How to select a bet, by Simon Rowlands

Simon Rowlands, attheraces.com’s big-race tipster, reveals how he arrives at his selections.

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I issued a request on Twitter the other day for ideas for blogs. Not because I have no ideas of my own – if Lockdown continues for months then you may well see the evidence of that – but because it is better for me to write about what the Dear Reader wants to read than about what I want to write.

One suggestion which came up a few times was an explanation of how I select bets. Another was how I price up a race. In fact, they can be dealt with as one, for selecting a bet is (for me at least) ultimately about pricing up a race and acting on the difference between those odds and the ones actually on offer.

“Value” is everything, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Unless you back only winners (yeah, right) or only losers (a bit more plausible), the odds of the winners you back will need to offset the losses incurred by the losers. Price always matters.

Besides that one over-arching edict, there are many ways in which to skin the betting cat. I would simply urge you to play to your strengths, both analytical and psychological. The following is an outline of how I go about doing it.

Preparation is key. Indeed, much of my work is likely to have been done before a race has even been declared. I assess as much form, and as many times and sectionals, as possible on a daily basis, knowing that at least some of that work will prove to be academic.

In addition, I watch a lot of races, regularly assess trainer form and less regularly the effect of the draw. I have a good idea of what I think the going is if racing has taken place on the same course on preceding days. All of these involve numbers.

Preparation is also key once the runners and riders are known. I will revisit my ratings, my timefigures, my sectional upgrades and my striding analysis (where it exists) within the context of the race in question. This is better than simply nodding through figures compiled at some point in the past.

I refer to Timeform Early Position Figures in order to get an idea of how a race will be run, and whether it may suit horses racing prominently or held up, or those with stamina or speed.

Occasionally, one or more of those factors dominates all others. A horse with good sectional figures – such as Masar in the 2018 Derby – or a superior striding signature – such as Addeybb or Sangarius at 2019 Royal Ascot – may well be missed by the media and the public. More often, it is a combination of factors, some of them positive and some of them negative.

I annotate a racecard, including with revisited ratings and with shorthand comments that seek to identify why individual horses may run better or worse than they have been doing lately.   

I also refer to Timeform’s excellent race-reading as a time-saving device, but will always recheck views which seem to be crucial and open to a variety of interpretations. Timeform use sectionals and finishing speed measures, which ensures their race-reading remains well ahead of others who, oddly, do not.

Here is how an annotated card might look:

Those “auto odds” arise from an iterative process between ratings and odds (both of which are numerical and therefore can be linked). Along with a horse’s most recent effort, its most recent odds are often the most important piece of information attached to it.

As an example, a horse which starts at say, 8/1 in an 11-runner handicap and finished mid-field was expected to run averagely, did indeed run averagely, and should have a roughly average chance if contesting a similar race under similar circumstances next time.

An 8/1 winner of that 11-runner race has over-performed, which needs to be reflected in its ratings/odds subsequently. One who started at 2/1 and finished down the back should be viewed less negatively than one which started 33/1 and did the same. And so on.

The trick is to use ratings to contextualise odds, and vice versa. I do, however, only refer to those auto odds after having priced up the race myself, as a second opinion, as it were, and I never refer to the actual odds available until both processes have been completed.   

After I have considered a few horses in detail, I may start apportioning odds. If A Plus Tard was 7 to 2 with me, Frodon should be about double that, Min should be comfortably shorter than that, etc.

Sometimes I get to the end and find that my “book” is too over-round (the odds collectively are too short) or over-broke (the opposite), or for some other reason I will start the process again, but with the benefit of the earlier research.

I then try to imagine how confident I would be in offering those odds myself, and I will nudge them in and out until I am more or less happy. This “fine-tuning” is a small but important part of the process.

A quantitative approach underpins everything, but the final decisions are more intuitive and based on a lifetime of trying to understand horseracing and probabilities. It is undoubtedly true that you get better at this with practice, but only if you hold yourself accountable in terms of the numbers and conclusions involved.   

In a race like the Ryanair Chase, I felt Min’s form was stronger than appreciated (not least down to time analysis), that A Plus Tard’s was weaker, and thatRiders Onthe Storm might also be over-priced.

The choice was really between siding with Min, or backing Riders Onthe Storm each way, or both (do not be afraid of backing more than one horse), or neither (do not be afraid to use the power of veto).

The Ryanair Chase was a good each-way race in mathematical terms and that often frames my thinking of how to tackle a race. However, Min was in fact 11/4 leading into the race – a good deal bigger than my 7/4 – and comfortably got the vote.

In addition to the advice above, I suggest readers contemplate specialising, such as with two-year-olds, all-weather horses, novice chasers, or whatever floats your boat and allows you insights without the task becoming too much.

I also recommend “embracing uncertainty”. Despite the highly quantitative nature of some of the above performance measures, racing is probabilistic, not deterministic, and often enough horses will simply run poorly or get everything go right for them. Do not over-adjust for a horse’s latest run, as others may.

As you will know if you follow racing for any length of time, odd stuff happens and it can be worth looking beyond the obvious. That is why I tend to back at bigger odds now than I once did: the average odds of my recommendations in attheraces.com Big-Race Previews is a fraction over 11/2, though value can be found at the front of a market as well as in the middle and at the back.

As we are back to considering prices again, it must be emphasised that you should do what you can to secure the best possible odds (easier said than done these days). The difference between 11/2 and 5/1 may not seem all that much when you have backed a winner, and amounts to nothing when you have backed a loser, but it builds up over time.   

The attheraces.com Big-Race Previews illustrate this. The recommendations I put up are expected to shorten and frequently do. You may not be able to get the recommended price, but you should try to get the best remaining price.

The merit of a 10/1 shot that goes off at 11/4 (such as Bold Plan at Haydock in November) was never meant to be judged only at SP, though you may find you have to settle for 9/1, or 8/1, or similar. Even Betfair SP, which nearly always outperforms the industry version, can be improved upon.

This can be illustrated by a graph – we all love graphs at present – of the absolute profits and profits on investment of the recommendations in the Previews since their inception, two years ago.


Things looked like they were going exponential around bets 160 to 250 (roughly last spring and summer), but, worry not, I managed to flatten this particular curve.

A healthy profit at Betfair SP was more than doubled if getting best price early. More realistically for most, perhaps, the “general” price at time of recommendation was on average just a tick or two less than the best price and would figure between the two lines but nearer to the upper – the better – one.  

All the best punters I know have discipline and neither chase their losses nor their wins for that matter. And they are honest about their bets and their strengths and weaknesses. With that last point in mind, it is worth occasionally analysing where you go right and where you go wrong.   

This, then, is the time of year when I have made hay – oops! – while late-summer and autumn has been nowhere near so good. I am hoping the former is down to the advantages in interpreting uncertainty by using sectionals and other measures, in which case a purple patch may merely be deferred.

It also has to be said that when I am most confident – in terms of staking – the results have not really borne things out.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, to me at least, is that I have been more successful over jumps than on the flat. I prefer the flat in a number of ways, but the widespread ignorance of time and sectional analysis is more pronounced over jumps, and that may be presenting superior opportunities.    

How to select a bet, by Simon Rowlands
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