Don’t know your bumpers from your jumpers, your bays from your greys, or your fillies from your colts? You’ve come to the right place. Read on for our beginners guide to horse racing.


People have probably been racing with horses – whether on their backs or following in a chariot of some kind – for as long as humans have been able to tame these fine beasts. Evidence certainly points to the ancient Greeks racing with horses as far back as 700 BC.

Horse racing in the form we know today really began in the 17th century when King James I took a fancy to horse racing and the “Sport of Kings” was born, quickly becoming popular with the English aristocracy.

Many of the big races around today originated in the 1700s, a time when horse breeding and the sport itself became more effectively regulated. Racing became evermore popular through the centuries and is presently – thanks to television and the internet – one of the most watched (and gambled upon) sports in the UK and Ireland. (Read our History of Horse Racing article for more information.)

Types of Horse Race

Horse racing in the UK and Ireland is split into two distinct branches. The first, flat racing, is simple: horses start, they run – either in a straight line or round a curved track – then they finish, the winner being the first past the post. The second, National Hunt racing, is slightly more complicated – not least for the horses and jockeys – in that obstacles must be negotiated on the way round the track.

National Hunt racing is split into two main categories: hurdles and steeplechases. (There are also National Hunt flat races called “bumpers”, but these are much less common.) The difference between the two is that horses running in steeplechases must jump fences that are higher and more solid than the hurdles in the hurdle races. Steeplechases often also include open ditches and water jumps, adding just a little more danger / excitement – depending whether you are watching or riding!

In both flat and National Hunt, races are also categorised by the age and experience of the horses, and the distance over which they run. (See our Types of Horse Races article for further details.)

Classifications of Races

In both flat and National Hunt racing there are a series of classifications that indicate the prestige, likely purse value (amount paid out in prize money) and the quality of the horses involved, with Group 1 being the top classification in flat racing, attracting the best horses and offering the biggest purses, then, descending in importance through Group 2, Group 3, listed races and finally handicap races.

In National Hunt, Grade 1 races are the top notch, going down through Grade 2, Grade 3, listed, handicaps, and then bumpers (flat). Races are also given a “class” from 1-7, but all graded and listed races are Class 1 (see our Horse Racing Grades article for more details).

In handicaps, an official from the Jockey Club sets the weight each horse must carry in that race in order to provide a decent spectacle with close and exciting races. Generally speaking, the better the horse, the weight it must carry.

Betting on Horse Racing

For many – perhaps most – fans of horse racing, it is the betting element that brings the excitement, or a large chunk of it. The build up, the tension, the explosion of equine power and the jubilation – or disappointment – as the horse you backed finishes the race is part and parcel of today’s horse racing experience.

If you are a beginner to horse racing, you are most probably – but not necessarily – a beginner when it comes to betting in general. If so, take a look at our How to Bet on Horse Racing article for the lowdown.

In brief, you first need to get a handle on the odds, most regularly displayed as fractions in the UK system. For instance, odds of 5/1 would mean that for every £1 you bet, you would receive £5 back (plus your original stake) should your horse romp home. Easy, right?

Then you have each way bets. If you back a horse each way, you are really placing two bets: one for the horse to win the race, and another for it to “place”. Depending on the size of the field, the horse can place in second, third, fourth and sometimes fifth (as bookmakers sometimes have special offers on the biggest races like the Grand National). The place part of the bet is paid at a proportion of the main odds, often ¼.

An each way bet will cost you twice the stake of a win (or “on the nose”) bet, but you have two chances to win. And if your horse wins the race you are paid out for both the win and the place bets.

There are many other types of bet available in horse racing, from predicting the correct order the first two or three horses finish in a race to multiple selections from different races to Totepool bets. It is clearly important to understand the type of bet you are placing before you place it, so check out our How to Bet on Horse Racing article to make sure you get it right.

Picking a Winner at Horse Racing

Easier said than done, or we’d all be rich and the bookies would all be bankrupt. There are obviously many factors to take into account when picking a potential winner from a field of horses: form, pedigree, trainer, jockey, whether the ground is suited to that horse, whether they like the current weather conditions, what weight they are given in a handicap, whether their odds have moved significantly… among many others. For a rundown on how to go about making head or tail of it all, read our How to Win at Horse Racing article.

Of course, if you don’t fancy studying the form and the stats for hours on end, you could take the short cut to success and let us do the hard work for you. We post regular horse racing betting tips on this site and will be hopefully picking a good few winners.