How Does Horse Racing Work

Learn how to bet and play on horse racing by reading this article.

How does horse racing work?

One of the most popular sports to watch, horse racing in Britain generates billions of pounds each year. Major events like the Cheltenham Festival and Royal Ascot can command viewing figures in their millions, along with the biggest races like the Grand National and the Gold Cup.

Before 1986, races were covered with audio commentaries. Since then, television pictures of races became available in betting offices and on mainstream TV. Attendances at race meetings have dropped somewhat due to alternative sporting attractions and more television coverage, but racing is still the second most popular spectator sport in Britain, with football taking the number one spot.

The sport itself is centuries old, with earliest records showing horse racing taking place during Roman times. The Jockey Club was founded in 1750, which established a basic set of rules that have formed the basis for what we know as horse racing today.

The importance of Great Britain to the foundation and continued success of horse racing shouldn’t be understated. Britain has a successful breeding industry and some of the leading stallions and mares stand at stud in the country and forms an element of answering the question how does horse racing work?

Basic Concept

The basic question is how does horse racing work? Horse racing involves the racing of thoroughbreds in races over a variety of distances and on the Flat and over jumps. There are a number of types of races within each sphere but these can be roughly categorised as conditions, stakes and handicap races.

In Britain, there are two main types of horse racing: Flat Racing and National Hunt Racing.

The sport takes place under the rules of racing which are designed to ensure fairness and integrity. Prize money is allocated based on the horse that passes the post first and minor financial prizes for horses that are placed.

Horses are prepared for racing by trainers and ridden by jockeys who must ride at a specified weight. Mainstream racing is run under rules but point-to-point racing is more informal, though it still requires fairness in terms of race conditions and weights. Harness racing and Arabian racing do not involve thoroughbreds.

Rules of Racing

Horse racing is not like a conventional sport which involve people playing in teams or as individuals. The main participants are horses who run by instinct and training and not in keeping with rules. However, in order for racing to take place with integrity and trust, rules of racing are applied. Racing rules confront the question of how does racing work?.

The rules of racing are complex and detailed. There are four main stipulations that provide the foundation of how the sport is run. One of the main tools in maintaining integrity is the Steward’s Enquiry at which the trainer and rider of the horse involved have to attend. These enquiries are not time sensitive but input from those responsible for the welfare of the horse are obligatory.

The main tenets of the rules of racing are as follows:

  • Every horse has to run and be perceived to run to the best of its ability
  • In an enquiry evidence from three instances of a rider not riding the horse to do its best must be provided
  • The trainer is responsible for instructing the jockey to get the best out of the horse
  • The rider must make sure the horse produces its best

Dangerous riding can result in the placings of the horses being changed but the benefit of the doubt should go to the horse that finished in front. However, if any incident happens some distance away from the end of the race an amendment to the result is less likely.

Use of the whip is a contentious issue. The rules of racing include guidelines for the amount of strokes seen to be acceptable and penalties can be given for a variety of offences. Punishments include financial penalties and bans from race riding.

Types of Racing

We touched upon this earlier, but let’s take a closer look at the most common forms of racing in Britain. There are two types of thoroughbred horse racing in the UK which help to answer the query: how does horse racing work?:

Flat racing is a type of racing run over distances of between five furlongs and two miles five furlongs 169 yards. This form of racing has no obstacles and horses can run from the age of two.

Races begin when horses emerge from starting stalls, designed to produce level starts so that no horse has an advantage or disadvantage. Several tracks in Britain and Ireland are dedicated to Flat racing while other courses show both codes.

Trainers compete for their own championship which is based on prize money but the leading jockey for the season is the one with most winners.

The Turf season runs from Match to November but all-weather racing takes place all year round.

National Hunt racing is one of the other types of race and stages races. Races of this kind are run from just less than two miles to four and a half miles.

Horse in NH racing jump either hurdles, ditches and/or fences and National Hunt races are run according to the rules of jumps racing. Specialist tracks present jumps racing only while other courses promote both codes.

The championships for trainers and jockeys are decided by the total prize money won and the number of winners. Whip rules tend to be more lenient in this type of racing.


There are 60 racecourses in Britain, as of 2019. This number doesn’t include Point To Point courses.  A number of tracks that operated in previous centuries are now closed.

Tracks are Flat, National Hunt or mixed. Some are turf or all-weather and owned by the Jockey Club, Arena Racing Company or have independent owners. Tracks are graded and Grade 1 tracks are generally near major cities and stage the most important races.

One of the attractions of British racing is the variety of the locations in terms of types of races, country or town, right or left handed, flat or undulating and Flat or jumps or a combination of both. Tracks in Wales, Scotland and England each stage their own Grand National and each venue has some form of racing festival which attracts great local interest.


Types of Races and Major Races

Britain stages some of the most well-known races in the world, both on the Flat and National Hunt races. The races are condition events, stakes races or major handicaps in which each horse is allocated a weight based on its previous form. Ante post markets lead to the interest and that goes up a level when the weights are announced.


There are several ancient Flat races and others that are part of a modern programme, even those with a long history. On the Flats, the most important races of the year are the Classics. These championship races are for horses aged three, one year after their juvenile season.

Each of the Classics was founded in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. Race names and conditions have been copied by other racing nations and just about every jurisdiction has its own Derby. The modern Flat season culminates with Champions Day, held at Ascot in October.

The Five Classics are as follows:

  • 2,000 Guineas run at Newmarket. A Group 1 race held in late April or early May over one mile (1609 metres) for three-year old colts and fillies. The first leg of the English Triple Crown
  • 1,000 Guineas run at Newmarket. A Group 1 race held late April or early May over one mile (1609 metres for three-year old fillies. Follows the 2,000 Guineas
  • The Oaks Stakes run at Epsom. A Group 1 race held in late May or early June over one mile four furlongs and six yards for three-year old fillies. The second oldest of the five Classics
  • The Derby run at Epsom. A Group 1 race held on the first Saturday each June over one mile four furlongs and six yards for three-year old colts and fillies. The second leg of the English Triple Crown
  • The St Leger run at Doncaster. A Group 1 race held in September over one mile six furlongs and 115 yards for three-year old fillies and colts. The oldest of the five Classics and the third leg of the English Triple Crown/li>

The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes race is the mid-season highlight and is run over one mile, three furlongs and 211 yards. This prestigious race is held at Ascot each July. The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is the biggest Flat race in Europe and is run over one mile four furlongs at Longchamp near Paris.

National Hunt

The Cheltenham Festival in Match dominates the jumps season and features championship races for each discipline and race distance. The meet generally takes place in March. The feature races of the festival, one of which are run between Tuesday and Friday, are as follows:

Champion Hurdle – Grade 1 race identifying the best hurdler over two miles 87 yards

Queen Mother Champion Chase – Grade 1 race identifying the best chaser over one mile seven furlongs 199 yards

Stayers’ Hurdle – Grade 1 race identifying the best staying hurler over two miles seven furlongs 213 yards

Gold Cup – Grade 1 race. Highlight of the Festival and the main championship race of the season for staying chasers.

Onto arguably the most popular, along with the most famous, horse race in Britain, the Grand National. The Grand National is run at Aintree at the beginning of April. The most famous steeplechase in the world, the National gets plenty of media and online coverage.

The race is the biggest for betting of the year and attracts a global TV audience in the hundreds of millions. Scotland, Wales and Ireland now have their own Grand National and there is even a greyhound racing version.

The Grand National is the most bet-on race in the UK, attracting avid horse racing bettors and novices alike. The result can affect profitability for the major bookmakers and they always fear a winning favourite or aptly named placed horse.

On Course Betting

Horse racing in the UK goes hand-in-hand with on-course betting. At tracks in Britain and Ireland, customers have the option to bet in a number of ways. Traditionally, bettors place wagers with cash with private bookmakers. These operators work from pitches and display odds.

Individual bookmakers set their own odds and compete with others for business. A sample is taken of the odds on offer for each horse as a race is about to begin. This average is known as the starting price. Bets placed in betting offices away from the track are settled on the basis of the starting price.

Major bookmakers try to manipulate the starting price for their own benefit. For example, if a bookmaker has taken many bets on one horse they will back that horse on-course to reduce the starting price and their liabilities.

In 2000 Betfair Exchange entered the UK betting market. This is a betting exchange whereby customers could back or lay selections in many sports including horse racing. Laying a horse means taking a bet which equates to being a bookmaker.

On course bookmakers use computer technology to monitor their losses for each horse in a race. Most are now linked to Betfair, and other betting exchanges, which means if they lay a horse for a considerable amount they can back it to spread the risk or hedge the bet.

Betting exchanges can sometimes set the markets on British race tracks as bookmakers use the odds as a guide and lay off bets. This development has made for a standardised product and little variation between the odds offered by each bookmaker.

Alternatively, race goers can bet with the Tote, a pool betting operator. The Tote was formerly state owned but is now part of the Betfred Group, a major retail and online bookmaker. Pool betting on horse racing works on the basis of bettors betting into a pool and a dividend is declared. This dividend is based on the relative weight of money for each horse, less an adjustment for running costs and profits.

The actual odds that the dividend represents are closely related to the starting price. Some racecourses such as Chester and Ripon don’t offer Tote facilities but offer something similar but with their own brand. However, odds and dividends offered by these are sometimes smaller than Tote odds and odds offered by the on course bookmakers. More tracks are likely to develop their own product in the future.

Mobile betting at race meetings is growing due to its convenience. All the major bookmakers have a mobile version which offers odds on races in Britain and Ireland. Some firms offer live streaming and form analysis before each race.

Mobile betting at British racecourses has become extremely popular in recent years. Customers don’t need to go outdoors to find an on-course bookmaker. The Racing Post app can be beneficial as customers have access to the odds offered by some of the major firms and can place bets conveniently.

Horse Racing in the Media

Horse racing is covered in the UK media and the question how does horse racing work is addressed. Horse racing meets can be covered by a number of television channels, by both terrestrial TV and cable channels. Radio commentary, despite the increase in visual media, is still popular.

There are two dedicated racing channels in the UK: At The Races and The Racing Channel. These are subscription based services but are comprehensive as every race in Britain and Ireland is shown live across these channels. Each track has different exclusive rights to show live racing from all the tracks in the UK and Ireland.

Meetings are never shown simultaneously on both channels which also show major international races from around the world. These channels focus on the betting aspects of horse racing. Both show major racing events from the UK along with minor meets. Major meetings from tracks around the world are also broadcast.

The Racing Post is the horse racing industry’s trade publication in the UK. It has huge circulation numbers and is read by people employed in the sector and avid punters. Betting offices display cards, form and news related to the day’s racing taken from the Racing Post. The paper also features industry news and sections for bloodstock, greyhounds and sports betting. The major advertisers are bookmakers which puts a question mark on the impartiality but the paper generally presents a balanced view of key issues.

The Racing Post is a daily paper that also appears in an online version. Much of the information published can be found online or in the mainstream Press but the paper is a one stop shop for news and information related to the horse racing industry. The online version which can be read the night before the publication of the print version. The paper includes articles from leading columnists and tips from some of the best tipsters of horse.

The index each day lists news items and regular features including the following:

  • Talk of the Tracks
  • Bloodstock World
  • Markets
  • Entries and Results
  • Trainer and Jockey Records
  • Index of runners
  • Statistics
  • Industry information

The paper faces competition from the mainstream Press and online sources but there will always be demand for a physical publication for its convenience. The Racing Post has an online version and an app which provides betting news and results and links to a number of prominent bookmakers. Advertising revenues are mainly raised from bookmakers promoting free bets and odds for the major betting events of the day. Racing is also covered in a number of betting and sports related weekly publications.

Odds for upcoming races can be featured on odds comparison sites. These sites compare the odds for races taking place on the day, the following day and sometimes future betting.

Each race track has its own website and social media accounts which are used to promote race days and other upcoming events. Race preview nights for the major races and festivals are advertised in the Racing Post and in other online outlets. The advertising of betting companies on television has boosted betting on horse racing. Race cards and results appear in all the national newspapers and some regional titles.

Despite competition from other sports, horse racing is still incredibly popular for both bettors and spectators in the UK.