I have been connected to horse racing since I was 16, competing as a jockey for 15 years and being fortunate enough to ride over one thousand winners. At the peak of my career I was Champion Jockey seven times yet even now after forty years in racing I am still amazed by the sheer power of horses as they thunder round a course in soft ground, especially at the end of a jump race.
For a spectator, the atmosphere is remarkable but if you haven't been to a race before, the idea of betting can be slightly daunting. With the winter racing season firmly underway, the next big race is the longest running partnership of its kind and an institution within the British horse-racing circuit, The Hennessy Gold Cup on the 29 November. It takes place over three and a quarter miles at Newbury Racecourse, known for being the fairest track in the country; If you lose it is only ever because the horse or jockey were not good enough. It is a privilege to win it once and twice is a luxury. You have just got to be on the right horse.
Now that I work as a racing pundit I am often asked for tips on who to back. There are quite a few things to bear in mind when betting but it is much more fun picking out winners for yourself so here are a few pointers:
Rise and Shine: Go through the form beforehand and give it as much time as you can afford. For the Hennessy, you are looking for horses that have won or been placed in some high class races over two and half or three miles. The winner is generally young, between six years and eight years often in their second season chasing, on the verge of reaching its full potential and on its way to the top.
Get down to the parade ring: This will help you eliminate some of the options. You want a healthy looking horse, with a good shine on their coat, clean nose, looking relaxed and alert. This can be harder to do in winter as the horses will have rugs on where in the summer they don't. If the horse looks edgy, is sweating between its back legs or grinding its teeth, it's starting to worry and either not ready to race or most likely carrying an injury. You can listen to its walking too; check its light on its feet that its hooves aren't crashing into the tarmac. If the ground is heavy a noisy walker may have an advantage. The Hennessy has been won by eight Cheltenham Gold Cup winners so class is essential. It has never been won by a bad jumper.
Watch the early races: So you know what the ground is like. This is important, especially if the weather is changeable. The ground at Newbury this year could be soft, bordering on heavy, which will make a race more difficult for those horses carrying lots of weight.
Visit the bookmaker and look at the odds: Hopefully you'll have whittled down the options and found a horse at a big price so that you can back it each-way. Some bookmakers will be paying out if your horse finishes in the first four and sometimes in the first five so shop around. A £10 each way on a 20/1 chance means that you have invested a £10 to win and a £10 to be placed at a ¼ of the odds. If it wins you collect a £210 for your win bet and a £60 for your place bet. Some people prefer to back each-way. Personally, I would rather back two horses to win.
Pick your spot: Then the fun is of course in watching the race. I like to go down to the last fence and watch the action close up. It's the best way to get an idea of how fast the horses are traveling and appreciate how strong they are. To see a large group of horses jumping close up at speed is something you will never forget.
And don't despair if your horse doesn't win. It doesn't always mean your judgement is poor. The 8th horse home last year Lord Windermere went on to win the Gold Cup at Cheltenham.