How Horse Racing Works

How Horse Racing Works

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Races can be short, medium or long. Short races are called sprints for obvious reasons, and start from the far side of the track. A sprint only has one "turn" (referring to the rounded end of the oval). It is called "the far turn" and is to the left (as viewed from the grandstand). Any race of less than a mile is a sprint. Races of more than a mile are called "route races." Mile long races start in front of the grandstand, or, if they are longer still, from the "chute" on the front portion of the track, to the left of the spectators. There are two turns in a race of a mile or more. The near turn, to the right of the spectators, is also called the "clubhouse turn" because it is in front of the clubhouse, at least at the older tracks.

On any given race day the track will schedule several races.

Even though a race may take only a couple of minutes to run, the tasks and rituals leading up to the race absorb a lot of time, and then post-race, there is the winner's circle ceremony, and then the preparation of the track for the next race, the display of the horses in the paddock (an area behind the grandstands), the equipping and mounting of the horses, and the post parade of the horses from the paddock to the track, all over again.

Nowadays, a good bit of this preparatory activity is captured on television and broadcast to off-track locations, so that bettors away from the track can see (more or less clearly) what is going on. You can even bet online.

Apart from the limitations of the resolution of the images (which is rapidly improving with HD broadcasts onto big screens), the disadvantage of being away from the track is that the viewer only gets to see what the camera selects as worth watching. It is not possible, for example, to study a horse some more if the camera has panned away from him. While you can cut your remotely, there is nothing like getting up close an dirty, so to speak.

During this preparatory time it is possible to place bets. The betting window closes at the bell at the start of the race.

Because the betting is pari-mutuel, sometimes it makes sense to make another wager or a different one at the last minute, based on how the public has been setting race odds, per "the board." Since everyone else also waits until nearly the bell to place a good many bets, there may be a rush to the window at the last minute.

Everyone may be waiting to see what everyone else thinks. Many handicappers alter their appraisal of a race at the last minute, based on what they see about the physical condition or behavior of the horse (and rider) in the paddock or in the post parade.

A full day of racing might have eight races or so. There is no rule that there be eight races, but each track tries to have as many races in a full day as possible, and eight makes for a busy day.

One essential question is: "Why do these precise horses and riders wind up being pitted against each other in a specific race?" The answer is important to anyone thinking about placing a bet, either at the track or at a race book.

Here is the explanation:

Each track's management team figures out what would make for good races. The function is called the "Race Secretary," a term that comes from older times. In smaller tracks it may well be just one or two persons.

In advance of race day, this management team will publish a kind of invitation to owners and trainers that propose the terms for a given race. These terms are called the "race conditions."

They may include a race limited to a specific age, gender or category of horse. They might even be designed for the benefit of a specific horse, though technically that is not supposed to happen.

The owners and trainers are in constant contact with track management, trying to organize races that "work" for whatever ambitions they might have for horses in their barn. The track managers want to attract good horses, so as to set up exciting races, and encourage more and more fans to bet and come to the track.

It is a mutually reinforcing system: The better the races, the more money is wagered. The bigger the betting pool, the bigger the purses, and the more and better horses become available to run.

A horse race is more intense for the horse than for anyone else, we think. This means that the horse needs time to recover, and races should be spaced out for the physical growth and well-being of the horse.

Six weeks of rest is a good starting point for the owner or trainer. Often a horse will race on only three weeks' rest, but that is considered pushing it. (One of the reasons why the Triple Crown is so grueling is that the race dates are relatively close to each other, and worse still, the longest race is the last one).

So, if an owner or trainer persuades a Race Secretary that Sandra's Breeze is fully ready to run again ("needs race"), then the race proposal might go out for all of certain age and gender, etc., which are "non-winners" of a race since August 20, 2007, which coincidentally is the date of Sandra's Breeze's last win.

A deadline for registering is given. The trainer (and possibly the owner) might respond with a registration, and then look for a jockey to ride the horse. Sometimes the same jockey is indicated for more than one horse in the race, but this is all worked out before post time, naturally.

Depending on the level or grade of the race, it can have as few as 6 entrants, and as many as 12, occasionally even more.

The usual number is 9 to 12, except in race classes where the track has fewer candidates for the race. A large number of horses in the race can make the race a little tight, particularly at the outset. (With a 90 foot wide track, and 6 feet for each horse, the maximum would be 15 if everything went perfectly.)

Whatever the number selected by the Race Secretary, this is the "body" of the race.

The Race Secretary takes all the expressions of interest in the race and composes the field. A few horses that did not get into the body of the race might be listed on a sort of waiting list (called "also eligible"), to take a place if there's a scratch (withdrawal) later on. Sometimes, due to weather, a turf race might be moved to dirt, and then certain "main track only" horses in the "also eligible" list will move into the race to replace the turf horses that can not compete on dirt.

As race day approaches, more registration money is paid to ensure the spot of each horse registered for the race.

What makes a good field?

It is a matter of judgment for the Race Secretary. The objective is to give horses a chance to win. An imbalance in the field will work against the track, as owners and trainers will stop wanting to try out horses in races if there's no chance at least to show.

Jockeys are paid mainly from purses, and will not want to ride when there's no reasonable chance of ending up in the money. So balance is a key element of the decision. There is a hierarchy of races, like the minor and major leagues, and Race Secretaries will want to give horses a chance to move up (or down) the ladder.

Post positions are established by lot. The inner position is 1, and then each lane on the track is numbered out from 1 to as high as necessary.

In handicapping, consideration of the post position is critical. In general, the race is longer for the horse starting with a high post position, but the real issue relates to how the race will take shape, what the horse's role will be in the race, and whether the post position drawn is helpful or hindering in letting that horse have his day.

At some point close to race day, the field is "set" and published in the Daily Racing Form and elsewhere. Handicapping commences like mad.

Late scratches are announced on race day. Late scratches mean that a horse from the "also eligible" list may fill in at the last minute. A scratch may take place for many, many reasons, including prosaic issues like a travel incident, illness of the jockey, or a change of heart on the part of the owner. Most often a scratch will have something to do with the health and condition of the horse. The trainer will not race a horse if he or she thinks the horse is subject to injury or otherwise not ready for the race.

Late scratches can strongly influence how the race is handicapped.

Once the field has been determined, the pre-race ritual commences at the appropriate hour of each race on the schedule, the bets are made, the bell sounds, and then quickly all the prognostications pass into history.