Whether it’s a one-off flutter on a big race like the Grand National or a regular hobby, betting on the horses can be a thrilling experience. Of course, it’s all the more thrilling when you pick a winner! However, if you can’t tell your fillies from your furlongs and have never bet on the races before, or if you simply want to up your game, there are lots of ways to improve your chances of picking a winning horse in UK races.
The lowdown on odds
Even if you’ve never placed a bet before, you might be vaguely familiar with betting odds. Typically, racecourses, betting shops and betting websites in the UK use a fractional betting system – e.g. 6/1 (odds of six-to-one). This is pretty simple: for every £1 you stake, you’ll receive £6 in return (plus your original stake).
A 6/2 bet is the same principle, except here for every £2 stake you’ll receive £6 (plus your stake returned).
The race favourite will have the shortest odds, which means a less risky bet but with a smaller return. When placing a bet, you can spot the race favourite by looking for an F by the horse’s name, or a JF if they are joint favourite.
So is the smart money on an each-way bet?
Even if your horse isn’t first past the post, you can still win big at the races. An each-way bet pays out if your chosen horse either wins or places in the top four (or top five for some bookmakers).
There are two aspects to an each-way bet: the ‘win’ and the ‘place’. You essentially put half your stake on each, which must be equal. For example, a £20 each-way stake will put £10 on the horse winning and £10 on the horse placing in the top four.
If your horse wins the race, you’ll win both the winning and placed part of your bet, but should your horse not come first you’ll take home the winnings for your placed bet only, plus your stake returned. Odds for a placed bet will of course be shorter, often a quarter (1/4) of the odds for winning outright.
Each-way bets are the most popular way to bet in the UK, and are a good way to improve your chances of succeeding at the races – even if your horse doesn’t come in first!
Reading the odds for a better chance to win
So, each race will have a favourite or joint favourite, i.e. the horse that has the shortest odds and is deemed the most likely to win based on a number of factors, including the horse’s reputation, condition and the ‘going’ (more on that later).
Keeping a close eye on how a runner’s odds change preceding a race might just point you in the direction of the winning horse.
Have the odds shortened lately? Follow the market
When a horse has its odds shortened dramatically (known in the trade as a ‘steamer’) for example dropping from 20/1 to 10/1, this may be a sign that the horse is on track for a win. Insider knowledge is usually the precursor to shortening odds, and when those in the know (e.g. trainers and savvy punters) gain confidence in a particular runner then this will be reflected at the bookies.
Bear in mind, however, that a horse with odds slashed from 50/1 to 20/1 is still much less likely to win than a horse with good odds of 3/1 or 4/1 – so while a steamer might be a good bet, it’s no ‘dead cert’.
Odds aren’t everything, check the form guide
While odds give a broad snapshot of a horse’s chances, the form guide is a much more detailed analysis of a particular animal. A good knowledge of how to read and understand form makes the difference between an amateur punter and a seasoned, savvy better who can pick a winning horse in the UK (almost) every time.
What does it all mean?
At first glance, a form guide can seem like an impenetrable collection of numbers and letters. While it might be in the bookmaker’s interests if you’re a little intimidated by the form guide or race-card, it’s really not that complicated.
Form guides will typically include numbers written like this: 313-21, although there might be some variance in the layout depending on the publication.
Basically, the numbers denote the horse’s past form. So the number on the far right (number 1 in this case) signifies that the horse came first in its most recent race. The number 2 denotes that the horse came second in the race before. The numbers on the left-hand side denote performance for last year.
You might also notice a star next to the horse’s name, which means they have previously won over the same course and distance.
Form guides will usually include lots of additional information, including the owner’s name. You may also notice lots of abbreviations, which can denote everything from whether the horse was brought down (BD) or whether it refused to start race (RTR) – definitely not a good sign! Form guides can offer lots of clues as to a horse’s future performance, including things that less eagle-eyed punters may have missed.
Going, going, gone!
In a horseracing context, the ‘going’ refers to the condition of a racetrack, which can have a considerable impact on a horse’s performance. In the UK, the ‘going’ can be hard, firm, good to firm, good, good to soft, soft, and heavy.
A track’s going can be greatly affected by sudden factors such as the weather, and so can change with short notice. Should it rain overnight, for example, the track could become soft or heavy, which will obviously favour soft or heavy-loving horses. Taking a look at a horse’s past performance can show some that prefer a particular type of going and therefore might be a good bet in today’s particular conditions. Take a note of ‘going’ and you could be well on your way to picking the winning horse.
Straight from the horse’s mouth – are insider tips really reliable?
To the uninitiated, the world of horse racing can seem like a closed system, where odds are determined behind the scenes by various experts and insiders. Any filtering down of knowledge and tips from inside this shadowy network has to be worth your time – right?
The short (and somewhat unhelpful) answer is yes and no. An insider tip could give you the edge. However, the best way to improve your chances of picking a winning horse is, essentially, to become an insider yourself. Learn how to read form, understand the nuances of odds and familiarise yourself with the world of Thoroughbreds, jockeys and trainers, and you’ll be well on your way to choosing a winning horse, not just once, but consistently.