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Ultimate Horse Racing Guide for South Africa - How to Read Form, Bet and Win

There's been betting on horses since people have been racing them, and South Africa has a long history of horse racing itself. Alongside soccer, horse racing is the most popular form of sports betting in South Africa although not every local bookmaker offers odds and markets.

Horse racing is one of the few sports where many people still like to place their bets in person at the track. But with the meteoric rise in mobile and online betting, which has become increasingly easier for South African punters, more and more horseracing bets are now being placed online! 

That's why we've compiled this guide with all the basics you need to know about how to bet on horse racing in South Africa. We cover things like how to read form, horse racing terminology, bet types, betting rules, plus how and where to get all the best racing promotions in South Africa. 

Reading form on a racecard

The form is your first clue as to which horse might win a race, but it's only the beginning of a long selection process which we'll discuss later in more detail. The racecard gives you information about the track and which races will be run that day. It also shows the times of each race and a list of competing horses and jockeys, with their names, silks and numbers. 

Some of the most important information on the racecard appears in a series of numbers and letters alongside each horse’s name. These indicate how well the horse has performed in recent races and is key to reading their form. The way you read a racecard is from left to right like a book, with the oldest races on the left and the most recent on the right.

Here’s what the various letters and symbols on the racecard mean:

Numbers 1-9 is the position the horse finished

Number 0 means the horse finished outside the Top 9

The symbol ‘ – ’ separates racing seasons. Numbers before this symbol are from last season

The symbol ‘ / ’ indicates a longer gap. For example, if the horse missed an entire racing season

P or PU means the horse was "pulled up" by the jockey and did not complete the race

F means the horse fell

R means the horse refused to race

BD means the horse was brought down by another runner

N/R means the horse was a non-runner

U or UR means the horse unseated its jockey

C means the horse has won on that course before

M means the horse is a maiden and therefore hasn't won before

D means the horse has won over that distance before

CD means the horse has won on that course and over the same distance

W means the horse has won on a slow or heavy track before

BF means the horse was the race favourite but did not win

Types of Horse Racing Bets

There are many different horse racing bets available and which one you choose will depend on how you see the race playing out. While not all online bookmakers in South Africa offer horse racing and fewer still the full complement of betting options—Win Bets, Place Bets and Show Bets are pretty standard across the board.  

Here's the complete list of bet types available at some of South Africa's best online bookmakers which offer horse racing:

Win Bet: Bet on a horse to finish first.

Place Bet: Bet on a horse to finish either first or second.

Show Bet: Bet on a horse to finish either first, second or third.

Double: Bet on the winner of two consecutive races.

Pick 3: Bet on the winner of three separate races.

Pick 5: Bet on the winner of five separate races.

Exacta: Bet on the first two finishers in the exact order.

Quinella: Bet on the first two finishers in any order.

Trifecta: Bet on the first three finishers in the exact order.

Superfecta: Bet on the first four finishers in the exact order.

Straight Line Jackpot: Bet on the winners of four consecutive races. A straight line jackpot is when you pick one horse in each of the four legs.

Permutation Jackpot: Bet on the winners of four consecutive races. You can pick more than one horse in each leg of your jackpot, but it will cost you more to take the bet for a chance to win the full dividend.

Bipot: Bet on a horse to place either first or second in six separate races.

Place Accumulator: Bet on seven horses to place (1st, 2nd or 2rd) over seven consecutive preselected races.

Swinger: Bet on two horses to finish in the top three positions in any order.

Quartet: Bet on the first four finishers in the exact order.

Fixed Odds vs Starting Price

When betting on horse racing with some online bookmakers in South Africa, you can choose whether you want to place a bet on Fixed Odds or the Starting Price. The benefit of fixed odds is that you know exactly how much you can win based on the current odds of the horse. 

By betting on the Starting Price, however, you'll get the odds available for your horse at the start of the race. This is a good option if you think the odds will get bigger before the race, but taking Fixed Odds is usually preferable if you want to bet on a favourite as these prices almost invariably get shorter.

Bookmaker Betting vs Tote Betting

Unlike bookmakers, who will offer you Fixed Odds or a Starting Price, tote betting involves a pool bet on horse racing. This type of bet works like a lottery, where the money received from all the bets is placed together and a share ("dividend") is distributed to each of the winners. You can also place a Tote bet with an online bookmaker like Hollywoodbets. How this work is they pay you the same dividend on winning bets as declared by the Tote.

How does a 'Dead Heat' work?

A dead heat means there was a tie in the race. This happens occasionally when horses cannot be separated by the photograph at the finish. In this instance, the odds get halved and so your winnings are also divided by two. For example, if the horse you bet on dead heats and you backed it at 8/1, your payout will now be at odds of 4/1.

What is Antepost Betting?

Placing a bet on a horse before the betting market has opened is called an antepost bet. One reason to make a bet like this is the antepost odds are usually bigger because the final field is yet to be confirmed. An ante-post bet can offer good value to punters because certain horses won't make the final field and odds on some runners will be higher to start with. 

Withdrawals and Scratched Horses

If a horse is withdrawn before the start of the race it's considered a non-runner and your stake is returned. But if the horse refuses to run, you normally lose the bet. For multibets, if a horse is withdrawn that leg becomes void and the total odds for your bet are reduced accordingly.

A “scratch” is when a horse is entered for a race but the team decides not to run them. The racetrack veterinarian might also decide the horse is not fit to run and "scratch" them from the race. When you bet on a horse and it ends up being scratched, you'll get your money back unless the bet was taken ante-post.

How To Use Form To Pick Your Horses

Now that you can read a racecard, know a bit about the different types of horse racing bets and understand Fixed Odds and Starting Prices, let's look at how to pick a horse and which factors you should weigh up to help you decide on a race winner.

Like for any sport, a horse is only as good as the competition it beats. To make an easy example, if you ran the 100 metres against Usain Bolt, you'd lose no matter how quick you are because your competition is so good. That's not to say you're a bad sprinter, it just means you're not in the same league as the very best.

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The same goes for horse racing. Only by comparing the form of different horses in the race with each other can you make an informed decision about which runner is likely to win. A horse could have decent form going into the race you want to bet on, but if their competition has done even better under similar conditions, their good results don't matter as much.

An example for evaluating form would be a horse that has won its last five races, but they’ve struggled before on soft going (ground) which are the conditions of the upcoming race. So this horse might not be a good pick to win the race regardless of its current form. Another example would be how a horse was weighted in previous meetings compared to its handicap in the upcoming race and that of the horses it must compete with.

Here are some key factors to weigh up which can help you bet on horses and win:

Race Class

Class refers to the category of races in which a horse has competed. It's hard for a horse to win in a higher class, so you need to pay attention to the competition it faced when it won. If the horse you like has won a few Class 4 races and recently moved up to Class 3, you can expect a drop-off in performance relative to the field. Therefore race wins in one class are not the same as wins in another.

Distance and Running Style

Distance is another big one to consider when making your picks for any race. Different horses prefer to run shorter or longer distances. Factors that determine what kind of distance a horse prefers include weight (lighter generally means speed but not always endurance) and whether a horse is a pace-setter (races out in front), a stalker (comes up from the middle) or is a closer (comes from behind).

Depending on the distance, a race with only a few pace-setters could give one of these horses an advantage in the race. Whereas a stalker might be a better selection if there are lots of pace-setters and no closers in the field.

Track Surface

Racetracks have different surfaces and weather conditions can also affect the softness of the ground (going). Some tracks have natural dirt or grass while others have artificial “all-weather” tracks. Just like tennis players, horses perform better on different surfaces.

The racecard shows a horse's previous runs on different surfaces. If a horse has done well only on dirt and they're racing on an all-weather track this time around, you might want to remove this runner from your list of possible bets.

Jockeys and Trainers

Jockeys and trainers work hand-in-hand to get the best out of any horse. A race win is often as much a result of the jockey and trainer's skills and experience as the speed and ability of the horse itself. For example, a jockey consistently finishing in the places regardless of the horse they're riding, is a good indicator of their talent.

A top jockey riding a horse that usually finishes in the middle of the pack with an average jockey can often help that horse win a race. Jockeys are often better suited to certain racetracks. Ruby Walsh, for instance, has been the top jockey at Cheltenham many times and Ryan Moore is the man to beat on any horse at Ascot.

Trainers also play a big role in how well a horse performs because they control which races they enter, giving them exposure to certain track types and distances. Like jockeys, trainers can help horses perform better on certain tracks. Some trainers are skilled and have more experience in preparing horses for specific race tracks, distances and racing conditions.

Horse Racing Betting Tips

Now that you know all the ingredients for what makes a winning horse, use these horse racing betting tips to help you make some money: 

Do your homework

The best preparation you can make for any horse racing bet is to read the racecard carefully. Aside from the information on the racecard, there are many resources available online for viewing past results and reading form.

Manage your bankroll properly

Decide how much you want to bet one race or meeting and stick with it. Try not to bet on the next race just because you lost your last bet. Rather plan ahead which races and horses you like and set aside however much money you decide you can afford to bet on them. 

Find Betting Value

The favourite is the most likely horse to win the race but it doesn't always offer the best value. As a rule of thumb, try to bet on favourites early as their odds usually get even smaller just before the start of the race. If you like an outsider, it's often better to wait until the last minute to place your bets when the odds on less popular horses have drifted (got bigger). 

When picking a horse, try to decide whether the market has over or underestimated its chances of winning. It's also worth remembering the odds a bookmaker offers are based on how they think the public will bet on the race and not who will win. While popular picks are often also the best-performing horses, sometimes their reputation precedes them.

Don't bet on every race

It's tempting to bet blindly on every race but a better strategy is to do your homework and bet more money on fewer races. Your privilege as a punter is that you can bet on whichever races you like, so pick your spots carefully and take advantage when you see a good betting opportunity.

Horse Racing Promotions

When you know which horse you want to bet on, take advantage of the various promotions available at online bookmakers in South Africa to improve your chances of winning. Hollywoodbets and Sunbet are the standout bookies when it comes to horse racing betting in South Africa but there are other sites with great offers available too. 

HOLLYWOODBETS

Hollywoodbets Punters Challenge: Win your share of R10 000 at every race meeting at the Hollywoodbets Greyville and Hollywoodbets Scottsville tracks. The Hollywoodbets Punters Challenge is free to play if you sign up for a Hollywoodbets account. To enter, just log in and make your selections.

Hollywoodbets Irish Objection Promotion: If you bet on a horse that finishes first but the win is awarded to another horse because of an objection, then Hollywoodbets will refund your stake in full. This promotion applies to single Win bets only (no multibets).

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BET.CO.ZA

Done by a Donkey: Get your full stake back up to R1 000 if your selection is beaten by another horse whose odds were 10/1 (SP) or bigger.

Best Odds Guaranteed: If the Starting Price of a horse is bigger than the odds you took, BET.co.za will payout at the bigger odds. This promotion applies to Win and E/W bets placed on UK and Irish horse racing only.

SUNBET

First Past the Post: If your horse finishes 1st but it's demoted to 2nd as a result of an objection, your bet will be paid out as a winner.

Money Back if your Horse Falls: Get your stake back up to R500 if your horse falls within the first 100 metres of the race. 

Beaten by a Head or Less: Get half your stake back up to R500 if your win selection loses in a photo finish. 

Striding Away: Get half your stake back up to R500 if your horse finishes second but loses by six lengths or more.

Outsprinted by a Donkey: Back a horse at odds of 15/10 or shorter and if you lose to another horse whose odds were 20/1 or bigger at the start of the race, you’ll get half your stake back up to R500.

Best Betting Sites for Horse Racing in South Africa

Here are some of the best online bookmakers for betting on horse racing in South Africa:

➡️ Hollywoodbets (R25 Sign Up Bet)

➡️ Sportingbet (R2 000 Welcome Bonus)

➡️ BET.co.za (R1 000 Welcome Bonus)

➡️ Sunbet (R1 000 Welcome Bonus)

➡️ MG Sports Betting (R3 000 Welcome Bonus)

➡️ PalaceBet (R1000 Welcome Bonus)

For more about online sports betting, casinos and lotteries in South Africa, visit the Betting Guide homepage where you can find bookmaker reviews, promotions, betting tips and more.

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