Each year, millions of people from around Britain (and indeed further afield) treat themselves to some live horse racing action. For many, it will be something of a regular hobby as they are passionate about the sport but for others, it will be a brand-new experience. Unlike watching other sports where you buy your ticket and find your seat, there is a bit more to horse racing when it comes to being a spectator. If you are unfamiliar with how it all works, you have come to the right place as we cover all the basics in this beginner-friendly guide to a day at the races.
In order to get inside the racecourse, you will need to buy yourself a ticket. Many racecourses will allow you to purchase a ticket ‘at the gate’ on the day of a race meeting. While often possible, this is not something that is usually recommended because by leaving it until the day, you are running the risk of tickets being sold out which is not at all unusual for the more popular meetings or those featuring prestigious races. It is therefore a more sensible move in most instances to book your tickets online in advance. This is often the most faff-free way too as most racecourses will only need to see a digital version of your ticket, meaning there is no need to print anything off.
The other benefit of booking online is that you are more than likely going to get the cheapest price, especially if you book early. Plenty of racecourses do some form of ‘early bird’ discount that may give you a 10% or 20% (or even more) saving compared to buying tickets on the day at the gate. If you are wanting to bring the family along with you, it is quite standard policy for younger racegoers to gain free entry (with a paying adult) for most meetings. Just be mindful that you may need to book a ticket for them while purchasing your admission.
In addition to when is best to buy a ticket, you will also want to think about what type of ticket to get. Most racecourses offer a variety of different options including some admission only tickets, some upgraded experiences (perhaps including a drinks voucher) and hospitality options for those wanting a dining experience along with their racing. Focussing on the admission only tickets though, it is common that a racecourse will have a standard ‘grandstand and paddock’ (or similar) ticket which allows access into most of the racecourse, but excludes the more premium stands and facilities. For courses that have an upgraded grandstand, it will usually cost you a few quid extra to get here but it gives you greater access to the racecourse and possibly a better view too, for instance of the winning post.
At your more basic courses, or during less busy meetings, there may just be a ‘general admission’ ticket offered and this will give you access to all public areas of the course. The cost of a ticket like this, or something similar will vary but providing it is not a feature fixture, anywhere between £15 and £20 is typical for basic entry.
Some courses, especially in the summer months, will also offer a reduced-priced ticket which includes admission but only limited facilities (usually no stand). Often located in the centre of the racecourse, you may find a small number of food/drink options here, as well as a few bookies and toilets but that is about it. Although you do lack shelter from the elements, these tickets tend to provide a family-friendly space as you can bring a picnic along with you and there is plenty of grassy space.
When To Arrive & Leave
With your preferred ticket type purchased, it is then a case of waiting till the day of the races, assuming you have pre-booked. You should find that whatever meeting you have purchased a ticket for, there will be a published ‘gates open’ time. This is basically the earliest the racecourse will start allowing spectators inside. Typically, the gates open around two hours before the first race but for many, this would mean arriving too early. It is more common to aim to arrive around an hour before this first race. This will give you time to get your bearings, study the racecard, grab yourself a drink and place any first race bets without needing to kill time.
Should you end up getting stuck in some terrible traffic and thus end up arriving late, there is no need to panic. Racecourses do not lock the doors after the first race and they will continue to let anyone in who has a ticket.
As for when you should leave, this really depends on your circumstances. If you simply want to watch as much racing as possible then stay until after the last race. Should you be keen to beat the worst of the traffic though, you will want to head off quite sharply after the penultimate race concludes (or earlier). Most people do stick around for the full card so by missing a race you will save a decent amount of time on your journey home, especially if travelling by car.
How To Arrive
As well as what time to aim for, the other consideration before stepping foot in the racecourse is how you will get there. Some courses are located in rather rural locations with next to no public transport, making car the only viable means of transportation. There are plenty others though that are located well within walking distance of a train station or city centre, making public transport a very viable option. For busier courses that are a situated a little further out from town, many choose to run a free or low-cost shuttle bus service on race days to take you to the course from the town centre or railway station and back.
These shuttle bus services are often popular, partly because they allow you (and anyone else you are with) to have a drink or two. If you opt to come by car instead, most courses have ample parking and most of the time this will be available free of charge. As it is common for these free car parks to be located within a large field, just be mindful of your footwear choices for any winter race meeting you attend.
So you have arrived at the racecourse via car, bus or train (or even boat in the case of Windsor) and now you are wondering where to head next. Venues vary in size and what they offer but they do share some common aspects. Food and drink outlets are always available should you want to grab a bite to eat and have something to wash it down with. Just be aware that not all places to eat will accept walk-ins. Especially for restaurants serving a three or four course meal, it is very likely you will need to book a place in advance.
Bars and food outlets tend to be well spread out across the racecourse to reduce congestion. Luckily, most racecourses will supply you with a free racecourse map, either via an app or on their website. Using this will let you see which places are in which direction. As with any establishment that serves food and drinks, free toilets will be widely available and there should also be baby changing facilities available for anyone who wants to bring a baby or toddler (though if you do, it could be worth bringing ear protectors as the crowd can be rather noisy at some meetings).
As for what else you will find inside the racecourse buildings, there will usually be some sort of big-name bookmaker who will be more than happy to take your bets. Inside you will also find numerous TV screens which will usually feature racing taking place elsewhere in the country, as well as the course you are at. When it is raining, many choose to watch the action inside although it is possible to watch it outside and stay dry by standing under a grandstand roof.
Stands, which can offer covered seated or standing space depending on the venue, are not the only thing accessible outside. It is when breathing in the fresh air that you will be able to gain access to the parade ring and possibly the pre-parade ring too. Here you can get a close-up view of horses shortly before the race begins. Within the parade ring, jockeys will mount their horse and do a few laps of the small circuit before heading to the start line.
Lastly, outside on the concourse, most likely in front of the stand(s) is where you are likely to find a considerable row of on-course bookmakers. Even though almost all courses these days offer free Wi-Fi, allowing punters to bet via their betting apps, plenty of activity takes place with the on-course bookies. For a fully authentic racing experience, it is something we recommend as there is something that little more special about getting your winnings paid out as cash in your hand.
On a dry day, there is no better place to watch the action than outside. The ‘best’ spot varies by course and also by your personal preference. Some people enjoy standing beside the rail of the track, meaning they are just a few metres from horses as they gallop past. Others choose to go high up the stands so they can see the most of the course and subsequently, more of the racing. When horses are racing at the other end of the course, it can be difficult or even impossible to see what is going on with your own eyes, at least without a pair of binoculars. This is not a problem though as courses usually come equipped with a large screen showing the action, accompanied by live commentary ringing out from the speakers.
Before we move on to how to place a bet, it is worth mentioning that just outside (or inside) the course there will be vendors selling racecards. There are two types available, both of which will cost you just a few quid. The ‘official’ racecard is the most beginner-friendly of the two as it will give you an easy-to-understand overview of each horse, accompanied by some key race stats, tips and a star rating. The other option is a Timeform racecard and although this can still be insightful for racing amateurs, more of the content will be hard to understand.
How To Bet
Having selected your horses, perhaps guided by the racecard, it is then a case of putting your money on. Should you wish to do with an on-course bookie, the process is nice and straightforward. At the course, each bookie will stand beside a large screen showing their odds. There will almost always be some variation between the bookies so be sure to look around to ensure you get the best price. The names of the horses on the screen will either be ordered by odds (shortest to longest) or by their race number. The race number is a randomly allocated number the horse will run with and it will feature prominently on the racecard. Do not confuse it with the stall number, which is simply from which gate the horse will start (in flat races), as these numbers are regularly different.
In this race here at Salisbury, there are six competing horses. If, for example, we wanted to place a £5 bet on horse number 3 (Cabinet Of Clowns), we would simply tell the bookie ‘five pounds on three’ or even just ‘five on three’. You will then hand over your money (usually only cash is accepted) and they will print you off a betslip showing what you stand to win with the bet. If Cabinet Of Clowns ends up winning the race, you can return to the bookie and hand over the slip to collect your winnings. Without the betslip you will not be able to claim your winnings so ensure you keep it somewhere safe.
Be mindful that you will not usually be able to cash in immediately after the race finishes, as most bookies will only start to pay out once the announcement has been made that the horses have weighed in. This is largely a formality and something that tends to follow within a couple minutes of the winner crossing the finishing line. It is also possible there could be a stewards’ enquiry into the race, perhaps if one horse had been blocked off, and bets will not be paid out until a decision has been made.
If you would rather place an each way bet rather than a ‘win only’ bet the process is virtually the same but with one slight difference. For the below race, if you wanted to back number eight (Mr Heinz) each way, you would just say “five each way on six”. For this bet, you would need to hand over £10 as an each way bet is formed of two parts, in this case, £5 to win and £5 to place.
Most on-course bookmakers will clearly state the minimum stake for both win only and each way bets. This will be higher than what it is with an online bookmaker but certainly nothing so high it discourages casual punters. A £1 or £2 minimum bet is far from unusual so there is never any requirement to spend big. As for the maximum stake, this will vary from bookie to bookie but you are very unlikely to exceed what they are happy to take.