Horses for Courses: Money Spinner or Waste of Time?

The “horses for courses” mantra is almost as old as horse racing betting itself. It is especially prevalent in the United Kingdom where the courses are practically unique in terms of ground, turns, undulations, left-hand or right-hand turns, tight draws and so on. In other countries, most courses are similar which means there’s no value in looking at the previous form at the track.

In Britain, things are supposed to be different so when you see C&D (course and distance winner) or C (course winner), you are meant to take notice. Certainly, you can almost ignore the poor form of a horse on turf in an AW race at Newcastle if it has a good record on tapeta. Likewise, your eyes justifiably light up when you see a C&D winner on ground similar to what he ran on the last time.


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However, other punters suggest that the entire “horses for courses” statement is a myth. In this article, I will determine which group is correct, if any.

The Course Specialist

The Racing Post is a wonderful resource for statistics and it has a section where you can check out specialists on every course in the UK and Ireland. Here is a sample of specialists and their records over the last five years:

  • Chelmsford City (AW): Udontdodou – 4 wins in 5 races.
  • Sandown (NH): Menorah – 4 wins in 4 races.
  • Lingfield (Flat Turf): Arctic Flower – 4 wins in 7 races.

There is potential value in these selections as well. For instance, before one of his wins, Udontdodou was priced at 7/2 despite having won two of his three previous races at the course and he was five pounds lighter than his previous race at the course in which he finished third.

Obviously, the bookies eventually catch up as they did in the case of La Estrella who won his first 14 races at Southwell. Age got the better of him in the end and he only won two of his last seven races at the course. After his first win at 5/2, almost every other win came as an odds-on favourite. La Estrella was once a 1/6 favourite in a three-horse race and won by five lengths for example. As such, we have to see if these horses are profitable in the long term and one way to test ‘horses for courses’ is by looking at C&D winners.

Course & Distance: Tried & Tested, but Is It True?

I picked six courses at random to find out the performance of past course and distance winners in a race. The data goes as far back as the beginning of 2008 and I include two AW, Flat and NH courses for balance. Bear in mind that these horses didn’t necessarily win their last C&D race at the course but they have done it in the past.

CourseBetsWinsStrike RateROI (Betfair)
Bath (Flat)137819314.01%-2.32%
Exeter (NH)3455716.52%5.18%
Hereford (NH)1882613.83%-10.57%
Lingfield (AW)8789112312.78%-9.94%
Pontefract (Flat)96010510.94%-13.57%
Southwell (AW)6918101314.64%-3.11%

Although you make a small profit at Exeter, it is extremely unpredictable as there are years of heavy loss and good profit. For example, your profit would have been 54% in 2014 and your loss would have been 55% in 2015! Otherwise, it is losses across the board; a clear sign then that C&D winners have no real advantage in races, mainly because the handicapper catches up with them.

What if there was no handicapper to contend with? Would results improve then? Let’s focus on the above courses in non-handicaps only.

CourseBetsWinsStrike RateROI (Betfair)
Bath (Flat)641320.31%30.05%
Exeter (NH)481837.5%27.39%
Hereford (NH)27414.81%-55.63%
Lingfield (AW)142425017.56%-8.29%
Pontefract (Flat)36616.67%-24.59%
Southwell (AW)92513514.59%36.58%

While four of the courses show improvement, there are relatively few races to choose from. Even at tracks with profitability over the last ten years, the ROI is volatile and you’re as likely to lose big money than win.

Will Course Winners Save The Day?

Before we put “horses for courses” in the bin, let’s try focusing on former course winners only with six brand new tracks. Again, all data comes from the beginning of 2008:

CourseBetsWinsStrike RateROI (BF)
Bangor on Dee (NH)7039914.08%-16.76%
Chester (Flat)143715010.44%-13.66%
Fontwell (NH)202227513.6%-12.79%
Hamilton (Flat)220426111.84%-13.96%
Kempton (AW)13950161211.56%-6.67%
Wolverhampton (AW)20835250912.04%-8.15%

That’s a fairly unimpressive set of results! There is clearly little benefit to backing course or course and distance winners unless they are already likely contenders. In other words, previous success at a track or over C&D is a far less important indicator than you may think.

Wait! There’s More!

One thing I neglected to mention is that most races have more than one course or C&D winner. For instance, there were only 5,368 races amongst the 20,835 bets at Wolverhampton. In other words, there was an average of almost four former course winners in each race. When you break it down, it means that 46.7% of races at Wolverhampton featuring course winners were won by a course winner.

Likewise, at Bath, the 193 C&D winners come from just 687 races which means a win rate of 28.09%. Not great but it means that perhaps you should place a keen eye on horses with previous good form at a course.

Horses for Courses in Action

Too many punters have thrown away their hard-earned cash in the mistaken belief that horses for courses is a truism. This causes them to overlook glaring red flags and they end up betting on horses doomed to fail from the beginning. It so happened that there were meetings on at three of the courses mentioned above on the day I wrote this: Fontwell, Pontefract, and Southwell.

In the 3:25 at Fontwell for example, there was Antony, a C&D winner and Junction Fourteen, a former track winner. In a competitive six-horse race, the Racing Post picked Antony as the likely winner. Antony’s C&D win came in October 2016; it was a 4.5 length win in a four-horse race. Junction Fourteen’s sole appearance at Fontwell resulted in victory but that was over 2m 3f in 2013. He has not won since April 2016 and Antony beat him by 4.5 lengths at Ascot in October 2016.

While it is dangerous to discount Junction Fourteen, Antony was the better pick on paper and value at 10/3. The article was written before the race began so I was unaware of the result!

*Antony won by 13 lengths.

Final Thoughts on Horses for Courses

Ultimately, it is more important to see how a horse’s course or C&D victory relates to today’s race. If it took place several years ago like Junction Fourteen or it was a sole win in 10 attempts, you’ll have to ask questions about the horse in question. You can use horses for courses as part of your selection criteria and even use it as a tiebreaker in a close race, but never rely solely on it or else you’ll be significantly less well off than before.