Have you ever watched the news in the lead up to the Melbourne Cup and wondered how they come up with 'favourites' and a list of horses who are the best chances to win the race? You may have decided over the years of watching the race that you would always back the one with the best name or the jockey is wearing the most flamboyant colours. But you are ready to stop with that. You want to know how to use your money wisely with betting, you say. Then this is the guide for you.
This guide is designed for people whose only interaction with horse racing or gambling of any sort comes on the first Tuesday of November every year.
Before we jump in though, the thing to remember is that there is no 'best' method to working out which horse to back. Everyone has their own reasons. A horse may put in a surprisingly excellent performance that defies everything people thought about it, or a champion may have an unlucky day and finish dead last. That's racing for you. But with some knowledge you can at least make an educated decision about what you want to get behind.
So let us start at the basics of betting. If you are familiar with 'returns,' 'odds,' 'each way' and 'favourites' then you can give this a skip if you please.
PART ONE: WHAT IS BETTING?
1) WHAT DO THESE DOLLAR VALUES NEXT TO THE HORSES MEAN?
This is the amount of money you will receive for every dollar you spend betting on the horse to win. If a horse is at $7, that means if you put $1 on the horse to win you get $7 back. This amount you get back is usually referred to as the RETURN.
$7 (Horse's price) x $1 (Your bet) = $7 (Your return)
In this simple example you made seven times back what you bet! So your one dollar becomes seven! But you feel a little more risky and decide to put $10 on a horse to win instead of your $1. So if that same horse wins, this happens instead...
$7 (Horse's price)x$10 (Your bet)=$70 (Your return)
But remember, to go for the bigger return you have to risk more money!
This first horse you see on the form guide is $6. The next one is $10. But the one after is $35! How do they come up with that? And does that mean you should go for that $35 one that will get you more money back?
Simply put, THE LOWER THE DOLLAR VALUE IS ON A HORSE, THE MORE LIKELY IT IS TO WIN. The horse with the lowest dollar value next to its name is referred to as the FAVOURITE. But of course what this means is that if a horse that is deemed more likely to win does so, then you will get LESS money back. This is what makes betting such an exciting feature of horse racing, trying to weigh up whether you want to either...
A) Back a LOWER value horse for a BETTER chance of winning, or
B) Back a HIGHER value horse with a LOWER chance of winning.
So that horse at $35 is believed to have a VERY SMALL CHANCE of winning, while the $6 one is deemed to have a VERY GOOD CHANCE. A horse around $1.50 to $2 is believed to be near impossible to beat while a horse around $150 is deemed not a chance to get close to winning (but upsets still happen!).
My Kingdom of Fyfe was a horse who came out to Australia from England to begin a career here in Autumn 2011. In his first race here he started at $150... and won! Miracles do indeed happen!
On the other end of the scale Black Caviar had odds of $1.04 in many of her races! Odds that incredibly low are reserved for legendary horses. If you put a dollar on her to win you wouldn't even make five cents back! A $10 bet would only make you 40 cents! Unless you have thousands of dollars on hand, betting for a win on a horse like her isn't worth your time! And betting against them? You're very brave.
How they come up with those values for the horses anyway? We'll get there soon.
2) HOW TO PLACE A BET
There are almost limitless ways to bet on a horse race, but there's only two that should concern you if you don't want to lose your head. Those two methods are betting on a HORSE TO WIN and BETTING EACH WAY.
If you bet on a horse TO WIN, to get any money back your horse must come first! That's it. If he or she finishes in any of the other 23 places on Melbourne Cup day then your money is gone. However, betting to win is the most simple method to understand and it's very easy to calculate what you stand to gain and what you stand to lose (as shown in question 1). It's recommended if you are completely new to betting to bet on the win.
If you bet on a horse EACH WAY, you can make money back if your horse finishes first, second or third. For example, lets say you back a horse at $11 each way. To make an each way bet you put the same amount of money on the horse to win and get a place. So if you, for instance, go $5 EACH WAY on this $11 horse, this is what happens...
You put $5 on the horse to win and $5 on the horse to run a second or third... So you are actually spending $10! This is very important to remember. Why? Because if your horse wins, despite the fact you spent $10, only five of it goes to it winning! So using that equation back in question one assuming our horse wins...
$11 (Horse's price for winning)x$5 (Your WIN bet)=$55 (Your return)
Had you spent that $10 entirely on the horse to win, you would have got $110 back instead. But the beauty of betting each way, in this case splitting your bet into two $5 halves, is having some backup in case your horse gets second or third! If your horse just gets beaten in the last few metres of the race, there's no need to be sad because you can still make money! So let us go and cash in that bet...
Horses that finish second or third have a PLACE VALUE next to them in place of their standard win one. This number will always be significantly lower than their standard win value. Using our $11 example, lets say our fella tried his hardest but just fell short and finished second instead. Luckily for us, we bet $5 each way on him instead of the whole $10 on the win! We find out our horse paid $4 for the place. So...
$4 (Horse's price for getting a place)x$5 (Your WIN bet)=$20 (Your return)
Well, it's certainly not as good as winning the $55 if our horse won, but guess what! You still get $20 back meaning we made a $10 profit (since we started by spending $10). Very nice!
But a word of warning! It's not always efficient to bet each way. Lets say you decided to put a $5 each way bet on the favourite, who ran at $3 instead of . So we put $5 on the win and $5 on the place (again, spending $10 in total). This seems great because if he wins we get $15 back - a $5 profit.
But the race doesn't go so well. Our favourite runs third. So what's his place value? $1.40 it seems.
$1.40 (Horse's price for getting a place)x$5 (Your place bet)=$7 (Your return)
We actually lost three dollars despite our horse running a third place! What went wrong? What happened was that we put our bet each way on a horse with a rather low value. This isn't a good idea. If your horse runs a place and its place value is under $2, then YOU HAVE ACTUALLY LOST MONEY!
So backing each way is an excellent idea if you are backing is horse that IS LESS FAVOURED TO WIN! What this means is that having a successful each way bet does not guarantee a profit!
If mathematics makes you throw up in repulsion, don't worry too much. Just remember this rule of thumb instead: If you want to pick a horse to back each way then try to pick a runner whose value is AROUND $7 OR HIGHER. Though there is certainly some give either side of that number, it's a safe one to work with. This guarantees that a top three finish for your horse will at least give you some sort of a return instead of a loss!
If that's a little too much to take, you can't go wrong simply betting only on the win!
PART TWO: READING AND UNDERSTANDING FORM GUIDES
1) A FORM GUIDE AT ITS MOST BASIC
To know what to back, we have to compare horses. To make that happen, we need to understand the form guide! Remember when we asked how we come up with the different values on horses? This the starting point to finding out.
A form guide is a list of races taking place that also includes a lot of interesting and relevant information about the horses racing, including their past results, where they have ran. You may be very familiar with them or have heard about how important they are. The most basic part of a form guide is the race list or summary. They are unique and laid out in different ways, but most follow a similar format. Form guides usually contain much more in depth information, which I'll come to a touch later.
A word of warning to those unfamiliar with reading form guides, the following example may give you a fright at first - but have no fear because we'll make reading it look like child's play soon enough! Here is an example I've prepared for the first three horses out of 24 listed in this year's Melbourne Cup....
1. X43228DUNADEN.....................................................................................58.5KG (1)C. WILLIAMS2. 44X599GREEN MOON..............................................................................57.5KG (10)B. PEBBLE3. 389624RED CADEUX...............................................................................56.5KG (23)G. MOSSE
So now that we've got some information, let's study it.
2) HORSE NUMBERS + WEIGHT
Horse racing numbers are always given out the same way no matter what the race. Horses are listed in descending order of the weight they have to carry. In this year's edition, Dunaden will be carry the most weight with 58 and a half kilograms (what people refer as the TOP WEIGHT). This means he will carry the number one saddlecloth. More weight obviously makes running the race more difficult for a horseAs you can see, moving down the sheet the weights continue to decrease.
These weights are calculated depending on what level of racing we are at and how well the horse has raced in his or her career. The weights then get given based on the HANDICAPPER'S RATING. Good results add to the rating and poor results either result in nothing or even loss of points. Simple enough. Dunaden currently holds a rating of 118, Green Moon 116 and Red Cadeux 114. This explains the weight distribution as well as their listed order. Good so far? Excellent!
Weights don't always perfectly match the rating, other factors mean some horses can jump up or fall down the race order. But they are the basis for which horses qualify for races through!
This means generally that the MOST SUCCESSFUL HORSES OVER A LONGER TIME ARE LISTED TOWARDS THE TOP in a race! Of course, the trade-off for these good results is that the horse has to carry more weight! Dunaden carried 54.5kg to win the 2011 Melbourne Cup. The following year he had to carry 59kg because his rating had increased so much! That was a massive increase in weight. He finished the race in 14th position. It is very likely that a big factor for the lower finish was the additional weight on board - but of course there are many other things going on that could have contributed, don't forget!
It can be hard for horses to lose handicap weight, even if they don't continue racing very well. A horse could be nine years old, but because he or she had a very successful four and five year old career they are constantly stuck towards top weight wherever they go! This is actually quite a common occurrence for many horses and something that should always be taken into consideration! Dunaden hasn't won a race since last year's Caulfield Cup but still has carry just half a kilo less than last year's Melbourne Cup.
These ratings mean if a horse such as Dunaden were to race in a lower-standard event, he would be slapped with a significant weight penalty! But a horse that has never raced in something the standard of the Melbourne Cup will enjoy a much lower weight in Tuesday's big one.
Makybe Diva is pictured here winning the 2005 Melbourne Cup. The number one saddle cloth indicates she was carrying more weight than any other horse, but she still managed to win! It's a rare feat for top weight horses to win the Melbourne CupThis means that in handicap events, such as the Melbourne Cup, the more successful a horse has been the more weight they have to carry. It comes as no surprise then that the winners of the last two Melbourne Cups are carrying the most weight in this year's event! The aim of a handicap race is to balance out the competition to keep the racing as close as possible.
2) PREVIOUS FORM
See that string of numbers and x's following on from the horse's number? That jumble of numbers actually represent how the horse has run over his or her past six starts (the number of starts listed usually is different between publications). Look at Dunaden. He has x43228. The numbers represent finishing position. 8 for eighth. 2 for second. Easy.
Note: the most recent start is ALWAYS ON THE RIGHT. So Dunaden finished 8th at his last start and second in both races before that.
What these numbers won't tell you though is what class of racing they took place at. A horse could have 111111 next to its name, but that wouldn't mean much if I told you it had only been racing at country races against soft competition! You may need to look at the extra details in a form guide to see what competition a horse has been up against. But these numbers alone are a good start!
The Melbourne Cup is a GROUP ONE RACE. Group racing in Australia is the peak of the sport. The best of the best. One is the top with three being the lowest - but only a fraction of horses in the country are capable of racing at any group level! Below group racing are LISTED events and open races. Try to take note of what standard a horse has previously raced in. How many starts at group level have they had? GROUP EXPERIENCE COUNTS FOR A LOT. A horse with an 8th in a group one may have scored a win in the same distance in a group three. Always take that into account!
What on earth is that 'x' though? That is when the horse was SPELLED or rested, usually a couple of months minimum. It may always be indicated by an 's' or '-'. How you can use this to your advantage is to find out how the horse performs after being spelled, or perhaps two or three starts afterwards. Some horses may need more than a single race to get back into the groove, while some really enjoy coming back from a lengthy break and run excellent while fresh!
If a horse in the Cup has finished well in any group-level race over 2000 metres or so, then you certainly can't rule them out. Horses who race against classy horses will always be easier to judge than those pushing aside easy opposition.
Horse racing doesn't mirror athletics in that the start is handicapped so runners get to run a similar distance. The straight line of barriers means one very important thing: Horses towards the outside have to run slightly further than those inside. This is a very big advantage. A bad barrier even has the potential to push a horse's value out! A horse with a price of $15 for example, could find itself out to $25 if the horse gets the dreaded barrier 24! That's the importance people place on having a good starting position! But then again, although a barrier can be a godsend or a hindrance, being on the outside doesn't mean you are doomed.
The horses to the right of the picture have the 'inside draw' or the barriers lower in number. They start closer to the inside rail and thus get to run a slightly shorter race and gain a desired position in the field much easier
That little number in the brackets is the barrier the horse will start from. The numbers are drawn at random by owners or trainers. Some horses have even shown a tendency to race between from certain barriers, but knowing this will take a bit of dedication and more research!
In all, barriers do help a lot and starting from anything in the inside half is usually considered an advantage. But a bad draw won't always end someone's race before it begins!
Fun fact: No horse has ever won from barrier 18!
PART THREE: DISSECTING THE DETAILS AND MAKING A CHOICE
So this is it. Time to make a choice. You've decided what type of bet you'll make and had a look through the form guide. Now it's time to dive a bit deeper if you're feeling up to it! In the form guide you will usually find more details like distances won or lost by, how track conditions were and even the horse's parents. Trust me, it's all very important!
These points below are useful for those looking to go an additional step beyond that of part two. The following factors take much more time to look at and question, but they can help you narrow down some choices and improve your punting in the future!
1) RACE DISTANCE
* Has the horse raced at this distance before? What's the longest the horse has ever raced? The Melbourne Cup is very long for an Australian race at 3200 metres. You will find many Australian horses entering the Cup have not won at this distance before, usually being restricted to races around 2000 to 2400 metres. This makes it very difficult to ascertain whether they can run the extra distance... though many still manage to, don't worry.
* If so, how did they fare over the distance? Simply running it doesn't mean the horse ran well or pulled up well after the race. Look for how the horse fares over different distances.
2) QUALITY OF THE RACE
* Has the horse won or placed well in any Group 1, 2 or 3 races, especially those beyond 2000m? This is a sure sign they can match the pace in the Melbourne Cup.
* How many starts has the horse had at group level? Quality opposition always looks excellent on a horse's resume.
* Does the horse race better or worse when the track is in a particular condition? Race tracks in Australia can be broken down into five categories depending on how soft the ground is. So from hardest to softest...
FAST --- GOOD --- DEAD ---- SLOW --- HEAVY
Fast tracks are a rarity, usually extremely hard with little give in the ground. Heavy tracks meanwhile are a sloshy mess usually due to rain! Nearly every Melbourne Cup you would have seen will have taken place on a good or dead Flemington track. Try to determine how horses go in different weather. There's a reason many punters wait until the day of the race to make their pick! Rain or sunshine can make or break a race
Note: European horses may sometimes struggle to run on firm Australian tracks. Our racecourses differ very much to those in the cooler European climate. If you want to back an overseas horse, look into how conditions of the track can hinder or help them them. Trainers have even withdrawn horses on a Melbourne Cup morning following a big downpour the night before or because some expected rain didn't show up.
* Following on from the track condition, has the horse every run in Australia? Though recent events are continuing to prove the theory of 'every horse should have at least one race in Australia before racing the Cup' wrong, many find Australian experience important!
* As mentioned earlier. Has the horse carried this weight before? Some horses might not cope with the extra baggage
6) RACE TIMETABLE
Remember, doing additional research can actually be fun. Trying to sift through the details can be rewarding. If a horse manages to go as you predicted you can tell your friends they were silly for betting on that horse that hasn't raced on a good track at this distance and then proceed to laugh at them, beaming with pride at how brilliant you are at reading form. From there you can pretend you know more about the sport than you actually do. At least that's what I do.
Thank you very much for reading. Happy punting!