How to read a race, by Simon Rowlands

Simon Rowlands -’s big-race tipster, sectional times and data expert - reveals how to read a race.

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Second only to picking out a bet (and ideally seeing it win) – which was dealt with in last week’s ATR Special blog – reading a race may be the most pleasurable aspect of horseracing analysis. By “reading a race” I mean investigating and interpreting what happened in a race over and above the bare result of X beat Y.  

Answering the questions of HOW X beat Y and, even more importantly, WHY X beat Y can turn you into a super sleuth in the most rewarding of ways. One of my former colleagues, and as good a race-reader as I have worked with, used to describe himself as a “Horse Detective” on Twitter.

Race-reading is part science and part art. The problem is that people – myself included at times – tend to place too much emphasis on one or the other. “Only connect” (the prose and the passion, the science and the art), as a man once said.

What I would suggest is that you need a grounding in the more prosaic elements of the discipline before you can hope to apply the art.

To extend the analogy further, Picasso learnt how to draw and paint precisely, conventionally and brilliantly before he did so interpretively, iconoclastically and even more brilliantly, thereby changing the face of art forever.

I may be able to help with the prose: the art is more up to you.

The process of race-reading may be divided into three essential parts: what you expect to happen; what did happen; and how you explain the difference.

The first part – what you expect to happen – is down to preparation once again. You should, if you can, look at a race beforehand with the same sort of forensic detachment as if you were picking a bet. You can, if you like, end up having a bet in reality, of course, but you must try not to allow that action to influence your subsequent interpretation unduly.

As with last week’s “How I Select A Bet”, my approach would be a mix of the quantitative (ratings, EPFs, %RBs etc) and the qualitative. With both, look out in particular for why horses may run especially well or especially poorly.

Has the horse in question had a lot of racing recently, or been absent for a while? Is it tackling a different distance which could benefit it or count against it? How is its stable performing at present? Does it have question marks against its temperament, or is it as reliable as they come?

Once prepped, it is time to move onto the race itself. I believe you should first try to establish the facts of the matter, for the race itself and for the individual horses within the race, before moving onto interpretation.

If you possibly can, take a closing sectional for the race and establish a race finishing speed % (the speed in the closing stages as a % of the average speed for the race overall). This simple exercise frames an understanding of whether a race will have suited horses that were held up or raced prominently, or suited those with an abundance of stamina or of speed. Remarkably few who pass themselves off as race-readers perform this fundamental task.

Thereafter, deconstruct the race by establishing at as many junctures as possible (and in between where necessary): the positioning of a horse in this wider context; how well it is going; and other factors (such as its jumping, whether it is short of room, puts its head up, hangs, or looks inexperienced).

Personally, I annotate my colour racecard along similar lines to the close-up commentaries that have been used in horseracing for a long time. “Behind far side, brief headway halfway, soon no impression”, “led until blundered 4 out, rallied to dispute between last 2, hung left and weakened”, and so on.

When dealing with large fields, or with races in which the horses are stretched out, there is little choice but to deconstruct the race further, for there is too much to take in at one go.

An example of the former is the Royal Hunt Cup at Royal Ascot in 2019.

At an early stage, the runners split into two groups: those drawn 17 and higher who came to the stand side; and those drawn 16 and lower who raced centre to far side.

I would isolate sub-groups of three or four runners within each of those separate groups according to where they were positioned early on and perform the close-up analysis on each runner within that sub-group before “reconstructing” the race as a whole. 

For example, you might first focus on Afaak (drawn 21, Hamdan colours), Vale of Kent (29, grey, blue cap), What's The Story (26, white, blue stars, white and red sleeves) and Cardsharp (33, all grey) of those racing prominently on the stand side.

You could then move on to Stylehunter (25, green),Clon Coulis (18, red and green) andGlendevon (19, green, light blue sleeves) of those in rear early on the stand side, and thereafter pick off the remaining runners in the stand-side group before doing something similar for the far-side group.

You should also perform a calculation to attempt to establish if there was an advantage, one group over another, or some variation on that. In the case of the Royal Hunt Cup, horses drawn 17 or higher were beaten 6.5 lengths on average (using a stop-loss of 2.5 times overall race distance in furlongs) and those drawn 16 or lower were beaten 9.7 lengths on average.

Reframing the race with this information in mind would have the lowly-drawn Kynren and Roc Angel finishing ahead of Afaak and Clon Coulis by nearly a length. Use your judgement as to whether you think this is valid: I tend to think it was in this instance.

It was difficult to get accurate sectionals for the race, but a final 2f of about 26.1s gives a finishing speed of 98%, which is a little slower than par and implies the pace was strong earlier on: held-up horses are likely to have been slightly more advantaged than prominent racers (which reflects well on the winner).

Royal Hunt Cup close ups

It has to be said that the industry close-ups, such as those attached to this race’s result on ATR, seldom miss much of note. But you need to be able to establish the facts of a race independently, yourself, even if you end up nodding through someone else’s version at least part of the time.

More important, however, is to interpret what those facts mean, such as in the red script in the above. This interpretation is not done anything like as well by some, not least because the effects of pace and draw, and the further context provided by ratings and other analysis, are not applied rigorously.

You must always aim for internal consistency. You should not cherry-pick one horse as being suited or unsuited by the draw, pace or positioning, and ignore what will have been the same effect on another. Of course, there may be separate reasons why one of those horses will be much more, or much less, interesting for the future than the other.

As with form analysis in general, and as touched upon previously, you should also resist the temptation to over-adjust for this latest effort when interpreting what went on. There may be indiscernible reasons why a horse runs below form, a little or a lot. Do not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Different types of races require different approaches. The one used with the Royal Hunt Cup will be inappropriate in other contexts. What works for a Wokingham Handicap is unlikely to work for a Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Let’s look at a couple of different types of races, starting with the Gold Cup on the following day at Royal Ascot.

When looking to race-read an event like this, grouping by-draw is of no use but grouping by-position may well work.

You could, for instance, isolate the prominent racers (Dee Ex Bee, Master of Reality, Capri and Stradivarius), the mid-fielders (Flag of Honour, Thomas Hobson, Magic Circle and Called To The Bar) and the tail-enders (Cross Counter, Cypress Creek and Raymond Tusk), interpret those groups separately, then “reconstruct” the race at the end.

With horses running at staying distances, you are looking even more for the ability to relax or switch off to conserve energy. Thomas Hobson (“took keen hold”) did not and neither, for my money, did Called To The Bar entirely.

Every bit as much as a sprint race, a middle-distance race, or whatever, you need to know what the pace was like and how that will have impacted on performance. The pace in the 2019 Gold Cup was somewhere between steady and slow, with the last 3f going by in a swift 37.7s or 108% finishing speed.

Stradivarius got boxed in between 3f out and 2f out but was still slightly better positioned than Cross Counter and had proved his ability to quicken remarkably well for a stayer a number of times previously.
That stood him in fine stead when the gap appeared. If you crunch the sectionals, they confirm that Cross Counter did well given his positioning and the pace, and should have been at least second.

In addition, what we knew of Dee Ex Bee previously (that he was a dour galloper without a turn of foot) suggests he might not have been seen to maximum effect, whereas Capri shaped as if failing to stay (though he ran no better at shorter on his other 2019 starts) and Raymond Tusk should be marked up for coming from the back (though he appeared to edge right late on).

Edging (right or left) can simply be a sign of tiredness, or inexperience with a young horse, but hanging or putting your head up is generally a more negative trait. There is little use in being on the best horse in a race if it does not wish to co-operate when the chips are down.

The nuances of trip, going, pace and luck in running apply to both flat racing and jumps, but the effects of jumping mistakes and other unforeseeable events are very much the domain of the latter. It is one reason why studious race-reading can pay big dividends in “the winter sport”.

Industry close-ups may well note significant events, but they will seldom quantify the impact they might have had. You, the amateur sleuth, can get an edge here.

Take the closing stages of the Midlands Grand National at Uttoxeter on 14 March, one of the last race meetings in Britain before Lockdown.

The finishing order was the correct one, but Captain Drake would have finished closer in second but for blundering at the last. How much closer is a moot point, and yet highly relevant for how you rate the race, view the prospects of the main protagonists and strike future bets. 

We can say that Captain Drake was about three lengths down when stopped in his tracks at the last (173 yards from the finish at Uttoxeter), and that he had been losing 0.14s (nearly three quarters of a length) per furlong to Truckers Lodge in the preceding furlongs. But would rating him three lengths, or a bit more, behind at the line flatter him? I tend to think it would.

At the same time, Captain Drake had gained 1.04s (just over four lengths) on third-placed Joe Farrell in the penultimate furlong and was 0.97s ahead of him approaching that final fence. Rating Captain Drake eight to ten lengths ahead of Joe Farrell would have him about 10 lengths behind Truckers Lodge, who did seem to find plenty up that short run-in.

The “truth” may well lie somewhere between the two. What do you think? It is time to tap into your inner Picasso!   

How to read a race, by Simon Rowlands
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