If you’re a typical horse racing punter, you probably rely on the form book for empirical evidence that a particular horse is ready to win a particular race.
However, if you enjoy a day at the races, viewing the runners in the pre-parade ring and main parade ring, or paddock, can reveal valuable information, positive and negative, which can give you an edge over the bookmakers.
Get to the pre-parade ring
The pre-parade ring is an area of a racecourse around which runners are led by their stable lads or lasses before being saddled. The pre-parade ring is essentially the horses’ warm-up area, but also provides racegoers with an opportunity to assess their fitness and disposition.
Runners typically appear in the pre-parade ring 20 minutes or so before the “off”, but it’s worth noting that, particularly on cooler days, they may not have their rugs removed until mounted by their jockeys in the main parade ring five or ten minutes later.
A little patience may be required, but once the runners enter the main parade ring – where they’re reunited with their owner(s), trainer and jockey, known as “connections” – they’ll be revealed in all their glory.
The main parade ring
Not every racegoer bothers to visit the parade ring, in fact far from it, but the area can still become quite crowded, especially at the major meetings. Try to arrive at the parade ring at least 15 minutes before the scheduled “off” time and take up a position, at ground level, at the side of the ring. This will allow you to view each horse head-on as it approaches you and from the side, in close proximity, as it passes you by.
Of course, paddock inspection is not an exact science, but there are plenty of tell-tale signs of whether or not a horse is likely to perform to the best of its ability and you don’t need to be an expert in equine physiology or psychology to spot them.
In terms of fitness, look for a horse with well developed muscles behind its ribcage, over its buttocks and in its hind legs. The groups of muscles in the hind legs are larger and more powerful than those in the front legs and the hind quarters provide most of the propulsion power of the horse.
Similarly, look for a horse that isn’t obviously carrying too much extra weight, or ‘condition’, which can be a sign that it is not yet to reach full physical fitness.
Other positive signs of health and well-being include a sleek, shiny coat, bright eyes and a confident, athletic walk.
Horses to avoid
On the other hand, avoid horses that display signs of anger, frustration, irritation, lethargy, nervousness or unruliness in their race preparation. These traits can manifest themselves as bucking, kicking, neighing, excessive sweating, tail swishing, foot stomping and other, perhaps slightly more subtle behaviours, all of which expend energy.
A horse that shows the whites of its eyes, foams excessively at the mouth or has its ears permanently pinned back is usually frightened or irritated, while one that shows no interest whatsoever in its surroundings could be injured, sick or simply tired.
When paddock inspection means more
Paddock inspection may prove most fruitful in races where the horses are lightly raced or unraced or in other words, there is little or no information – other than, perhaps, pedigree information – about their relative abilities in the public domain.
However, even in races where the form is fully exposed, paddock inspection can confirm that your selection is fit, well and ready to do itself justice.
 Racehorses are clipped to prevent their coats becoming matted with mud, oil and sweat, so they are easier to keep clean and looking attractive. They do not have their normal thick winter coat, so need rugs for warmth on cooler days.