Betting on horse racing can be a daunting proposition for newcomers.

Contrary to most forms of sports betting, the game is played in pari-mutuel format which means that the odds change minute by minute and are dictated not by the opinion of expert bookmakers but by the betting public itself.

Moreover, the horses racing are always a different group. It is quite rare for the same group of horses to compete together again. Usually, a horse race is run by a list of horses that have never raced together.

Only in the Triple Crown Races will you likely find a very similar group of horses competing again against one another. There will be little differences in the field between the Preakness, Belmont and the Kentucky Derby.

But usually, all the horses competing in a race will be brand new to you or at least will not have any previous history of racing together.  It is therefore paramount to be able to compare the horses on paper and for that, a bettor must use the Racing Program.

In American Horse Racing, the most popular programs are the Daily Racing Form and Equibase.  In the UK, players rely mostly on the Racing Post while in France the serious players will trust Paris-Turf.

Horse Racing Tracks will usually also offer simplified horse racing programs but most serious horse bettors rely on separately purchased, in-depth, sources that give data and statistics on the races run today.

All race programs contain a few common elements though:

Racetrack: where the race is run

Race distance: how long is the race, usually between 5 furlongs and 1.5 miles. This is very important because some horses lack the endurance to run far.

Racing Surface: whether the horse race is run on Dirt, Synthetic surface (Polytrack) or Turf (grass). Different horses have different preferences or physical conformation that make them better suited for running on a given surface.

Race class: what type of horses are racing (young horses, females, horses which never won, horses which are for sale etc.). To win a race, it helps for the horse to be in a suitable class…

Male horses (Colts) are usually a bit better at racing than female so a female racing against males might have a hard time. Young horses racing against older opposition might be too green or still physically under-developed to win today.

Race purse: how much money is to be won in the race by horses finishing in the top positions. This is also an indication of the fit of a racehorse for a given race. If the horse has already won at similar or higher level of purses, he might be better than the opposition who ran in “cheaper” races.

Post position: from where the horses start the race relative to one another. The post position is usually very important because some Racetracks configurations give an advantage to horses starting from the inside or the outside of the track.

The Trainer: A good trainer knows how to set up a good training regimen for a horse and what type of race it has a good chance of winning. It is safer to trust a good trainer than an unproven one.

The Jockey: Good jockeys can help get the best out of a racehorse but a bad jockey can as easily ruin his chances… Try to choose jockeys that have at least an average success rate at the track. Better choice even: try to select a horse with good statistics when that jockey runs on a that trainer’s horse. The trainer chooses the jockey so if he has had success in the past with a jockey and hires him again today, they might be ready for a successful race again!

The racehorse owner: This is a bit less important in my view. Honestly, I never pay attention to that! The quality of the horse will be apparent in his statistics or lineage. The owner does not matter…

The past results: of the horse, including his lifetime statistics. This is a crucial piece of information and you need to pay attention to the recent results of the horse as well as his overall success rate. Some horses do not have the fighting spirit it takes to win races. Others just don’t have the physical qualities… Try to pick horses who have demonstrated they can win a race and not always finish 2nd or worse…

Final positions: did the horse finish first, 3rd or last in his recent races? The most recent races are usually a better indication of form than overall statistics. If the horse appears to be running better and better recently, he might be in for a good performance today.

Length beaten: how far from the winner did the horse finish his previous races. Or how far from the opposition was he when he won. If the racehorse beat the opposition by many lengths, it means that on that day he was much better than the field.

In addition, race programs usually contain some advice by professional handicappers on how they see the chances of each horse in the race. The most fun part of betting on horse racing is picking the horse and trying to predict the future. You can, of course, take the shortcut and follow the advice of someone else but then where is the fun?

The above are the basic elements of every racing programs but a good horse racing program, like the Daily Racing Form or Equibase, also includes:

Speed figure: this number represents how fast a horse finished his last races. These figures are created in a way that allows comparing races at different racetracks, distances and days together. The bigger the figure, the faster the horse!

Pace splits or figures: horses always start the race fast and slow down gradually. It may look like they accelerate at the end, but it is an illusion. Like people, racehorses tire when they run and they gradually slow down. The pace splits or figures show you how fast the horse started his last races and how much he slowed down or managed to maintain speed near the end.

Final time: The final time is quite important as of course the faster horses finish first and the faster the horse, the smaller the final time. It is important to note that different tracks, surfaces and days (weather, temperature, etc.) create different racing conditions. Comparing final times at face value is dangerous but if you don’t have access to speed figures, it is better than nothing.

Race progression: some horses like or need to take the lead early to have a good chance at the end. Other horses start slower but slow down less than the others and have a fighting spirit that lets them overtake their opponents in the end. Knowing the racing style of each horse and how the race might develop based on their racing style is important. The race progression of each horse reveals who’s who.

Horse past results on today’s surface or on a wet track. This can be very important as some horses do not like or do not have the physical predisposition to race on the dirt or the grass. The Grass is softer and therefore the horse needs more endurance. Same goes for the wet. Racing on the wet means a softer ground and therefore a speed horse might tire early.

Horse pedigree: The parents and grandparents of the horse. Parents pass on their physical and mental qualities and shortcomings to children. Knowing what family the racehorse comes from might reveal his chance today with these racing conditions and opponents.

Workouts: A Racehorse runs every 3-6 weeks usually and in between races they work out and keep sharp or develop muscle. The workout times might indicate which horses are coming in hot on race day (if you know how to interpret the patterns).

Our other articles on Horse Racing betting will go more in depth on the most important elements and how to evaluate them.

But for this horse racing betting basic article, I will only describe what a newcomer or pure recreational bettor should pay most attention to in the race program before placing his bets.

All handicappers have a different “recipe” but my most basic method relies on the following elements from the horse racing program.

If a horse meets all these requirements, it is probably a good bet to win today. If it meets most of these requirements, it is a valid bet too.

1) Which horse has the best Speed figure in his last 3 races. Do one or more horses stand out from the field speed-wise? The fastest horse wins the race so if a horse has shown in the past to be faster than his opposition today, he probably has a good chance to win.

2) Racehorse success previously on the surface. As explained above, not all horses are comfortable on all surfaces. Try to choose a horse which has demonstrated that he can win on today’s surface.

3) Racehorse success previously at the distance. Same as above: some horses have little endurance and if the race is too long they will have no chance. Try to pick a horse which has already won at today’s distance.

4) Trainer success overall. Good trainers are able to prepare horses well and select races where they have a good chance of performing well based on race conditions. Try to find a trainer who wins 20% of the time or more. It shows that they know what they are doing!

I hope that this article on how to read a horse racing program will help you pick winning horses.

But I cannot close it without the most important advice of all…

Pay attention to the odds!

A horse might look good on paper and look better than the rest but if his odds are 1/1 or even less, it really needs to be a lot better than the field to justify that price…

I personally prefer to bet on a horse that may look a bit worse on paper but is offered at 5/1 or 10/1. The horse might win less often but when it does it is a lot more satisfying!