racing originates in Greece, way back in 648BC where military chariot racing was introduced at the Olympics. Fast forward a few thousand years and here we are, with the sport remaining popular with people at all levels of society around the world. Below, I will in the simplest terms possible, explain the most relevant information about the sport as well as walking through what to look for when placing a bet.

A horse race taking place at Bangor On Dee

What is a thoroughbred? A thoroughbred is a type of horse best known for its use in horse racing. The breed was founded in England in the 17th and 18th centuries when three stallions from the Middle East were brought over and bred to the native horse. They were known as the Darley Arabian, the Byerley Turk and the Godolphin Arabian and all registered Thoroughbreds can trace their lineage back to at least one of these three sire of sires. This breeding resulted in a horse which could run at a higher top speed, over a longer distance, all whilst carrying weight on its back, thus explaining why they have gone on to be used as racehorses.

What are the different types of races? There are four main types of horse race in the UK: Flat, National Hunt Flat, Hurdle and Chase.

A Flat race (as you can probably guess) is a race where there are no obstacles. The distance varies but commonly is anywhere between 5 furlongs and 2 miles (we’ll get on to furlongs shortly).

A National Hunt flat race again involves no obstacles but is ran under National Hunt rules. This type of race is usually contested by horses who have no flat experience but need to be sharpened up before a career in jumps racing. These are commonly run over distances between 1 mile 5 furlongs and 2 miles 4 furlongs and are known as Bumpers.

A Hurdle race is a type of jumps racing whereby the horse must jump a series of obstacles (hurdles). These are the smaller of the two fences, commonly around 3.5 feet high. The distance over which these races are run varies which in turn affects the number of hurdles in the race, but they always have a minimum distance of 2 miles and a minimum of eight hurdles.

A Chase again involves jumping obstacles, but this time these obstacles can include a variety of fences such as plain fences, water jumps and an open ditch. The obstacles are slightly larger than a hurdle at a minimum of 4.5 feet high, and the distance at which they are run stretches up to 4 miles 4 furlongs.

What is a furlong? Horse races are commonly measured in furlongs. There are 8 furlongs in 1 mile, so for example a race which is 1 mile 4 furlongs is a mile and a half, a race that is just 5 furlongs is just over half a mile. It may seem confusing, but just remember there are 8 furlongs in a mile, and the rest is easy to work out from there.

Standard conversion for furlongs to miles

What are the different classes? Horse races are divided into classes of which there are 7. Class 7 is the lowest whilst Class 1 is the highest. Over time, it becomes apparent which class best suits a horse. Should the horse hit a good run of form and progress nicely winning races at a lower level, it may then be tried at a higher level. The rating of the horse must be considered though, with some races stating that a horse cannot be over their set maximum rating to enter. Once reaching Class 1 company it splits into 4 sub-categories: Listed, Group 3, Group 2 and Group 1. Listed is the lowest whilst Group 1 is the highest. Only the best horses can compete in a Group 1 race. It is important to note however that Flat and Jumps differ here, Jumps only go as low as Class 5, but the rest works out the same.

How is the weight of a horse worked out? The weight a horse is carrying is determined by rating. The highest rated horse carries the most weight, then the other horses’ weights are calculated from there. For example, if the top horse is 90 rated and in said race carries 10 stone 5, then an 80 rated horse in the same race will carry 10 pounds less (because it’s 10 ratings lower) so 9 stone 7, and a 75 rated horse will carry 9 stone 2 (5 pounds lower than that).

What are the different types of going (ground conditions)? There are a number of different ground conditions and also surfaces which horses run on. Firstly, I’ll talk about turf. Hurdle, Chase and most NH Flat races are run on grass or turf. The “going” of the ground refers to how hard or soft it is.

Firm going is when the ground is dry.

Good to firm is still dry but slightly slower.

Good going is most common and the fairest for most horses, it’s easy to run on.

Good to soft means it’s mostly good but some areas will hold water.

Soft is common when it’s wet, its deeper ground and harder to run on.

Heavy going tests stamina, it is very wet and hard to run on.

There is however a different type of surface called “All-weather” which is an artificial surface used at certain flat racing tracks. It’s made of sand amongst other components and has 3 different going types.

Fast means the surface is quick and dry.

Standard is optimal going with just the right amount of moisture.

Slow is similar to soft ground on the turf, wet and harder to run on.

Certain horses favour certain conditions so be sure to look for this in any analysis’, if the horse doesn’t tend to like the going then it is unlikely to run as well as it would elsewhere.

What is a BHA rating/Handicap mark? A BHA rating or Handicap mark as its sometimes known is a numeric representation of a horse’s ability. The higher the rating, the better the horse. Flat and Jumps horses work on different scales, so a top Flat horse like Frankel was rated around 140, whilst a top Jumps horse such as Kauto Star was rated 180. The scale for each however is purely theoretical. Flat horses are generally rated 0-140, whilst Jump horses are rated 0-175. These scales were implemented based on looking at the top weight in handicap races. Going back far enough, the top weight of a Flat Handicap was 10 stone which equates to 140 lbs, in a Jumps Handicap the top weight was 12 stone 7 which is 175 lbs, hence the 0-140 and 0-175 rating bands. Horses however that are good enough can break through the top of these scales and are not capped.

So how is a horse assigned a rating? There is no way to tell how good an un-raced horse is and so a horse is required to run a number of times, with each performance being analysed, and the horse compared to others in the race based on their previous runs/potential ratings. On the Flat for example, a horse is required to run at least 3 times, or if they win their first two starts, they qualify for a rating. They will compete in Novice or Maiden Races which are for horses with little or no experience.

What is form? Well this is the easy bit. Form are the numbers next to a horse’s name, for example 0123 shows where the horse finished in its last 4 races, the most recent race being the number to the right, so 3rd. The 0 indicates that the horse finished 10th or lower, because form numbers only go 1-9, then a 0 for anything 10th or lower. Certain other things to look for amongst these numbers are:

- A hyphen indicates either the start of a new racing year, so any numbers before it are results from last year, or that the horse has had a break.

/ A slash indicates that the horse has had a long break, usually over 365 days possibly because of Injury.

These are important to look out for, as it could mean the horse isn’t race fit as it hasn’t had much recent racing. It is also important to look into which class the horse was running in when it achieved said result, and also the condition (going of the ground) it ran on.

What the form of a horse looks like on a racecard

Looking at the previous run of a horse: As mentioned above it is important to look at a horses previous run. On a racecard such as in a newspaper, this can commonly be found at the bottom. A small written analysis will highlight how the horse ran last time, in what class, over what distance, on what ground and what weight it was carrying. This means you can then compare it to the current race in which it is entered to see any similarities/differences that could impact the horse running better/worse than last time. Applying this knowledge as discussed in the sections above with the pundit’s write-up on the horse (note, they’re not always right!) can help make an educated decision on whether the horse is seen to have a good chance of running well or not.

What are odds, and how do they work? The odds of a horse show how likely the bookmaker thinks the horse is to win. Odds of 2/1 means the horse has a good chance of winning whereas odds of 80/1 mean statistically it does not, although there have been occasions when a horse outruns its odds so never base your choice just on this. Not all odds are listed /1 however, a horse that is 5/2 is essentially 2.5/1, because you see how many times the smaller number on the right goes in to that on the left, same with 15/2, that would therefore be 7.5/1 as 2 goes into 15, seven and a half times. Following this you can then work out your potential winnings. For a simple “WIN” bet where the horse must finish 1st, if you bet £1 on a horse at 4/1, you would get £5 in return. This is because you get £4 from it being 4/1, and then your initial £1 stake. Same with 15/2, if you bet £1, you get £8.50 back. £7.50 from the horse because its 7.5/1 and then your initial £1 stake. For a beginner this is the simplest way to look at things.

What is the difference between WIN and Each-Way bets? As mentioned, a “WIN” bet means you have to win the race, and winnings are calculated as we discussed earlier. An Each-Way bet allows your horse to either win or be placed i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th depending on the number of runners, and you still get paid, although working out your winnings from this is slightly more complicated. Just note, an each-way bet doubles your initial stake. So, a £1 win bet costs £1, a £1 each-way bet costs £2 because it is essentially two separate bets, a win bet and a place bet together. If the horse places however, the winnings will be a fraction of the win odds, so although your chances of a return are increased, the amount which you receive if your horse is placed is less. However, in this case, if your Each-Way bet horse wins, you win the win portion and the place portion of the bet plus your stake back.

How does the number of runners impact the places you get paid when betting? When placing a bet, the number of runners in the race impacts which placings you will get paid out on. Typically, 8+ runners guarantees you will get paid for finishing in the top 3, 5-7 runners you get paid for 1st and 2nd, then 4 or less runners is 1st place only. Certain big handicap races that have 16+ runners will pay out on 4th place, with some bookmakers offering even 5th, 6th or 7th place winnings for bigger more prestigious races.

What headgear can horses use and why? There are a few different types of headgear that can be used on a horse, in order to help it run better. These may be needed if a horse is ‘keen’ and won’t settle, or if the horse gets distracted when running.

Cheekpieces help prevent a horse being spooked by its surroundings. These lengths of sheepskin run down the side of the horse’s head partly obscuring its vision, so it focuses on what is directly in front.

Blinkers again work to restrict the view of the horse and are commonly used if a horse has a concentration problem and looks around a lot when running.

A Visor is similar to blinkers, however it has a slit in the side to prevent a horse panicking if it can’t see other horses, whilst still focussing its vision on what’s in front.

A Hood covers the horse’s ears and head leaving eye holes for it to see. This is generally used to comfort a horse that may be nervous of crowds as the ears are padded to restrict noise.

A Sheepskin Noseband may be used to restrict the field of vision and encourage the horse to lower its head. This is common if a horse likes to throw its head around whilst running.

It is important to note that just because a horse is wearing some form of headgear it has no significant advantage or disadvantage against the other runners, it simply just maximises the horse’s performance.

A horse wearing tackle as mentioned above

What is a claiming jockey? When you hear the words claiming jockey, it basically refers to a jockey who is inexperienced and therefore can claim extra weight off the horse because they are deemed to have less chance of winning. Typically, a more experienced jockey is deemed to have more of a chance of winning than a younger inexperienced one. Allowances range from 3lb to 7lb depending on how many winners the jockey has ridden. On the flat the jockey may claim 7lb till 20 races are won, 5lb till 50 races are won and 3lb till 95 races are won, then they will no longer be able to claim. Over jumps a jockey may claim 7lb till 20 races are won, 5lb till 40 races are won and 3lb till 75 races are won. The weight that the horse carries is the published weight minus the jockey’s claiming allowance, plus an extra few pounds to cover safety equipment is also allowed. These claiming jockeys are aged between 16-25 on the flat and no older than 26 over jumps. Trainers tend to use a good claiming jockey on a top weighted horse to improve its chances in a race.

What is the difference between a Novice race and a Handicap? A novice race in jumps racing is for a horse who begins the season having not previously won a race in that company (over hurdles or chasing) and can compete here until the end of the season where they gain their first win. A novice flat race differs slightly in that they are for horses who have not won more than 2 flat races and have not won a class 1 race.

A handicap race is the standard type of race where the horse is allotted a weight and an official rating which is subject to change (as discussed above). These are the types of races that can restrict what horses can enter based on rating bands.

What are some of the most prestigious races to look for in the horse racing calendar?

Champion Hurdle – Cheltenham – March

Queen Mother Champion Chase – Cheltenham – March

Cheltenham Gold Cup – Cheltenham – March

Midlands Grand National – Uttoxeter - March

The Grand National – Aintree – April

Scottish Grand National – Ayr – April

2000 Guineas – Newmarket (flat) – Late April/Early May

1000 Guineas – Newmarket (flat) – Late April/Early May

The Epsom Oaks – Epsom Downs (flat) – Early June

Epsom Derby – Epsom Downs (flat) – First Saturday in June

Gold Cup – Ascot (flat) – June

St. Leger Stakes – Doncaster (flat) – September

Betfair Chase – Haydock Park – November

Ladbrokes Trophy – Newbury – Late November/Early December

King George VI Chase – Kempton – Boxing Day

Welsh Grand National – Chepstow - December

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