Horses For Courses (The Strategy Cracked Open)

Horses for courses is a phrase that I’m sure you’ve heard of before. It’s a well known phrase amongst horse racing bettors which indicates that some horses prefer certain courses and when they’re on a course they like they’re going to win (probably).

In todays post I want to look into whether this is true.

Personally, if there is a preference, I don’t think that it’s the course itself that they prefer, more the conditions at the course that a horse may (or may not) prefer.

What I want to look at today is how we might be able to discover a horses preference to a particular set of course conditions. And then, if possible, how we can use that information combined with other form to highlight strong runners.

To do this I’m going to take a horse as an example and work back through it’s races to highlight the markers that were shown to indicate it was going to run well in its next race. The horse I’m going to use for the example is Ambivalent, and it’s history of races is:

Date/Time Course Finish Position Distance Won/To Winner Odds
5/8/2012 16:20:00 Newbury 1 1.5 5.5
13/09/2012 14:55 Doncaster 5 2.45 5
14/06/2012 17:15 Nottingham 1 5 3.5
21/07/2012 15:10 Newmarket (July) 3 4.05 3.75
17/09/2011 20:20 Wolverhampton (A.W) 1 0.75 3.5
5/10/2011 19:40:00 Kempton (A.W) 8 8.6 3.5
16/05/2013 14:15 York 2 1 9
8/6/2013 14:40:00 Haydock 3 2.45 4
30/06/2013 15:35 Curragh 1 0.5 11
3/8/2013 15:15:00 Goodwood 9 8.25 17
8/9/2013 14:00:00 Veliefendi 2 1 6.6
29/03/2014 17:17 MEYDAN 3 2 51
15/05/2014 14:15 York 1 1.75 5.5

We can see that this horse won at Newbury, Nottingham, Wolverhampton (A.W.) and Curragh before it’s most recent race at York (which it also won).

It’s most recent race is the one that we’re going to be going back through it’s history to see if we can find any markers to indicate it’s ability to run strongly. It was competitive at York previous to winning it’s last race there.

The other two tracks it was competitive at are not in the UK and IRE so we will ignore them for the purposes of this approach. Let’s get the stats for some of these tracks:

Course Group LH / RH Turns Finishes Finish Distance in Furlongs Altitude in Feet Track Type
Newbury 1 LH Easy Undulating 5 260 Galloping
Nottingham 3 LH Easy Flat 4.5 75 Sharp
Wolverhampton 4 LH Normal Flat 5 435 Galloping
Curragh 1 RH Normal Uphill 5 Stiff Galloping

The first thing we notice is that 75% of them are Left Hand tracks. Moving along we can see that none of the turns on these tracks are sharp. There doesn’t seem to be much of a speciality in finishes or altitude, but the finishing distance has always been 4.5 or 5.

So far it’s looking promising.

We’re starting to see some possible patterns. Let’s look at Yorks figures:

Course Group LH / RH Turns Finishes Finish Distance in Furlongs Altitude in Feet Track Type
York 1 LH Easy Flat 5 40 Galloping

As you can see, it looks very similar to the ones that this horse won at and we know that she’s already performed competitively there.

This gives us some strong credentials already for having this runner on a shortlist of possible contenders and a process for looking through a horses past races to search for potential course preference.

I went through 50 horses in a similar manner to this for this article but will show just one more to prevent repetition. The next horse I’m going to use as an example is that went off at higher odds in it’s last race, The Grey Gatsby.

Date/Time Course Finish Position Distance Won/To Winner Odds
13/07/2013 16:05 York 1 0.75 3.75
21/08/2013 14:30 York 2 0.3 2.25
14/09/2013 14:05 Doncaster 2 3 2.625
26/10/2013 15:50 Doncaster 7 11.8 17
17/04/2014 16:05 Newmarket 2 2 17
3/5/2014 15:50:00 Newmarket 10 6 67
15/05/2014 14:45 York 1 0.75 10

Notice how this runner had only ever won at York before (he also placed competitively there once). All runs at York prior to the last race were strong races. He had been competitive at Newmarket once as well, although didn’t win, and on his second outing there came in six lengths behind the winner.

Course Group LH / RH Turns Finishes Finish Distance in Furlongs Altitude in Feet Track Type
Newmarket 1 RH Normal Down and Up 90 Galloping
York 1 LH Easy Flat 5 40 Galloping

Looking at each courses details we can see that they are not very similar. If you were to look at the difference in race conditions I would expect the first Newmarket race to be a lot easier than the second. Running again at York in his last race we know that he’s indicated a preference for the track but there’s not enough information to determine if there’s likely to be a strong bet in this race.

So we need to look for more information.

In these situations the first thing I did was to look at each horse in the races average speed rating at the course. For this runners last race at York we get:

Horse Avg. Speed Rating At Course
Saab Almanal
The Grey Gatsby 120
True Story

As you can see from above, that tells us a lot. The Grey Gatsby is the only horse in this to who have run at this course and he put in a good rating.

That’s now two ticks in this runners favours for having a course preference in this race. But, there’s nothing really concrete and nothing I would want to place a bet on. Looking at the race card for the race shows:

Horses For Courses (The Strategy) 1

In all honesty there was very little going for this runner apart from the fact that there was an indicated preference to this course.

Would I have honestly bet on this runner with this information?


Of course I could dig deeper into the form but I know that doing that I will use a variety of ratings that will lead me away from whether the course preference is enough to highlight the strong runners in the race.

The fifty horses I looked at were all the same.

There was some indication of course preference but not enough to be able to comfortably say I would bet on them.

Using a simple automated approach which marked horses that had performed well at the course as stronger than others also generated a significant loss when betting the highest rated.

My conclusion is simple: I wouldn’t use course preference as a major factor in deciding who to bet on.


Because I can’t find enough information to prove that it’s effective.

Of course this is only a start into the research possible in this area and it’s more than possible I’ve missed something.

If you have an approach to discovering course preference which can predict the strongest horses in the race, without significant help from other factors, then please let me know. But, for the moment, while you may want to use it as an extra nudge towards your selection, I have to suggest that you don’t use course preference as a major factor in your betting.

Michael Wilding

Michael started the Race Advisor in 2009 to help bettors become long-term profitable. After writing hundreds of articles I started to build software that contained my personal ratings. The Race Advisor has more factors for UK horse racing than any other site, and we pride ourselves on creating tools and strategies that are unique, and allow you to make a long-term profit without the need for tipsters. You can also check out my personal blog or my personal Instagram account.


  1. Hi Michael,
    Interesting article on an angle that has long interested me. I agree with your conclusion, in the broadest sense, but what about horses which have a noted preference for Right -Handed tracks? Especially when the race you’re betting on is at a Right – Handed track? Surely you could make a case for saying that it isn’t “natural” for a horse to go Right -Handed – so when it shows this sort of preference surely that is an extra point or two in it’s favour?

    1. Thanks for the message Trevor. The problem I’ve found with this type of analysis is determining whether a horse has a preference for right-handed tracks or just a preference for specific tracks that happen to be right-handed. On the tests I’ve done I’ve been unable to find any particular edge in this angle even though it makes sense. I must admit that I haven’t done exhaustive tests so I may just have missed something.

  2. I certainly think you are right about the distance and the conditions Michael. I haven’t done any in depth analysis, but in my ratings I have always taken points off for course winners, and even more for course seconds. The reason being that I have noted over the years that when you have narrowed your field down to two possible winners and one is a course winner and the other not, then the horse that is not the course winner generally wins. I don’t know the reason for sure, but I suspect it is because the course winner is weighted unfairly. Course winners do win more on some courses ie like Chester and Brighton but it is usually when there are lots of course winners in the field, and one is bound to win, so all these things have to be taken into account. It is a minefield trying to get some sort of case for course winners. But some nice work done on those stats and thank you for sharing it with us.

  3. I’d like to share a little lesson I learned years ago re course winners. I forget the name of the horse, but the jockey was the great Lester Piggot. The horse had won his previous race easily and was now running on the same course at the same distance, conditions and jockey, at a price of something stupid like 1-5. A dead cert, I had my money on it sadly. Lester went straight into the lead at a blinding pace, and you just knew he wasn’t going to make it, as the horse ran out of steam at the last furlong. I’m sure Lester followed orders, and I’m sure he knew he wasn’t going to win that day employing those tactics. But trainers employ these tactics for varying reasons, and they are really out of our control. I think I learned several lessons from watching this race, one was never back odds on no matter how good it looks, the second was course winners don’t win when they are supposed to and third there is no such thing as a dead cert. I think I learned other things too. Trainers employ lots of little tricks which are legal, but……..

  4. Hi guys.Really enjoy the course winner debate.I have analized over 100000 flat races and can honestly tell everyone that there is no fixed pattern whatsoever.One thing i did find however is that the horse who won with a heavy weight or close up second and returning to that same trace with less weight today is a solid bet indeed.I bet full-time and these are the only horse I”ll ever back.Do this- make a list of all the horses who won or who finished close up (under a lenth) with a heavy weight (60kg +) and wait patiently for them to run again at that same course.
    The odds on these babies are great +- ave 12/1.Also the horse needs no overall consistancy whatsoever.
    The best ones are those who are dropping in class and now going back to it’s best race ever.Hope my info will help you punters out there.

    1. Thanks for the comment Andre and great advice on the strategy. I’ve removed your email from your comment so you don’t get spammed 🙂

  5. Hi there guys.Look for horse who won at a specific track with heavy weight (60 kg+) and wait for it to run there again with less weight today.A host of winners.The come and upset without warning.Cheers for now.

  6. For old British fogies like me who still deal in stones and pounds, 60kg is approx 9st 6lbs.

  7. I can second what Andre says as well, and maybe take it a step further. A horse that has come 2nd on a course. Wait until that horse is running with less weight and running at a shorter distance. It might be a year later, but they usually win at huge odds. But it must be less weight and less distance.

    1. Wendy, how do you check for any qualifiers for your 2nd at the track, less weight and less distance next time it runs there method ? Thanks Martin

  8. I haven’t looked at this for a while, but i seem to remember calculating some impact values which seemed to suggest that there were some courses which do have a higher proportion fo follow up course winners. I remember being surprised taht Cheltenham form isn’t as good as people would lead you to believe though.

    I do like your course classifications- do you have these for all courses and are they available anywhere? I will try and re calculate the impact values if you like- then if i send them in you can stick them up on here if you think it would be useful.

    1. Thanks for the comment Matt. I did these calculations specifically for this article so they aren’t currently available anywhere. It would be very interesting to see the impact values if you get time and we can put them up on the Race Advisor for others to use.

      1. Hi Michael,
        I have calculated Impact values for course winners and 2+course winners. Can you send me an email address and i will send the excel file to you. The next step i guess would be to not just look at course form, but form at tracke with a similar gadient, turns or fneces.

        1. Hi Matt, great. Could you send it to support at raceadvisor dot co dot uk please. I’ve changed the symbols normally used to prevent us getting a lot of spam from anyone scraping the site, they’ll need to be changed back to the correct ones.

  9. Interesting article- Personally I’ve found that watching videos of previous races can be extremely useful especially on the ‘quirkier’ tracks. There are often little things revealed on close analysis which the race reader reports often don’t mention, and I would also include the particular jockey skills as well at that course. The big problem I feel is what % of influence the particular course characteristics have in your analysis of the race together with the going on a given day etc. I guess the UK and Ireland are very unique in this respect with the great variety of tracks encountered and maybe one approach would be to specialise in a select few tracks which may reveal factors which could be overlooked in the general market and yield an edge-which of course is the real challenge.
    Thanks again for the article

  10. After all these years it’s hard to imagine that there is no profit in horses for courses. The number of times I notice horses winning again at ascot or sandown, could there be specific trainers that can bring their horses out to win at the same course such as Margerson at Ascot and Charnings at Sandown. Food for thought

    1. I agree, and I will keep investigating. But, as of yet I haven’t been able to find an angle where the course information provides any kind of relevant edge.

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