Horse racing, to this day, is the second most watched and second most gambled-on sport in the UK, behind only football in both regards.
Racing is about speed, stamina, equine and human intertwined brilliance, handsome surroundings and of course being able to have a bet on the outcome of each race.
Despite being known as “The Sports of Kings”, horse racing truly is for everyone and our guide will help you through the basics of how to bet on an activity that transcends borders, class and opinion.
How Does Horse Racing Work?
The great thing about horse racing is that it basically never stops. All under the auspices of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) as one sport, racing splits to give you a sort of sporting BOGOF deal; jumps racing and flat racing.
These are known as racing ‘codes’, and while each code these days keeps going the entire year, the basic premise is that the jumps season takes place primarily over the winter while the peak flat races are staged during the summer.
There are differences in the rules of each style of racing, but for us punters the idea is the same each time – find the right horse to back at the right price and hopefully make a profit.
Picking a Horse
Many amateurs simply go with a jockey they know, a top trainer, the favourite or even the one carrying the colours they like.
Before anything else, you need to begin learning how to pick a good value bet in the first place. Value in itself isn’t an exact science.
Just because a horse is 25/1 it isn’t necessarily good value if it has no chance of winning. Likewise, when a horse is the favourite if it faces challenges from a number of others in the race then its price (or odds) may not represent good value.
Let’s begin with favourites then. Around 35% of all favourites win. That sounds like an easy way to pick winners, but there are two glaring facts that contradict this. Firstly, that 35% includes all of those 1/2, 1/3 and even 1/5 winners which pay out tiny profits. It also means, obviously, that 65% of all favourites don’t win their races.
You can’t simply combat this by picking horses at bigger odds either. If there is a 2/1 favourite in a race and you don’t want to back it, then of the opposition at 4/1, 6/1, 8/1 12/1 etc, which one do you go for?
Luckily and for the most part, if not every time, horses tend to run to form and perform pretty consistently. Ignoring the newbies running for the first or second time, horses tend to perform to a certain level which gives you the opportunity to assess their chances based on the form book.
Performances and ratings are influenced by a number of factors, including race distance, ground conditions and fitness. Horses are also assigned ratings based on their performances, with higher numbers indicating a better horse.
So, when you see a horse who has performed at its best on good or good-to-firm ground over a mile, you may take a position that with conditions in its favour it may run to its best form. If that best form means it runs to a rating of, say, 85, and you believe the next best horse may run to a best of 82 then you may have a bet on your hands.
Of course, you’ll need to take weight into account too. Two horses with the same official rating will carry the same weight, in a handicap at least. If you have looked at the form however and you believe that one horse will run to its best form and the opposition may not, then you may consider that horse to be ‘well handicapped’.
One thing that many punters omit from their deductions that should be firmly in any bettors head right from the beginning, is that for the most part horses tend to improve.
Always bear in mind rates of improvement when you look at their profile. If the form book shows them running to marks of 79, 85, 66, 88, 77 and 92, then you’d take the view that while there are peaks and troughs, the horse in question generally has an upward profile and so you may not want to think of them as a ’92 horse’ in this case, but perhaps one capable of running to more like 95 if conditions are in their favour.
Choosing Your Bet
While there are a host of bets you can place in horse racing, from forecasts and tricasts to Lucky 15’s and other exotic multiples, when you are just starting out in the game what you really need to do is stick to the basics.
While exotics and multiple bets are good for other sports, such as football, within horse racing even the professionals tend to simply stick with the win and each-way markets.
Otherwise known as betting “on the nose”, a win bet is simply tasks the punter with backing a horse to finish the race first.
All of the odds in a basic horse race market are based on this. So, if a horse is listed as a 3/1 shot, it simply means that if you back it and it wins, you get ‘three to one’ on your stake. A successful £10 win bet on such horse would yield a £40 return – £30 profit plus your £10 stake which is always returned on a winning bet.
Odds are basically fractions. If you see prices such as 13/2, 13/8, 6/4 etc, to work out the potential profit you need to simply divide the first number by the second. So, a 13/8 shot is effectively 1.625/1.
As long as you find good value, for example a horse you are relatively confident can win and has perhaps two strong contenders in opposition at odds of 5/2, 3/1 or more, then backing it on the nose is the best way to go.
Placing wins bets means remaining patient. If your selections are sound and are at good value prices, then you don’t need to win 8 out of 10 to stay ahead.
For example, a typical 2/1 shot within horse racing has around a 35% chance of winning when taking the bookmaker’s profit into account. If you backed horses you believed had a one-in-three chance of winning at took 2/1 each time, you’d eventually be out of pocket.
If you banked on winning just 40% of your bets at an average price of 2/1 or bigger then over the course of time you could accept your 60% losers, as you’d be ahead of the bookmaker overall.
Each-way bets are most popular in competitive races such as the Grand National. Betting each-way basically means placing two bets in one – a win bet and a place bet. ‘Places’ are broken down like this:
- First only – in races of 1-4 runners
- First two – in races of 5-7 runners
- First three – in races of 8+ runners
- First four – in races of 16+ runners which are handicaps
As you are placing two bets your stake is doubled, so a £5 each-way bet costs £10 in total. For the place part of the bet odds are given at 1/4 or 1/5 of the win price, so on a 10/1 shot this would be either 5/2 or 2/1.
A £5 each-way bet on a 10/1 shot at 1/4 odds that ends with your horse winning would be paid out like this:
£5 x 10/1 = £55 return (£5 x 10/1 + £10 stake) and £5 x 10/1 (divided by 4) = £35 return (£5 x 10/4 + £10 stake). Total return £90.
If for the same bet your horse finished placed but did not win, only the £35 place return would be heading your way. So, as you see, you need to bear in mind the double stake and the fact that if your horse isn’t a big enough price and is placed only, it may not be worth backing each-way.
Going into how odds work a little further, fractions are almost always used in British and Irish racing so keeping abreast of those will keep you right.
As explained earlier, 3/1 simply means 3 betting units are returned for every 1 betting unit that you stake, i.e. if you put £5 on a successful 3/1 shot then you’d return £20 in total – 3 x £5 plus your £5 stake.
‘Odds-on’ is when the first number is lower than the second, i.e 1/2. In this case, a £10 bet yields a profit of just £5, although you always get your stake back if a bet is successful so the total return would be £15.
As a quick guide, here are all of the most frequently used fractional odds in horse racing, and what a successful £1 bet would return as profit, so without the stakes included:
|Odds||Profit on £1 bet||Odds||Profit on £1 bet||Odds||Profit on £1 bet|
In pool betting, such as with the Tote or with American and French pari-mutuel betting, decimals are used instead. We’ll take you through this in our pool betting section below.
Picking the Right Bookmaker
Once you’re comfortable with picking the right horses to back, choosing the right bookmaker becomes just as essential.
If you’re a high street punter then your choices may be limited to what brands happen to be available in your area, but online you have a staggering choice of bookmakers from which to pick.
The first thing to mention about online bookmakers is to not be too taken in by new customer bonuses. Some are better than others, but all are designed simply to get you onto their platform. From that point, if said bookmaker doesn’t offer what you’re looking for then the experience just won’t be up to scratch.
The most important factor of all is value. This time when we say value, we simply mean a bookmaker which offers the best prices around. Comparisons are easily found online, so take a look at all the biggest races and see which bookmakers continually stand out as being best-priced.
If you are interested in bonuses, then they really need to be offered consistently and not just for new players. Many good bookies offer loyalty programs and ongoing promotions for existing customers, so make sure you’re involved.
A good online bookmaker will offer quick payouts and also live streaming – essential for those betting on the move. Online streaming means you can back your horse then watch the race live on the bookmaker’s website or app in high quality, along with commentary.
Should You Take a Price?
Once every race is ‘off’, the last odds shown for each horse become its SP, or ‘starting price’. The SP’s are industry standard and are taken as an average of the prices offered by top rails bookmakers on course as well as those offered by the major firms online.
‘Taking the price’ means locking your bet in at the odds offered when the bet was struck. However, these days the only time it even becomes a question is when you’re a high street betting office punter.
In a typical betting shop, if you ask to take the price it is written onto your betting slip and if successful, will be paid out at those odds regardless. So, if you take the price on a horse at 7/2 and it ends up winning at an SP of 5/1, you’ll only be paid out at 7/2.
If you bet on course, there isn’t much of a choice. Each bookmaker at the track will advertise their prices and that will be what you receive when you place the bet, no matter what. The trick on track then is to keep watching the prices across various bookmakers as they change, and strike when the time is right.
Online however, most of these worries are taken away completely. Most major online bookmakers now offer ‘BOG’, or best odds guaranteed’, on all UK and Irish races.
This simply means that when you place your bet you accept the price offered at the time, however if your horse wins at a bigger SP then you receive your payout at those odds rather than at the price you took.
Betting on Multiple Races
While we don’t recommend them for serious players, if you’re looking to keep stakes small and get some extra fun out of your horse racing bets then you can place multiple wagers.
The idea with normal multiples is that whatever you win on your first selection then rolls onto the next, often providing huge returns if you manage to get them all right. Here are the most popular multiple horse racing bets:
- Double – a bet on two horses to win.
- Treble – a bet on three horses to win.
- Accumulator – a bet on four or more horses to win.
Occasionally, your accumulator bet may be named after how many horses are in it, such as ‘fourfold’, fivefold’ etc. You can also place any of these multiples as each-way bets, paying double the stake to do so.
Full cover bets are also popular horse racing multiples. The idea of these is that, instead of all of your selections being always required to win, you can cover more outcomes in one bet. Full cover bets include:
- Trixie – three selections featuring 4 bets – 3 doubles and one treble.
- Yankee – four selections, 11 bets – 6 doubles, 4 trebles and a fourfold.
- Super Yankee – five selections, 26 bets – 10 doubles, 10 trebles, 5 fourfolds and fivefold.
- Heinz – six selections, 57 bets – 15 doubles, 20 trebles, 15 fourfolds, 6 fivefolds and a sixfold.
- Super Heinz – seven selections, 120 bets – 21 doubles, 35 trebles, 35 fourfolds, 21 fivefolds, 7 sixfolds and a sevenfold.
- Goliath – eight selections, 247 bets – 28 doubles, 56 trebles, 70 fourfolds, 56 fivefolds, 28 sixfolds, 8 sevenfolds and an eightfold.
Multiples are great fun if you keep the stakes low, which you almost always have to given their nature. Even going at 10p stakes on a Goliath will rack up a total cost of £24.70.
Pool betting is somewhat underused in British racing, though the Tote remains hugely popular. The major noticeable difference in pool betting is the use of decimals rather than fractional odds.
So, a 2/1 shot would be listed as £3.00, including a standard £1 stake. Doing it this way means a horse’s live price can be very accurate. Instead of a horse moving gradually from 2/1 out to 3/1, the live price can keep changing for example to £3.10, £3.30, £3.65, £4.00 etc.
The best way to use pool betting is to take part in jackpots and placepots. The Tote’s jackpot is a daily pool bet featuring six pre-determined races from across the racing schedule.
The idea is that the races should be the most difficult of the day to solve. All of the money taken on jackpot bets goes into a pool, the winning portion of the pool being shared out between all of those who pick all six winners.
If there is no winner, the win pool can be rolled over to the following day’s racing.
Perhaps the most popular pool bet around, the placepot is another wager involving six races, however this time there are numerous opportunities each day to place the bet, and your selections do not need to win.
At each and every UK meeting, the first six races on the card form the placepot. Simply add one or more selections to each leg of the bet, which then need to finish placed to keep the bet going.
As always, a place means winning (1-4 runners), finishing in the first 2 (5-7 runners), the first three (8+ runners, non-handicaps) or the first 4 (handicaps of 16 or more runners).
Wins are shared out as normal, but dividing all the money left in the pot between all the winners. The value of the placepot is then calculated, based on £1 being a single unit. So, if there is £67,000 in the pot and 128 winning ‘units’, each one is paid £523.43.
You can place multiples lines too. If you wanted to spend £1 per line and chose just the one horse in each race then your total bet is £1. If, however, you want to back 2 horses in race 2 and 3 horses in race 5, then your bet would be 1 x 2 x 1 x 1 x 3 x 1 = 6 lines.
What If Your Horse Doesn’t Run?
If you’re betting on the ante-post markets, i.e. all advance markets on a race before the final declarations are made, then generally you will not get back your stake money if your horse doesn’t run. These days however there are many bookmakers offering ‘non-runner, no bet’ deals on ante-post markets.
In terms of normal horse racing markets, after the final declarations are made and the final conditions of the race are known, an official non-runner means all stakes are returned.
For ordinary jumps races, the final declarations are in at 10am the day before the race, while on the flat final declarations are in a day earlier.
After this point, if you’ve backed a horse and it is pulled out of the race you will always receive your full stake back. If your horse does jump off with the rest of the field however then refuses to race, it will be classed as a runner and your bet is lost.