How does horse racing work?
Before 1986 races were covered with audio commentaries but since then pictures of races are available in betting offices. 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 after football.
Racing takes place in Britian on the Flat and over jumps. The major meetings and races are shown live on terrestrial television and the sport is covered in mainstream and specialist newspapers. British racing is supported by wealthy owners from Ireland and Asia and the major races are sponsored by blue chip companies. Some animal rights groups object to racing on the grounds of cruelty but the sport is a significant employer and tax contributor to the UK government. Britain also 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?
Horse racing in Great Britain dates back many centuries. The industry generates £3.7 billion for the British economy. There are records of horse racing in Roman times and the modern era began in 1750 with the formation of the Jockey Club. The foundations of handicapping and weight for age scales were established in the UK. Many of the world’s most famous races takes place in the UK. Britain is a significant centre for breeding and every thoroughbred can be traced to three horse based in the UK around the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. Gambling is a major part of British racing and the betting industry is a significant contributor to the economy. A levy is administered through the Horserace Betting Levy Board but there is dissent over the contribution from offshore online bets. The BHB took over from the Jockey Club in 1993 but that body still regulates the sport. The BHB is responsible for strategy and planning.
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. 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 but 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 and these racing rules confront the question of how does racing work?.
The rules of racing are complex and detailed but four main ones 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 and the rules of racing include guidelines for the amount of strokes seen to be acceptable and penalties for a variety of offences. Punishments include financial penalties and bans from race riding. The most extreme fine is £75,000 and the worst penalty is to be declared disqualified from race courses and associated facilities.
Types of Racing
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 one of the types of racing run over distances from five furlongs and two miles six furlongs. The races have no obstacles and horses can run from the age of two. Races begin when horses emerge from starting stalls which are 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 course 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 from just less than two miles to the longest and most famous race, the Grand National over four mikes three furlongs. Horse in NH racing jump either hurdles or fences and National Hunt races are run according to the rules of jumps racing but there is no jumping throughout the race. Specialist tracks present jumps racing while others promote both codes. The championships for trainers and jockeys are decided by the total prize money won and the number of winners. Whip rules are more lenient in this type of racing and the people that own the horses are less wealthy and approachable than their Flat racing counterparts.
There are 59 racecourses in Great Britain including in England, Scotland and Wales. A number of tracks that operated in previous centuries are now closed and Hereford and Folkstone are the most recent to be dissolved. Tracks are either Flat or National Hunt or mixed, turf or all-weather and owned by the Jockey Club, Arena Racing Company or are independent. 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 types of 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 if they have a long history. On the Flat 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 Classis 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 in early May over one mile for colts and fillies
- 1,000 Guineas run at Newmarket in early May over one mile for fillies
- The Oaks run at Epsom in early June over one mile four furlongs for fillies
- The Derby run at Epsom in early June over one mile furlongs for colts and fillies
- The St Leger run at Doncaster over one mile six furlongs for fillies and colts
The King George V1 Stakes race is the mid-season highlight and is run over 12 furlongs at Ascot in min-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.
The Cheltenham Festival in Match dominates the jumps season and features championship races for each discipline and race distance. The meeting takes place from Tuesday to Friday but is unlikely to be extended to a fifth day which would dilute the quality. The feature races of the festival, one of which are run on each day of the meeting in mid-March, are as follows:
Champion Hurdle – identifies the best hurler over two miles
Champions Chase – identifies the best chaser over two miles
World Cup – identifies the best staying hurler up to three miles
Gold Cup – the Blue Riband of the meeting and the main championship race of the season for staying chasers.
The Grand National is run at Aintree at the beginning of April and sometimes on a different weekend if Easter intervenes. The Grand National is the most famous steeplechase in the world and gets plenty of media and online coverage. The race is the biggest for betting of the year and attracts a global TV audience of 600 million. 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 and attracts once a year punters. 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 is dependent linked to 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 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 which means if they lay a horse for a considerable amount they can back it to spread the risk or hedge the bet. Betfair now sets the betting 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. The betting ring has become homogenous and lost much of its appeal for customers at the track.
Alternatively, race goers can bet with the Tote which is a pool betting operator. The Tote was formerly state owned but is now part of the Betfred Group, a major shop 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 ChesteBet and RiponBet are sometimes smaller than Tote odds and odds offered by the on course bookmakers. More tracks are likely to develop their own product in future.
Mobile betting at race meetings is growing due to the convenience. Betfair has odds on all races in Britain and Ireland, both before each race and in-running. All the major bookmakers have a mobile version which offers odds on races in Britian and Ireland. Some firms offer live streaming and form analysis before each race. Mobile betting at British racecourses is convenient. Customers don’t need to go outdoors to find an on-course bookmaker which is important if the weather is bad. The Racing Post app is a betting broker as customers have access to the odds offered by some of the major firms and can place bets conveniently. Bets can be placed with a minimum number of clicks which is important when betting on the move.
Horse Racing in the Media
Horse racing is covered in the UK media and the question how does horse racing work is addressed. The new host broadcaster for the sport is ITV who are taking over from Channel 4 which struggled with viewing figures. The major occasions were covered by the BBC in the past, the national broadcaster. The channel could not offer a commitment to racing so C4 became the sole terrestrial broadcaster but a bland service cost then viewers and ITV will try to recapture them. Some races will be shown on their main channel but the less high profile will be broadcast on ITV4 which is more of a minority channel. ITV have recruited a popular presenter from Sky Sports where he fronted their coverage of the English Premier League. The Morning Line is a racing magazine programme which airs on the morning of Saturday racing and during the major festivals such as Royal Ascot and Cheltenham.
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. The channels focus on betting and bookmakers have an interest in their ownership and betting related content. These channels show racing from the this country and some minor meetings and more major meetings from tracks around the world. The biggest races are covered on the radio on general channels and sports related ones.
The Racing Post is the horse racing industry’s trade publication in the UK. It has a circulation of about and is mainly read by people employed in the sector. 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 at the time of writing costs £2.30. 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. There is an 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
- Entries and Results
- Trainer and Jockey Records
- Index of runners
- Industry information
The paper faces competition from the mainstream Press and online sources but there will always be demand for a physical publication for touch and feel and 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 and the day’s races are featured on odds comparison sites, such as Oddschecker. This site compares the odds for races taking place on the day, the following day and some time in the future. There are links to the affiliate sites which take Oddschecker’s users to race pages. Odds for future races feature in extensive coverage of horse racing on Oddschecker and other odds comparison sites. 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 popular for spectating in the UK.