Now, I do get a lot of requests from people about how to pick winners and often, my response is, well… it’s complicated.

That’s why I created my own ratings – because I was having trouble picking winners. But I do realise that there’s a lot of people who come to this site who are relatively new to horse racing, and let’s be honest – it’s a MINEFIELD if you’re not new to it. There’s tonnes of language that people use, making it hard to understand, and then there’s statistics coming out of your ears.

So I’ve created this handy betting guide for beginners – how to pick winners in horse racing when you’re new to it and everything feels completely infuriatingly alien.

Tip 1 – Limit Your Bets

Go up and down the racecard and you’ll notice that there are some races with just a few horses, and then (usually in Ireland) there are races with 20 horses.

Obviously, when you’re looking at a race with 20 horses, that’s a lot of form you have to read. Yes, you can discount a lot of the horses (usually those with long odds), but you still have to run the rule over them. What a lot of effort. And there’s a lot of racing.

So one of the first things I learned was to limit your bets. I personally stick to races of 8 to 12 horses first, and broaden out to smaller fields afterwards. There’s a good reason why people don’t pick the winner of the Grand National every year! (although you can often pick a place bet quite easily!)

Tip 2 – Form Helps Foremost

If you look at our own form ratings, you’ll see that 60% of winners come from the top 3. That gives you an idea of just how much form has an influence on a race.

There is an expression – “winners back winners”. It’s one to remember, because 75% of horses never win a race. If a horse has won a race before, then it’s capable of winning again. And if a horse has improved over its last few races, then it could be heading into a winning position.

Form is your primary guide, especially when horses have already run several times.

Tip 3 – Find a Horse That Has Performed In Similar Conditions

So imagine it’s a rainy day in Taunton. And you have a horse that has won on rainy days in Taunton before.

It stands to reason that this horse should be shortlisted, no?

If you go to the RacingPost or SportingLife website, then you’ll be able to look back at all of their races in detail and find out which horses have run in similar conditions, and how well they’ve done.

There’s a little trick here:

All-weather racing often gives you horses that have been out of form on grass, but their all-weather record can sometimes be lots better. When they return to the all-weather, and an all-weather track they like, they can give you good odds, and a high chance of running well.

There are lots of conditions to look out for:

  • Ground or going – i.e. is it soft, heavy, firm, good, etc. – horses sometimes have a preference, so look at past results
  • Distance – is the horse going further than it has ever gone before? Or shorter?
  • Direction – some horses like to turn right-handed, some left-handed, and some don’t care

Tip 4 – Don’t Bet When You Don’t Know Something

This tip doesn’t always get applied, but sometimes you have a racecard where you have some questions…

e.g.

  • This horse has been running over hurdles, but now it’s running over fences for the first time. That’s an unknown.
  • This horse is French, and has never raced in the UK before. Will it race well? Who knows…
  • This horse is reappearing for its first run in a year. Will it run well? You can look at its history of reappearance runs (i.e. its first run of the season) and make a judgement call, but as horses get older, they need a few more races to get into their stride.

If you find a race with one or two horses – or more – that raise questions like this, it doesn’t matter how good the favourite is, you have unknowns, and that’s risky.

Tip 5 – Weight Helps and Hinders

In handicaps, a horse’s official rating (not its RateThatHorse rating) dictates the weight it has to carry.

When a horse does well, the handicapper adds some weight. When it does badly, he takes some weight off. This is all done so that you have a ‘level playing field’.

Statistically, if a horse is raised anything between 1lb and 6lb, then it has a higher chance of winning than anything that is reduced in weight. But once a horse has 7lb or more added to its back, then it has a statistically worse chance.

But weights are moving all the time, so in a race of 8 horses, you might have 3 horses up, 3 horses down and 2 horses on the same ‘mark’ as last time out.

Your job is:

  • to assess whether a horse can handle the extra weight rise
  • to assess whether a reduction in weight might ‘spark’ a revival

Sometimes, a horse has weight taken off because the jockey has what is known as a ‘claim’. Some amateur jockeys are given an allowance in order to make up for their lack of experience, but some amateur jockeys are better than others! Look for these, and especially:

  • an in-form jockey with a claim who takes over from a jockey who won last time on a penalised horse (therefore removing the penalty)
  • a horse dropped in weight and given a claimer for the first time, taking off even more weight.

Tip 6 – Have a strategy, aim for a strike rate

You won’t win every race. So don’t get disheartened when you pick a horse and it rocks up last.

Every successful punter has a strategy and is happy with a strike rate that earns than anything between 3% and 10% a day on top of their stakes.

So, if you bet £100, and you have between £103 and £110 at the end of the day, many punters will be happy about that.

It’s not about finding huge winners, it’s about finding something that repeatedly and reliably brings you a profit.

Tip 7 – Don’t Rely on Systems

A lot of people use systems to find winners, but a lot of people wonder why, when they trial it and look back historically, it appears to be in profit, but when they start betting, it tends to fail.

A system is basically a set of rules. It could be:

  • Paul Nicholls horses
  • When running at Huntingdon and Fakenham
  • Top 3 in the betting
  • Fields of no more than 8 horses

This system might bring you a healthy return historically, but sometimes systems stop working. Perhaps it worked because Paul Nicholls kept taking the same horses there, and now he’s stopped doing it. Or perhaps the system had an underlying factor such as the ground.

Whatever, systems have a habit of falling over and picking up at different times.

Instead, think about having a method. That method could be:

  • Avoid races where you have serious doubts about a horse’s potential
  • Only bet on the all-weather
  • Restrict yourself to fields of 12 or fewer
  • Only bet on top-3 rated horses with odds of 3.0 or better on the exchanges
  • Don’t bet on horses raised by more than 4lb

It’s broader, and is more of a generic approach to horse racing, as opposed to a set of prescriptive rules that can be tripped up at any time.

Tip 8 – Don’t Dismiss Place Money

When you study form, you usually find that there are several horses in the field that have the potential to win the race. You could call them contenders.

So how many contenders do you have in a field of 8? Potentially four.

So you can put a line through four, for various reasons – they could be 100/1 in the market, or they could be badly rated.

So now imagine there’s four horses that you might like to study a little closer. What do you do?

Well, here’s what I do:

  • I look at progression in the ratings between a horse’s 2nd last race and its last race. Let’s imagine one horse is rated 30 in the 2LR column, and then 80 in the LR column. This implies a big leap in form.
  • I also look at regression. Has a horse gone backwards in ratings? From 80 to 60 for example. If so, why has it regressed and can you forgive it?
  • And then I look at conditions – which ones have run best in these conditions and at this ‘mark’ (official rating)?
  • And then finally I look at the prices available on the exchanges for place money.

It’s this last point that’s most important. Betting is a marketplace – if you believe that the price being offered is good value, then you should take it. And that’s why sometimes, the best value can be on the place markets.

In a field of 8, you can ask for a horse to be placed in the top 2, 3 or 4 places. The price on offer is shorter (smaller) the more places you ask for. For instance, a horse at 10.0 for the win could be 3.0 for 2 places, 2.0 for 3 places and 1.5 for 4 places.

Now, if you think four horses are incapable of winning, then 1.5 for four places is not bad for a horse that’s well-rated and in good conditions. And it represents a 50% return on your money.

Tip 9 – Look out for changes

It’s really interesting to see what trainers will do to ‘find a win’ for a horse. Sometimes, you’ll see a horse deliberately slowed down so that it races with an easier mark next time out (allegedly), and sometimes you’ll see other things that trainers are trying such as:

  • new headgear – a hood, cheekpieces, blinkers, etc. – ask yourself why the trainer is trying something new on a horse?
  • wind surgery – if a horse has had wind surgery, it can sometimes revive, although you should always wait at least a month before it races again, and sometimes wait for its second run
  • new jockey – ask yourself why. Is it location? Is it a claim? Or is it a better jockey than last time, looking to get a better run

Many trainers know their horses’ optimal conditions, but many do not, so they’re always looking for something new that will spark a horse into life and make it perform better. So look out for these little signs!

Tip 10 – Wait for the right horse

Sometimes there’s a horse that just looks right… that’s why I created some of the methods on RateThatHorse which automatically filter horses to give you a shortlist at the start of the day.

Some days, you don’t find them, but there are days – for instance – when I found Lady of Luxury at Dundalk, that I think – well, this is a horse that has to run well today. If not now, then when?

This was a horse that:

  • had performed well over Course & Distance before
  • had progressed nicely between 2LR (2nd last race) and LR
  • was quite well supported by good jockey & trainer ratings
  • it had won off 1lb higher – in other words, today’s weight is 1lb below the mark at which it last won a race!
  • came at a price of 8/1, and 2.5 on the exchanges for the place money (top 3)

The horse came 2nd, which is sometimes as good as you can hope for with an 8/1 horse. But with the mixture of all of these conditions, I felt confident about my bet.

If you can find a horse that ticks your boxes like that, and you can get better than a 50% return on the exchanges, you’re doing very well.