Winning distances are essentially how we measure success in horse racing, rightly or wrongly.
Finishing margins between runners at the line help punters and handicappers decipher how good one horse was versus another.
Even the most casual of watchers will understand that, broadly speaking, we deal in ‘lengths’. A length is a nice, easy to understand term and was used as a standard measurement based on – you guessed it – the length of a horse. But how long is a horse?
It’s hard to simply say a length is a length because it isn’t, and not just in the literal sense. How fast a race is, how quick a horse is finishing and how much effort is being put in at the line can skew the figures. A horse winning by one length could have been way more impressive than another winning by four.
Punters have to use this information to be better informed when having a bet. Now, you can even bet on the margin of victory, i.e., ‘winning distance betting’.
Of course, there are much more finite measurements than lengths. Horse races can be very close to call after all. Here is a list of official winning margins used in racing:
- Dead Heat – two horses finishing exactly side-by-side. Printed as (DH).
- Nose (N)
- Short-Head (SH)
- Head (H)
- Neck (NK)
- Quarter of a length (1/4 L)
- Half-a-length (1/2 L)
- Three-quarters of a length (3/4 L)
- A length (1 L)
And so on.
How Distances Are Measured and Calculated
To help you better process winning distances before betting on them, we’ll take you through how they are worked out in the modern day.
Distances are based on time these days, rather than any visual aspect. There is a lengths-per-second scale, running differently for the flat, the All Weather and the jumps with the going included as another variable.
For example, in a jumps race run on heavy ground we can expect the runners to be relatively slow. This means the lengths-per-second scale would be at its lowest level which is four lengths per second.
Therefore, a runner crossing the line 2.75 seconds behind another horse would be listed as having finished 11 lengths behind.
Despite allowances for the going and the code, the distance of the race is astonishingly NOT factored in.
This means that on the flat on good ground, the same lengths-per-second calculation would be used for a five-furlong dash as that used for a two-mile stayers’ race, despite the fact that runners will no doubt be finishing at very different speeds. Always keep that in mind.
Betting on Winning Distances
There are fine margins involved here. One length is around 8 feet and on the scale at its quickest point, good or faster turf ground on the flat, equates to around 0.16 seconds.
Winning distance betting therefore can be complicated. A horse may put in an average winning performance, but the others may finish tired with jockeys not exactly knocking their mount about to close in the final stages.
Conversely, a well-handicapped horse can sweep by the field late on and just get there on the line to win by a neck. It may be very much the superior horse in the race, but doesn’t need to win by miles to prove it and you must keep that in mind when entertaining a winning distance bet.
Bet Types Available
You can bet on winning distances in a couple of ways.
Firstly, there are the aggregate winning distances markets. A bookmaker will set their line, a total of combined winning distances for the whole day, and you can bet on the total being over or under the line.
Naturally on good ground with some sprints involved, you’d expect the total distances to be small while over jumps on softer ground, the distances could be very great.
The better way to bet on winning distances is by boosting your single bet with a good bookmaker. Many bookies now offer normal prices on horses in each race, though offer an odds increase if you take said horse to win by a certain minimum number of lengths.
So, for example, a horse listed at 2/1 may be offered at 5/2 to win by 1 length or more. It may be offered at 3/1 to win by 2½ lengths or more and so on.
When to Bet on Distances
Trainers and jockeys are notorious for looking after a horse’s handicap mark and/or keeping expectations down.
With this in mind, they do not expect their horses on a daily basis, even when good enough, to be pushed out to win their race by as many lengths as possible. That’s why you shouldn’t bet on winning distances on a daily basis.
There are exceptions. When it comes to a major race or festival, such as the Derby, the Cheltenham Festival or end of season events like Champions Day, jockeys no longer have to ‘look after’ their horse and they are free to show if its talents to the max.
Only on major race days should you contemplate betting big on winning distances, especially if you expect the margins to be wide.