Grades, Racecards & Form - A Beginner's Guides to Horse Racing

Punters who bet on sports such as football and tennis get a slow and steady release of endorphins over a prolonged period of time, with the rush of ecstasy or agony, typically, enjoyed or endured in smaller amounts as a result.

For those who bet on horse racing, the exhilaration is instantaneous and consequently more extreme. The joy of winning, and the misery of not, ensures that horse racing remains the second most wagered upon sport in the UK - as it has been for more than five decades.

There are so many ways to bet on the horses, from trying to back a winner or two for fun, accumulating profit via each way betting or placing a 'multiple' bet, that its enduring appeal is obvious.

This is a fun pastime that can, if you get lucky, turn into a highly profitable hobby. This fella who won £450,000 from a 20p wager would certainly agree! The good news is that betting on the horses is NOT a random science, and by applying some basic principles - allied to a slice of good fortune - you too can enjoy some nice wins on the 'gee-gees'.

Hopefully, this article will provide some handy insight as you begin life as a horse racing punter.

Flat Racing vs Jumps

There are two very broad forms of horse racing that occur on tracks across the UK and Ireland. These are flat racing and the jumps/fences/hurdles. The catch-all name that covers this second form of horse racing is National Hunt.

The horse racing calendar is seasonal, with National Hunt racing taking place during the autumn/winter (the softer ground is clearly safer or jumping horses) and the flat in spring/summer.

Both seasons feature meetings on a weekly basis at courses across the UK and Ireland, with some considered to be more prestigious than other. There's the Grand National from Aintree every April, which is still the most bet upon sporting event in the world, plus the Cheltenham Festival in March; both National Hunt meetings.

As for the flat, Newmarket plays host the 1000 and 2000 Guineas in May, with the Derby Festival and Royal Ascot following closely after. There's Glorious Goodwood, the July Cup, the St Leger and plenty more to enjoy.

So, from a betting perspective, how do flat and jumps racing differ - apart from the obvious? Clearly, there is more risk attached to betting on National Hunt racing. Your selection can fall at a fence or be spooked by an unmanned horse; there are many more obstacles to overcome over the jumps.

Flat racing, in contrast, is usually a test of speed over shorter distances. Little can go wrong and the best on the day, typically, wins. It is easier to compare runners on the flat using speed tests, looking at recent form, record on particular surfaces etc. All of your good intentions when researching National Hunt races can go out of the window in a spate of bad luck.

But then the gulf in class between horses tends to be more greatly felt in jump racing. There are long distance slogs and shorter jaunts, and the extra physicality required means that the cream usually rises to the top... barring disaster.

So there's a lot to be said for betting on both forms of horse racing. The flat is tougher to predict than the jumps in some ways, easier in others. The point is that there is money to be made from both - and lots of fun to be had along the way.

Horse Racing Grades, Classes and Race Types

To ensure that horse races are relatively fair, they are graded so that elite horses compete against each other and those lacking speed - or new to racing - are given a chance to prove themselves at a lower level. Think of the grades and classes as football divisions, if that makes it easier.

The higher the grade, the better the class of horse - and the more prize money and prestige is up for grabs.

Typically, flat races are classified in Grades and National Hunt races in Groups, although this is flexible.

The traditional ranking of classifications, descending from most prestigious downwards, is as follows:

  • Grade 1/Group 1
  • Grade 2/Group 2
  • Grade 3/Group 3
  • Listed
  • Handicap
  • Bumper (usually for horses who have never raced before)

Flat races tend to be typified as sprints or middle-distance renewals, with anything from six to ten furlongs the most common. British racing's five 'classics' - 1000 & 2000 Guineas, Oaks, Derby and St Leger - are middle-distance.

National Hunt racing can be broadly categorised in two ways. Hurdles are run over distances of 2-3.5 miles, and the obstacles - called 'hurdles' in this case, believe it or not - measure a minimum of three-and-a-half feet tall. These generally have a softer top than steeplechases (more on those later) and so break under contact. They are less dangerous then and suit novice hurdlers.

Steeplechases, or just chases for short, are normally run over distances of 2-4.5 miles, and feature slightly higher obstacles at four-and-a-half feet tall. These can also be water jumps and open ditches, such as those featured at Aintree for the Grand National.

The Racecard

All of the information you need about a race is listed on the individual racecard that you will find printed in newspapers such as the Racing Post, in bookmakers' shops and of course by your preferred online betting site.

The example below is taken from a random race at a Lichfield meeting, and published by bet365. It is a fairly typical example of the modern racecard:

Bet365 Racecard Example

So what does it tell us?

At the very top of the card is the most obvious information: the venue, race number and time. Just below is some info pertinent to punters: how far the race will be run over, the each way terms (more on those later) and that Best Odds Guaranteed is applied.

Best Odds Guaranteed is an offer made by some bookmakers that determines that punters get the very best price on their selection no matter when it is backed. So, if you had taken early odds on a particular runner and yet the Starting Price (SP) was longer, you would be on at the SP. Conversely, if your horse is favoured by the market and the SP is lower than the original odds you took, then your bet will remain at the greater price.

Into the main content of the racecard, and on the left-hand half we see all of the details pertaining to each horse: the large unbracketed number is that which the horse will wear on its saddle, and is the easiest identifier when watching the action unfold. The number in brackets is the stall draw where applicable; i.e. which of the stalls the horse will run from. Usually, the smaller the number the closer to the rail they will be, and this can be of slight advantage at certain racecourses.

Then we have the colours that the jockey will wear and the horse's name. Underneath is the trainer/jockey combo, and the order of this info will be displayed somewhere on the card, so jockey on top and trainer underneath or, in this case of this example, trainer/jockey.

Then we have the formline. This combination of numbers highlights how the horse has performed in their most recent starts, reading from left-to-right, so a formline of 332 would show a horse that has finished third, third and second in their last trio of outings. A dash in the middle of the numbers indicates where the end of the last season came, with a forward slash identifying a gap of two seasons or more between runs. Any '0' that appears can mean one of two things depending on the racecard provider: the horse didn't place, or it finished outside of the top nine.

So in the card above, the horse 'So Sleek' finished fourth and third in her last two starts of the prior season, and this term has since finished third twice and second in her last oting.

Other symbols in this formline of note are:

  • F - Fell at a jump (if they fell during a flat race that really is a worry!)
  • U - Unseated rider
  • PU - Pulled Up
  • R - Refused to jump
  • B - Brought down by another horse

Occasionally, but not in the example above unfortunately, the racecard will feature additional information about the horse. Steeds can be dressed up in hoods, blinkers, cheek pieces or tongue straps in an attempt to get them into the stalls easier and improve their performance. These are listed on the card as 'h', 'b', 'p' and 't' respectively.

So that's the racecard, and from this you could, technically, pick a winner or two. But wouldn't it be nice to have more information to hand when placing your bets? This is where doing your homework comes in very handy.

Form is Temporary?

There's that old saying in sport that form is temporary, class is permanent. Everyone will have their own take on that, but the truth is that form is perhaps the most widely-used attribute by horse racing punters to separate a nag from a class act.

But often form doesn't tell the whole story. You may notice a horse has won a couple of times recently, but what are the details of those victories?

  • Were they at a lower class than the race in question?
  • Were they at a shorter/longer distance?
  • Was the going different, i.e. soft compared to firm etc.

These are all considerations that prove the following adage: the story within the story is more important than the tale itself.

The truth is that reading form should be done from a point of relevance. Anything in a horse's past that can be deemed irrelevant - runs on softer/harder ground, wins in low-class fields - can be struck from the record.

Home in on what is really important, and that should help you to separate the wheat from the chaff in any given race.

When the Going Gets Tough..

Some days we step outside out front doors and the grass squidges beneath our feet after a deluge, and yet other times it is completely firm beneath the soles of our shoes. This, loosely, describes what the 'going' is for a horse race.

In layman's terms, it is the condition of the ground that the horses will run on. The general rule of thumb is that the softer the ground than the slower the race, with heavier horses enjoying an advantage on these conditions compared to harder ground and thus faster conditions.

The going will be described in one of the following ways, ordered by softness:

  • Heavy
  • Soft
  • Good-to-Soft (known as 'Yielding' in Irish racing)
  • Good
  • Good-to-Firm
  • Firm

The going is usually announced on the morning of race day, and while it can change throughout the day (depending on heavy rainfall, prolonged sunshine etc) normally this will be set in stone, so you can make your picks with confidence.

Naturally, some horses perform better on different going to others, with those powerhouses with large lungs enjoying softer ground and sprinters preferring nice firm surfaces to glide.

Combining form and going in your research is a key weapon in any punter's armoury.

Handicapping

There are horse races known as Handicaps that are held throughout the season - the Grand National and the Melbourne Cup are just two examples, and these offer a unique conundrum for punters.

Each horse is given a weight, as allocated by the handicapper. The idea is to create a leveller playing field by assigning heavier weights to faster horses, and thus slowing them in relation to the weaker horses in the field.

The job of the punter is to decide if the extra weight will prove decisive or not, or perhaps a typically slower horse can be backed based on the handicapping of his quicker rivals.

Handicapping adds an extra challenge to betting on horse racing, but it is one which can still deliver exceptional profits for those with a keen eye for value.

How to Pick a Winner

If there was a foolproof system for picking winners then there would be a lot more millionaire punters around...and a lot fewer bookmakers turning over seven-figure sums each year.

Horses are unpredictable and sport is unpredictable, for that matter. But results are not completely random, and there is some rhyme and reason to the majority of winners getting over the line first.

All betting is about finding value - did you know that the favourite in horse racing only wins around 30% of the time? That's 70% of races where an outsider of some description wins; if that doesn't get your juices flowing, nothing will!

So how to find these value bets. Well, we've already mentioned form and going, and we can abridge that to form-at-the-going. If a horse has performed well on the same ground in recent times, put a gentle tick next to their name.

We've mentioned race classes as well, and this is important. You might see form - a horse winning a couple on the bounce perhaps - but if those were in Listed races and he/she is now making the step up to Group 2, don't expect miracles. Conversely, a horse that has ran in Group 1 company a lot will relish a step down to Group 2 or 3.

Don't forget to check out the specifics of previous races, too. If, in a hypothetical world, the exact same race was run twice in identical conditions, and Horse A finished second by a head and Horse B finished second 10 lengths behind the winner, which is a more impressive performance. Clearly A is the better option, despite his second place being the same as B's.

Get to know jockeys and trainers; the latter in particular. Some tend to win in bursts, while others perform better at certain times of the year. You can tell how confident a trainer is in his stable of horses by seeing how many he takes to a particular meeting. And it's no coincidence that the likes of Aidan O'Brien and Willie Mullins tend to do well year in, year out. Their yards produce outstanding horses on a consistent basis.

And if you really want to land some big winners, don't write off the long-priced outsiders without first checking their history. Maybe they had a bad ride last time out and a new jockey is on board this time, maybe they were taken out by another runner over fences, perhaps they were held up at the back of a pack but finished strongly. The only way to ensure confidence prior to placing your bets is to check out every horse in the field.

The checklist below is far from exhaustive, but will at least offer a very basic guide for your next foray into horse racing betting:

  • Form-on-the-Going
  • Course Form
  • Step Up/Down in Class?
  • Win/Loss Distances
  • Form of Trainer/Jockey

And, of course, rule number one of horse racing betting that should be etched into the minds all of punters: never bet blind on the favourite!

Types of Horse Racing Bets

There are a myriad bet types available in horse racing, and for those new to the game these can often be confusing or downright bizarre. What the heck are a Super Yankee and a Lucky 31?

Luckily, once you have a basic understanding of the different types of bets and markets, the whole process becomes much easier to fathom.

On the Nose or In the Places?

So first up you must decide whether you want to bet on a horse to win the race, or simply finish in a specified number of finishers.

For win only bets, a £1 at 10/1 on Three-Legged Wonder would return a total of £11 (£10 in winnings and your stake back) if he was to claim victory.

With each way betting, we place two wagers: one on the horse to win, and the other on it to place. The terms of this are outlined on the racecard, but the places are usually the top three or top four, depending on the race size and prestige.

To place an each way bet on Three-Legged Wonder, our total stake would be £2 - £1 on the win and £1 on it to place. With each way terms of 1/3 (top three finish required), we would win £15.33 if our pick won the race and £4.33 if it places.

As you can probably tell, betting each way is a tactic that reduces your financial risk while slightly eating into your profit should your selection cross the line first.

Yankee, Heinz, Goliath and Other Friends

Once you have worked out whether you wish to have an each way flutter on the on the nose wager, you will then need to proceed in one of two ways. Firstly, you can bet on that horse alone - known as a single.

But to really ratchet up the excitement, we can place multiple bets where the odds of each horse are added together. These can be doubles, trebles and all manner of weird and wonderfully named bets. We can place win only and each way multiples as we see fit.

We can also consider placing cover bets. These cover a multitude of combinations which ensure that if only one of our selections lands then we can at least get a consolation prize. These are:

Three is the Magic Number

A Trixie is a bet we can place when we want to back horses in three different races. Our Trixie contains three doubles and a treble (all the multiple combos), and to be successful we need 2/3 selections as a minimum to land.

Conversely, we could place a Patent. This is the same as above, in that it we are backing three different horses, but this time our bets include three singles along with the three doubles and the treble. So, in this case, we would only need one of our picks to land in order to gain a return.

Most combinations have these special cover bets available, as follows:

  • Multiples of Four - A Yankee (6x doubles, 4x trebles, 1 four-fold) and a Lucky 15 (4x singles, 6x doubles, 4x trebles, 1 four-fold)
  • Multiples of Five - A Super Yankee (10x doubles, 10x trebles, 5x four-folds, 1x five-fold) and a Lucky 31 (5x singles, 10x doubles, 10x trebles, 5x four-folds, 1x five-fold)
  • Multiples of Six - A Heinz (15x doubles, 20x trebles, 15x four-folds, 6x five-folds, 1x six-fold) and a Lucky 63 (6x singles, 15x doubles, 20x trebles, 15x four-folds, 6x five-folds, 1x six-fold)