Horse Racing Betting – Definitive Guide (2024)

  • 9 mins read

Learn the key differences between the popular types of races, available for horse racing betting. Learn about horse racing form, and you’ll know your 3F-1211 from 70-66U5!

  • In Great Britain, you’ll find Flat Racing, and National Hunt Racing. Understand, which horses are more suited to the different race types. Also, what exactly is a furlong?
  • Find out how handicap horse racing works, where the better horses are given a disadvantage. We explain how if the horses have been handicapped, how you might go about picking a winner.
  • 3F-1211 or 70-66U5 isn’t gibberish – it’s how a horse’s recent results are commonly indicated. We explain how to understand horse racing form, so you can use it to inform your horse racing betting decisions.
  • Find out everything you every wanted to know about horse racing betting with this definitive guide.

Let’s start with the differences between flat and national hunt racing.

What is Flat Racing?

flat horse racing

Run on courses where there are no obstacles present. in Flat Racing horses with the best speed or best stamina (or both of these) have the advantage, depending on the distance of each race. Jockeys also play a major part as they have to be able to get their horse to do the right thing (e.g. ‘ask’ them to go faster or slower). Thoroughbreds are the most common form of horse breed you will see in this form of racing.

Distances for Flat Racing are between 5 furlongs 2 miles to 2 miles 5 furlongs 159 yards. Some of the best examples of flat races are the Royal Ascot festival, and the five races known as the British Classics – 1,000 Guineas (Newmarket), 2,000 Guineas (Newmarket), The Oaks (Epsom Downs), The Derby (Epsom Downs), and St.Leger (Doncaster).

Natural grass race courses (also referred to as turf) are the most common. You will see some races run on synthetic or all-weather tracks (especially for flat races run in winter). Flat Racing generally takes places over shorter distances than National Hunt racing, and there are no obstacles in Flat Racing (as the name suggests).

Flat Racing (in Great Britain)

This takes the form of (1) Conditions races, or (2) Handicaps.

  • In a Conditions race, horses carry weights. Females carry less weights than males. Older horses carry less weights than younger horses. Less successful horses carry less weights than more successful horses. Conditions races are not handicap races – as the weights are allocated according to the predetermined conditions of the race (not by an handicapper).
  • The most prestigious of the Condition races are the Pattern races (which are usually called Group races). These are the most well-known and iconic races, known not just in Great Britain but around the world too. There are 3 Groups:
    • Group 1 – The five British Classics, and major races with international appeal (e.g. Ascot Gold Cup, Goodwood Cup)
    • Group 2 – Other races with international appeal
    • Group 3 – Races with mainly domestic appeal
    • There is another form of Conditions races, which aren’t as well regarded as the Group races – these are Listed races.
  • Handicap races are the most common races you will see daily. They are generally less well regarded than the Conditions races, although there are some that are well regarded. In a handicap race, horses carry weights to balance out their capabilities. These are determined by an handicapper, and as explained above make this form of racing different from Conditions racing.

What is National Hunt Racing?

national hunt racing

In National Hunt Racing, there are usually obstacles on the course (as opposed to Flat racing, where there are not), taking the form of a Hurdles race or a Steeplechase race. The two most iconic and well-known horse races of any kind held in Great Britain, the Grand National and the Grade 1 Cheltenham Gold Cup, are National Hunt races.

They are generally run over longer distances (2 miles to 4 and a half miles) than the Flat Racing mentioned above.

There is also a form of National Hunt racing, without obstacles. These races are called Bumpers, and are used for training less established horses before they begin their jumping career. These have distances of between one and a half to two and a half miles.

The majority of the National Hunt races in Great Britain take place in the winter months, rather than summer. There is a good reason for this, as the race courses should be softer in winter (as of course there should be more rain). As horses have to jump obstacles, this makes it a lot less dangerous than in the summer months.

National Hunt racing can take the form of either hurdles or steeplechases.

In hurdles races the obstacles the horses must jump are hurdles. There will be a minimum of eight hurdles in any race. These hurdles have a minimum height of three and a half feet. The races are between two to three and a half miles.

A well known example of a National Hunt hurdles race is the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, which is a Grade 1 race – this race is the first race on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival. At the start of this particular race you will hear the traditional Cheltenham Roar – as the crowd celebrate the start of the festival.

In a steeplechase, obstacles can be varied – e.g. open ditches, plain fences, or water jumps. The minimum height of the obstacles is higher than the hurdles races. Four and half feet is the lowest height. The distances of these races can be longer than the hurdles races – although they also start at two miles, they can be as long as four and a half miles.

The Grand National is, of course, the world’s most famous steeplechase. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is also a steeplechase.

FAQ: What is handicap racing?

handicap horse racing

In Handicap horse racing, the better horses receive a disadvantage. Conversely, the worse horses receive an advantage. The horses carry different weights, to achieve this. A handicapper decides the weight (the impost) for each horse. The total weight of the jockey, saddle, and weights (lead) will equal the impost. Horses carry the weights in lead pads (saddle pads). In Great Britain, there is a central system, operated by the BHA who assign weights. Weights can change (e.g. an increase if a horse wins a race). The most famous handicap race in the world is of course the Grand National. Another example is Australia’s Melbourne Cup.

How do you go about picking a winner in handicap horse racing betting?

  • You could look at the horses form (e.g. past performances, giving more weight to recent performances).
  • You could look at the ability of the jockey.
  • Also look at the condition of the ground. If it has been raining recently, the ground may be soft. If there has been a lot of sunny/dry weather the ground may be hard. How do the horses in the race perform under the expected condition of the ground?
  • Look at the weather in general at the time of the race (e.g. winds, rain). Which horses do badly, or well, under the expected weather conditions?
  • If you are there (or can see it on TV) watch all the horses body language prior to the race.
  • You might also get some ideas by watching how odds are changing – this may reflect the opinion of other bettors (but not always).
  • More advanced methods involving studying speed and pace.
  • If you can find out where the horse will start it can help. Inside starts (i.e. close to the rail) mean less distance to travel. However, inside horses can be cut-off by faster horses from the outside.

FAQ: What’s a furlong?

In the UK & Ireland (as well as the USA and Canada), miles and furlongs are common for horse race distances. One furlong is equivalent to one-eight of a mile (so 8 furlongs make up one mile). Also you might like to know that 1 furlong is 220 yards.

FAQ: What is horse racing form?

Want to know what 3F-1211 or 70-66U5 mean? What do the letters, numbers, and other characters mean? When placing a bet with your bookmaker on a horse race, you may see each horse’s form indicated, which you might find useful for your horse racing betting decisions. You can also see horse racing form in newspapers which carry race cards.

They tell you how each horse has performed in their most recent races. This may help you decide how each horse will perform in the current race that you are thinking of betting on. The important thing to remember is that the rightmost entry is the most recent race, the 2nd entry from the right is the 2nd most recent race, etc.

A number from 1 to 9, means that the horse finished in that position (a limitation of the form guide, is that it does not tell you how many horses ran in that race). If the horse finished outside of the top 9, the number 0 is shown. If the horse did not finish the race, you will see the reason indicated by one of the following letters: B,F,P,R,S,U which respectively stand for Brought down, Fell, Pulled up, Refused, Slipped up, and Unseated rider. You might also see the following characters: to separate years, and / to separate racing seasons.


  • Horse A: 3F-1211
  • Horse B: 70-66U5

In this example, horse A won her most recent 2 races, finished 2nd in the race before that, and won the race before that. In her last race the previous year the horse fell, before which she had finished 3rd. Horse B, finished 5th in his most recent race. He unseated his rider the race before that. He finished 6th in both of the races before that. In his last race the previous year he failed to finish in the top 9, although he did finish 7th in his penultimate race of last year.