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Gambling’s guide to... A day at the races (part 2)

Following on from last month’s beginner’s guide, we’ve now turned our attentions to a more intermediate level. As always, a host of experts are on hand with tips and advice on how to conquer the sport of kings, with Gareth Bracken our ever-present man in the middle

Having covered the basics of horse racing in our December issue, a more advanced version seemed an obvious progression. Readers of the previous article should now have a general appreciation of horses, courses and betting, and with this knowledge securely in place can now look to push on to what can be termed a more intermediate level. This includes expert advice on selection making, staking plans and paddock analysis, all of which should ensure that your understanding of the sport and winnings garnered from it embark on an upward curve.

In last month’s guide we looked at the relative merits of attending either larger or smaller race meetings, both in terms of betting opportunities and overall enjoyment. At an intermediate level much more attention needs to be paid to the types of races on offer and the different punting prospects they produce. Tristan Wootton, racing editor at, sees logic in focusing on jump racing. “I stick to betting on jumps, principally because National Hunt horses have longer racing careers than their flat counterparts, which means that there is a vast abundance of form on offer to aid the punter,” he explains. Racing presenter and commentator Richard Hoiles (@RichardHoiles on Twitter) agrees, adding that: “Handicap hurdles of 2m6f and over would make a decent start point as any info and traits noted can then be of use over fences as you expand your repertoire.”

Once you’ve pinpointed your favoured area of focus, you can then get to work exploring it in more depth. We advised beginners to concentrate on the top jockeys and trainers at a particular course in order to keep things simple, but at this higher level there is no need to stick to that ploy quite so religiously. “I am not too concerned with having an average jockey to steer home my selection, I just want to avoid a jockey who counts as a negative,” says Wootton. Good jockey knowledge can be developed by watching conditional and apprentice races, the arenas in which most riders begin their racing careers.

Wootton also offers a piece of advice that could be worth following for those seeking an edge that others might not spot. “A less evident trick up the punter’s sleeve is to see whether a sponsor has a runner in its own race,” he says. “In that case the trainer will put in extra effort to make sure the horse is fit on the day to satisfy the owners high up in their corporate box with a winner.” He adds that it’s surprising just how many winners are produced as a result of this sort of scenario.

Such insight is useful because it is of ongoing value and can be applied to various races throughout the season. This is exactly what an intermediate level punter needs, information that will build on and help improve existing understanding. This is why tipsters who simply detail a list of selections should be avoided. “If you are going to use a tipping service it is best to look at ones that not only give you tips but also provide you with information that allows you to learn and progress your own betting techniques at the same time,” says Ben Aitken, author of Narrowing the Field - Using the Dosage Method to Win at National Hunt Racing. “You need to be progressing your own racing knowledge, not just being given tips.”

Rosella Short, one of the ‘Voices of the Races’ at agrees, adding: “Those who make their living from horse race betting don't just log on to a tipping website every day and find a load of winners without effort. They work hard, find their own angles and bet selectively in light of their findings.”

One of the benefits of attending a race meeting in person is that you can develop your own knowledge and understanding by viewing the horses close up. “I believe the punter at the track has an enormous advantage when it comes to the final selection in a race,” says Short. This is because upcoming runners can be observed in the paddock – an aspect that we covered briefly last month but is worthy of a more detailed analysis. A shiny coat, calm temperament and good muscle tone were all mentioned previously and Short feels that the latter of those three is the most important. “From a quarter of the way down the rump through to the top of the rear legs, look for a sharply defined line,” she says. “A hint of the rib cage indicates no excess fat, it shouldn't be too prominent or the horse may be under nourished or feeling the effects from a previous hard race. Look for well-defined muscles just above the forelegs.” Racing expert Kate Miller from William Hill notes the importance of looking at a horse’s walking style.

“The stride should be long and lengthy,” she explains. “Ideally their back foot should step where the front foot takes off.”

Once you’ve got into your own stride it’s vital to keep records of your bets. Those wishing to take their betting seriously should use a computer for this, and most probably a spreadsheet. The more detail you can gather the better. “Record things such as bet type, track, race type, distance and price,” says Aitken. “It’s important to get a handle on your own strong points and weak points and identify where you are going well and where you need to improve. You may even find that you are better at finding the sweet spots of certain stables and jockeys than others.” Making and maintaining notes on runners and riders, as well as upcoming races, is also worthwhile and represents good practice. “You definitely want somewhere you can record all your notes and ideally have prompts to show when a horse you are interested in is running,” says Richard Hoiles. “I have always used Raceform Interactive which does both of these easily.”

Sensible punters will also want to create a staking plan in order to regulate and control their betting. There are a number of approaches (see boxed text) and it’s up to the individual bettor which they go for. It shouldn’t be assumed that the more advanced plans, for example the detailed Kelly Staking Plan, are necessarily best, as even they have their detractors. “Kelly does not allow punters to increase their stakes during a good run, which I disagree with,” says Wootton. “When punters enjoy a good spell, they think clearly and are able to make confident decisions. They should capitalise by raising their stakes.” He adds that in any circumstance it isn’t advisable to bet more than 3% of bankroll at a time, “even if the horse is a cert”.

The main trademark of an intermediate approach to horse racing is attention to detail, applicable to all of the areas and disciplines detailed here. Your selections will become more informed and based on your own notes and knowledge rather than the reputations of jockeys or opinions of tipsters. Your betting behaviours should improve too, including a more considered approach to staking and bet sizing. These are all excellent habits to get into and in the long run can only be a good thing for your betting bank balance.



Once a horse has raced several times and been suitably assessed, it is awarded a handicap mark that allows it to be compared to all other horses under that code (turf, chase, all-weather, hurdles, etc). The horse’s figure is then adjusted by officials based on its previous runs.

The mark it receives has a bearing on the weight it carries in handicap races. So if all horses perform to their handicap mark, they’d all finish equal first.


Otherwise the best horses would win every time and there would be little point in backing any of the others, or indeed them even entering the race.


Handicapping is achieved by adding weight, in the form of strips of lead, to a jockey’s saddle. The amount of weight to be added is decided by comparing the ratings of all the horses in a race. Horses’ ratings are continuously updated in line with their performances.


The British Horseracing Association employs 12 handicappers, some of whom specialise in jump racing and some in flat. They study the horses and their form to formulate the ratings, publishing the updated figures on a weekly basis.

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