The number of factors that determine the outcome of a horse race is vast. The thrill of betting on the racing is trying to get an understanding of how those factors are likely to play out during a race and making a prediction that the market may have missed.
Those who like a bet on the racing will usually consider the strength of the race, the going conditions and the weight that the various horses in a race have to carry. However, too many people overlook the critical importance of the course at which a race is taking place.
Each racecourse has its own quirks and poses its own challenges. Understanding the importance of this is a vital tool in any horse racing punter’s armoury as they seek to unearth value in the betting. This is especially true when a race has to be switched from one course to another after a meeting is abandoned as a change of courses is a fundamental change.
To help in that regard, this article looks into the different characteristics of racecourses, the variables that you must consider and how best to utilise this information.
Ask any jockey and they will tell you that experience is a vital part of riding under rules in horse racing. A key part of that experience is learning the way that different tracks ride and how to place a horse in running so that it has the best chance of winning.
While that experience is hard-earned due to the fact that each racecourse is unique there are a set of characteristics that many have in common with one another. We’ll look at how this commonality impacts the outcome of races later on but for now, it’s important to delve into the different course characteristics.
The most basic characteristic of a racecourse is its direction. Racecourses are either left-handed or right-handed. That is the case whether they are complete circuits like the majority of courses or incomplete horseshoe circuits like Brighton. The exception to this is straight tracks which are used at sever courses that host Flat racing.
Just like humans, horses have a stronger, dominant side. This affects their racing in multiple ways. Horses who have a dominant right side will often find it difficult to take left-handed turns while National Hunt horses are often seen to jump out towards one side which can be problematic when that is the opposite direction to the way the course goes.
If a big jumps race is abandoned due to the weather and is shifted to another course that runs in the opposite direction, it is absolutely vital that punters take this into account. This also might explain big shifts in the odds of certain horses.
The shape of a racecourse is a very important characteristic. While racecourses can only be left-handed, right-handed or straight their shape varies considerably, and these variations suit different types of horses.
Wide courses with sweeping, wider turns are known as galloping tracks. Because the turns are not technically challenging for horses, those who like to get into a rhythm that doesn’t get interrupted and utilise their raw power are best suited to galloping tracks. Examples of galloping tracks include Aintree, Cheltenham and York.
A tight track is the opposite of a galloping track. The turns on a tight track – also referred to as a sharp track – are much more pronounced and therefore more challenging for most bigger horses. Smaller, nimbler horses have an advantage on tight tracks because of their physical proportions and greater agility. You may also see racecourses with especially tight turns described as very tight or very sharp.
As distance runners and cyclists will tell you, going uphill is much more difficult than staying on the level or going downhill. The same is true for horses and so the topography of a racecourse is obviously important.
As mentioned above, galloping tracks are generally easier for horses so many such racecourses are flat. However, it is possible to have an undulating galloping track. That’s the case at Cheltenham and Hexham which are both wide courses with sweeping corners but have considerable changes in elevation.
While travelling downhill is easier on a horse in terms of stamina, some horses find it awkward going downhill due to their leg action. Newmarket is a great example of a course on which a downhill section can be problematic. Countless horses who were well fancied for the 2,000 or 1,000 Guineas have been caught out by the infamous Newmarket Dip which can unbalance galloping types.
After the Dip at Newmarket comes a long uphill pull to the line. Newmarket is just one of many British and Irish courses that features such a climb towards the winning post. Cheltenham’s hill has famously caught out many tiring horses, for instance in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and courses with an uphill finish have a tendency for late drama which favours horses with the stamina to stay on stoutly.
Courses where changes in elevation place an increased demand on a horse’s stamina are known as stiff tracks. You might hear a trainer talk about stiff tracks when their horses are in between trips. For example, a horse who has stamina to spare over a mile but doesn’t quite have the lungs for 1m4f might be best suited to running in a race over a stiff 1m2f trip.
Different types of surfaces are of most importance for all-weather racing. The various synthetic tracks used in all-weather racing (and the different types of dirt tracks found around the world) have different amounts of kickback, promote different speeds and are therefore favoured by different types of horses.
For example, Newcastle’s all-weather horse racing track is widely considered to be the fairest in Britain. That is part of the reason why the British All-Weather Championships Finals Day was moved from Lingfield Park to Newcastle. It will be fascinating to see the impact that this has on the top class all-weather races as time goes by as the distances and conditions of the race remain almost entirely unchanged.
It’s not just all-weather racing where surface differences have a considerable impact though. The turf at Haydock for example is famously prone to holding water. When the rain falls on Merseyside Haydock’s galloping track quickly becomes a real slog for the horses, especially those running in staying chases and hurdles. That contrasts with tracks where the soil drains more quickly and so the emphasis is more on speed than stamina.
The safety of horses and jockeys is of primary importance for the British Horseracing Authority and other administrative bodies in racing. The key to this is ensuring that the hurdles and fences used in jumps racing are as safe as possible. Despite this, these obstacles can vary considerably from course to course.
The most famous example of this is Aintree’s Grand National course. The spruce fences are unlike any other used in jumps racing so previous experience over them is important. Even at courses where the fences and hurdles are similar to others, the placement of the obstacles makes a difference. Galloping horses tend to prefer courses where the obstacles are more evenly spaced out while better jumpers can make their skill count on courses where several obstacles come in quick succession.
If an abandoned race is moved to a course that has many of the same characteristics as the original, make sure you take a look at the layout of the obstacles because this can have a big impact.
How Similar Can Racecourses Be?
So far we have talked about the characteristics that make racecourses different to one another. But what about courses that share many of the same characteristics?
Punters like to be as sure as they can about the chances of the horse they are backing before letting go of their hard-earned money. It is often regarded as a considerable plus when a horse has previously won over the same course and distance as their upcoming race as it shows they have no issues with the track in question. With the obvious caveat that no race is the same as any other, a course and distance win is a big tick in the box. When that form doesn’t exist, however, it is still possible to be convinced about a horse’s chances of running well at a certain course based upon their form at similar tracks.
You can get as in-depth as you like when comparing courses. Some prefer to keep things relatively simple and look at a horse’s form on left-handed courses compared to right-handed courses. Important as it is to understand how well a specific horse runs in each direction, that sort of approach is limited. Epsom and Haydock are both left-handed but are wildly different courses.
Haydock is similar to several other courses though. Those who run well on the Flat course at Haydock should feel at home at Ayr, Doncaster, Newbury and York. Each of those courses is left-handed, galloping in nature, flat and tend to produce fast times.
Epsom, by contrast, is a very undulating course and stiff in nature. It is one of the most difficult technical tests in Flat racing and is most similar to Brighton and Chepstow.
Assessing the different characteristics of racecourses and comparing them to other similar courses is not an exact science. It is more like a cheat sheet that points punters in the right direction. While courses can be very similar in terms of their set-up and characteristics, an analysis of the racing on the day is always required including an assessment of the weather conditions.
Horses for Courses
The phrase ‘horses for courses’ is one of several to have come from horse racing to be used in wider society. It originates from the fact that so many horses in the history of the sport have displayed a marked tendency to run especially well at certain courses.
Famous examples include Red Rum who had a phenomenal record at Aintree, starting his career at the Merseyside track over five furlongs and going on to win the Grand National three times; Bristol De Mai had an excellent record on heavy ground at Haydock where he won three Betfair Chases; and Roy Rocket who absolutely loved running at Brighton, a course which many horses find problematic.
In the case of Roy Rocket, Brighton brought out a level of performance from him that his connections could never have hoped for before he visited the Sussex track. While it is helpful for punters to find horses who run well at certain courses, it is even more valuable to find horses like Roy Rocket who take their form to a higher level at one course in particular.