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How to Bet on Horse Racing

Horse racing is the most traditional betting sport and accounted for a significant proportion of betting before the onset of more sports-orientated websites. The emergence of exchange operators has also accounted for a move away from racing to a wide selection of other sports but most notably football.

Racing was the staple diet of off-course bookmakers especially in Great Britain when betting offices were legalised in 1961. Even until the start of the 1990’s most customers that entered bookmakers’ premises did so to bet on horse racing. Greyhound racing was also covered but turnover on that sport only reached significant levels when race meetings were abandoned due to the weather.

Horse racing is still shown in every licensed betting premises in Britain but these days it has to compete with other sports, virtual betting and Fixed Odds Terminals. Even so racing still accounts for more than 50% of turnover in betting offices.

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British horse racing is structured around and is financially dependent on a levy paid by bookmakers to the sport in return for use of data and pictures. Other leading racing nations are more reliant on tote betting, most notably France and Australia.

Main Events

Horse racing takes place around the world on a daily basis. In the United Kingdom there is a break in the schedules on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Good Friday, though other nations race on these days.

Racing is very popular in Southern Hemisphere countries such as Australia and South Africa. This means it is possible to bet on racing around the clock. Dedicated racing channels in several countries and the provision of odds by traditional bookmakers and exchanges means racing is a 24 hour betting sport.

United Kingdom

Great Britain is the first country to have an organised structure of racing with racing having taken place in the 17th century in that country. The Jockey Club was formed to administer the meetings but now various different bodies share control of the sport.


The turf flat racing season runs from March to November in Great Britain. All weather racing now takes place during the winter which means there are opportunities for flat horses and jockeys all year round.

The most important races during the turf season are the five classics. Only three year olds are eligible to enter these races which are the most significant in establishing a horses breeding value.

The 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas are run at Newmarket in May. The Derby and Oaks take place at Epsom in June. The oldest classic in the sport, the St Leger, is run at Doncaster in September. The Triple Crown consists of winning three classics and only two male horses have achieved this distinction.

After the classics the most prestigious meeting is Royal Ascot which takes place in June. The Queen attends every one of the five days of the meeting which is just as much a social event as a racing fixture.

There are several other festivals that take place during the flat season.

All stage meetings over several days. These festivals attract the biggest crowds and greatest betting turnover.

A recent addition to the fixture list in Great Britain is Champions Day at Ascot in October. This fixture brings together the season’s best horses over a number of distances and for each gender. The meeting received a huge boost in 2012 with the appearance of Frankel, reputed by some to be the best thoroughbred to have ever raced.

National Hunt

The National Hunt Festival at Cheltenham is arguably the best racing fixture in the world. It brings together the best horses in championship races, running against the backdrop of Cleeve Hill in the Cotswolds.

More than one third of the season’s Grade 1 races take place at the Cheltenham Festival. The best hurdlers and chasers compete in long established races which generate huge amounts of business. The Blue Riband event of the meeting is the Gold Cup in which the best chasers race against each other over more than three miles.

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It is debatable which horse race could be labelled the most famous in the world and the Derby has claims to be just that. However, the Grand National has the greatest global audience, due to the unique nature of the course and fences.

The National is known as the People’s Race as it attracts more once a year punters than any other race. With the exposure comes criticism and perhaps unfair analysis when horses have to be destroyed after falling during the race.


The most prestigious flat race run outside Great Britain is the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe which takes place at Longchamp just outside Paris in October. This race owes its prestige partly due to the fact that is not restricted to three year olds. It provides an opportunity for the classic generation to run against older horse.

Outside of Europe the most important races are the three classics run in the United States, the Breeders Cup also staged in that country, the Dubai World Cup, the Japan Cup and the Melbourne Cup, ‘the race that stops a nation’, namely Australia.

All the main racing nations have their classics which are run on the same lines as the British equivalent. There are countless Derby’s run around the world, taking their name from the British version. The race could have been called the Bunbury but Lord Derby was allowed to put his name to the race when one of his horses beat a horse owned by Lord Bunbury over 200 years ago.

Most Popular Markets

Horse racing markets range from the most basic to exotic and can involve many combinations of horses and races. The most popular market for a horse race is a win bet when a bettor merely bets on which horse will win a race. Each-way betting involves betting on horses to be placed. The number of horses that make the pay-out places depends on the type of race and number of runners. Slightly different terminology is used around the world, most notably Win, Place and Show in America and Australia.

Forecast betting involves predicting which horses will finish first and second and first, second and third. Again these bets have different names around the world but the principle is the same regardless of the name of the bet.

Racing nations such as America and Australia have more exotic bets. These betting options provide an opportunity to win large amounts for a small stake. However, predicting horses to finish first to fourth in the correct order is more of a lottery bet but the big payouts make the bets popular.

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Best Horse Racing Markets

Bookmakers all around the world are most wary of single bets. These bets involve backing one horse to win a single race. The mathematics are still loaded in favour of the bookmaker but bettors have more of an edge when backing in just one race.

Each-way betting on one horse, or Win, Place, Show betting as it is known in some countries,  represents a safer betting format. If your horse is placed, the win part of the bet is lost and a fraction of the odds paid for the place.

In Great Britain one of the oldest standing bets that provides the bettor with a marginally more significant advantage is the each-way double. This bet involves predicting horses in two races to make the payout places.

The each-way double is very popular when there are eight runners in a race as this is the minimum number for each-way betting on horses to finish first to third. An each-way double on two placed horses at 5/1 in races that pay one fifth the odds returns at 3/1. The best opportunities to place this bet are in races with a short priced favourite, though the place terms may be adjusted to one sixth the odds if the favourite is odds-on.

Worst Horse Racing Betting Markets

Horse racing isn't the easiest of sports to bet on with form rarely easy to predict. You can place multiple bets but these are not easy to get returns from.Multiple bets have high odds but the higher the odds, the less chance of them winning. There are what is known as system bets where a return can be received even if not all the selections are winners.

A Yankee bet involves selecting four horses combined in six doubles, four trebles and a four horse accumulator. That means eleven bets, and eleven times the stake, but one loser eliminates seven bets leaving just three doubles and a treble.

Forecast bets offer potentially high odds but again bookmakers will happily field these bets despite the potential liabilities. There are so many factors to assess when trying to just back a winner but the variables are multiplied when trying to predict the finishing order of up to three horses in a race.


Price Factors

When betting markets are formed for a horse race the following factors are taken into account:

  • Form
  • Ground
  • Fitness
  • Trainer form
  • Jockey 

Prices will fluctuate depending on the numbers backing each selection. 

Horse racing markets could be classed as perfect markets as they involve many different buyers and sellers who determine what is known as the Starting Price by backing or laying a horse.

Before the onset of the exchange bookmakers it was only possible to back a horse. Peer to peer betting now allows an individual to assume the role of bookmaker by laying a bet. In this model the numerous bets and counter bets determine the price of a horse.

In-Running Horse Racing Betting

The onset of betting exchanges has given rise to a relatively new aspect of betting on horse racing, namely in-running betting. This is now available even for flat races run over the minumum distance of five furlongs. Such races last about one minute but odds are still updated during the race.

Pictures on television and streamed on bookmakers sites are typically about five seconds behind actual time. This doesn't seem a significant span of time but a race’s complexion can still change dramatically within this time frame.

In a jumps race a horse leading by 20 lengths approaching the final obstacle will trade as low as 1.03, or 1/33 in old money. If the horse then falls the price rockets to 1000.0 (999/1) which can give rise to horror stories of layers trying to buy money but left with a liability of 999 times the stake.

It is now possible to go to a racecourse and be provided with an office and computer to trade in running in genuine real time. Seeing an event live gives an exchange bettor an edge even though the window of opportunity may be no more than five seconds.

Ante Post Betting

It is possible to bet on some races in a year almost immediately after the renewal in a previous year. This is particularly true for the major championships races and popular races such as the Grand National.

The most lucrative ante post betting for the bookmakers revolves around the Cheltenham Festival. This meeting takes place each spring and ante post prices are issued for some races as early as the previous autumn.

In flat racing prices are available for the spring and summer classics almost a full year ahead of the races. Whenever a two year old from a prominent stable runs a promising race bookmakers will quote prices for the horse to win a classic as much as nine months ahead of the race.

Ante post betting is also popular for the major handicaps on the flat and over jumps. The inherent danger of ante post betting is that a horse might not even appear in the specified race. The odds on offer reflect this risk and some bookmakers apply a non-runner/no bet rule which means stakes are refunded if a horse is withdrawn more than  five days ahead of when the race is scheduled to take place.

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