Beginners Guide to Horse Racing


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Horse racing has been an American institution for more than 150 years, but the sport itself dates back to at least classical antiquity. The aim, which has remained unchanged for centuries, is simple: to see which horse can run around a track the fastest.

Racing is conducted primarily on two different surfaces, dirt and turf, that yield vastly different results, and races in America typically take place at distances ranging from five furlongs (or five-eighths of a mile) to 1 ½ miles. Horses that perform well on dirt often don’t run as well on turf and vice versa. Similarly, certain horses will specialize in “sprint” races (races at five, six, and seven furlongs) and others will prefer “route” races (those at a mile and beyond), though there are always exceptions that can excel regardless of surface or distance.

There are three main players behind every horse: jockey, trainer, and owner. The jockey rides the horse, the trainer prepares the horse to race and oversees its day-to-day activities, and the owner, as the name would imply, owns the horse. Collectively, these three are often referred to as the horse’s “connections,” and each play an integral part in its success.

Horse races adhere to an intricate class structure to group similarly skilled animals against one another. The main classes, from weakest to strongest, are maiden, claiming, allowance and stakes. A maiden race refers to a race that is restricted only to horses who have not won a race in their career. Once a horse wins, it is said they “broke their maiden” and they must ascend the class ladder.

After winning a maiden race, there are many different paths a horse can take. If the horse ran well to win, it is likely they would next enter an allowance race, of which there are also different levels. If the horse won but in an uninspiring manner, they might next enter a claiming race. In a claiming race, every horse entered is able to be purchased for a predetermined price. Because of this clause, it is generally less competitive than allowance racing, as the better horses are protected at the allowance level and not made available for sale. Like allowance racing, there are many different levels within the claiming ranks; generally, the strength of the race depends on the claim price (the higher the dollar amount, the stronger the race).

The very best horses compete in what are known as stakes races, of which there are four kinds: ungraded, Grade 3, Grade 2 and Grade 1. Grade 1 races are the pinnacle of horse racing and showcase the best athletes the sport has to offer, while ungraded stakes can vary greatly in strength of competition depending on the track and purse (or prize money).

An often neglected but equally important aspect of horse racing is the bettors, whom the sport wouldn’t exist without. The money wagered on horse racing goes directly to the racetrack to fund purses and maintain the facility, though many tracks are now subsidized by other on-site gambling ventures (these tracks are known as “racinos”). Horse racing uses the parimutuel system of gambling, which means that all bets of a particular type are grouped together, the track takes its cut of the pool (called takeout), and the remainder is distributed evenly among the winners. Because of this, bettors vie against one another, not the “house”, as the track does not set the odds and has no vested interest in who wins the race.

If you’re looking to wager on horse races, there are a plethora of bets from which to choose. The simplest bets are win, place, and show. Betting to win means your horse must win the race for you to make money, betting to place means your horse can finish either first or second for you to win, and for a show bet your horse can finish in any of the top three spots. There are also a multitude of “exotic” bets, which involve picking multiple horses sometimes across several races. These bets are grouped into two categories: vertical and horizontal. Vertical refers to exotic bets that take place in a single race, like exacta, trifecta, and superfecta, in which bettors are trying to determine the precise order of finish for a certain number of spots, and horizontal exotics involve trying to pick the winner of consecutive races, like Daily Double, Pick 3, and Pick 4. 

Though many beginners have a knack for making it look easy, picking winners is far from it. The art of trying to deduce the winner of a race is called “handicapping,” which involves looking at past performances for each horse, watching replays, and poring through mountains of data to determine which horse has the best shot at winning. While it can be daunting, the simplest entry point to handicapping, and often the one that yields the best results, is the speed figure. Every horse earns a speed figure, of which there are several varieties, for each race they’ve run depending on their final time and how fast or slow the track was. Roughly speaking, the higher the speed figure, the better the horse. While these numbers don’t tell the whole story, they often provide a good indication as to who the best horse or horses are in a given race and are easily identifiable.

These are just a few of the broader aspects of horse racing that make it so endlessly fascinating, as each of the topics covered could in itself be a full-length dissertation. In addition to finding any pertinent information, hopefully your curiosity is piqued and you decide to participate in the “Sport of Kings.” You won’t regret it.

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