SAINT ROI (Barry Geraghty) wins The Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle Cheltenham 13 Mar 2020 - Pic Steven Cargill /

Tony Keenan: Some Further Thoughts on Race Reading

Back in September, I spoke to three punters about what they thought were the most important things when analysing a race, writes Tony Keenan. You can read the full article here but one thing that stood out was that each placed a lot of value on the detailed watching of replays, looking for the nuance of a horse’s performance, things that made it better or worse than the bare form.

Watching replays or race-reading is not the only thing in analysing a race – there is no point in a horse being an amazing eye-catcher if it was doing it against yaks the last day and is significantly up in grade now – but is a vital part of the overall picture of form, times, ground, pace and such.

Race-reading is both difficult and time-consuming, and sometimes monotonous as the replays can yield little; but for those that can stick with it, it should continue to offer an edge in the markets because it is subjective: what one race-reader will see as gold, another will see as dirt.

I want to stress that I am no expert in this area – as a punter I am probably a jack of all trades, master of damn all-type – but I do plenty of it as part of my analysis. Some real authorities on race-reading will understandably keep their thoughts on the subject to themselves but I would recommend reading both Hugh Taylor and Rhys Williams and their columns on attheraces for insight on the subject.

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Hugh’s daily tipping article invariably takes some of its basis in race-reading while the whole gist of Rhys’ pieces are horses that shaped better than the result in the past week. There is much to be learned there.

As for my own race-reading, I prefer to do it at a few days’ remove from the races themselves when things like times and sectionals and trainer comments are available to get a fuller picture. Sometimes when you’ve had a bet, your judgement can be clouded and an apparently bad ride may be blown out of proportion; it may well have been a poor effort from the jockey but perhaps not as bad as you think. Pocket-think is a thing.

So – with all this in mind –  I’m going to have a look back at the four Grade 1 races on the Tuesday of Cheltenham just gone to offer some thoughts on race-reading and what – I think – was the key factor in each race. Readers will likely be very familiar with these races and if they have some time on their hands over the coming weeks (!), they might like to have a look back at some of the rest or even care to contradict my view!


Supreme Novices’ Hurdle

Key Factor: Pace

The Supreme was a strongly-run race, indeed overly-strongly-run, per the excellent Simon Rowlands (again on ATR); the time of the race was broadly similar to the Champion Hurdle but the novices went much harder in the middle part of the race and raced less efficiently as a whole.

My interpretation is that the race suited horses being held up as those racing prominently were always going a little harder than ideal. Missing the break is not ideal in the average race but it might have suited Abacadabras here as it meant he was in the right place pace-wise; you can argue he’s hit the front too soon (very possible as he has a history of quirks) but I would be over-playing his tardy start.

As to an eye-catcher, I would be inclined to look to those that raced close up, with Captain Guinness as good as any. He was the least exposed runner going into the field with just two starts, had taken the preliminaries well, and settled better than expected. After a wide trip, he had every chance when getting brought down two out (had been hampered at the previous hurdle, too) and, given his trainer, it would be no surprise if he proved better over fences.


Arkle Novices’ Chase

Key Factor: The Start

Notebook and his potential to boil over at the start had been one of the talking points ahead of the Arkle and while he didn’t seem to lose the plot completely when a standing start was needed, it may have had a more subtle effect as he didn’t run his race; the winner was a stablemate that didn’t seem particularly fancied and, moreover, Notebook had beaten the runner-up well at Christmas.

Another interesting thing about the start was what happened with Global Citizen. Ben Pauling’s eight-year-old had impressed when making the running in his previous spin over fences and was a regular front runner over hurdles; but, while his jockey wanted a prominent position again here, he didn’t break well which may have caused him to jump moderately.

There were other positives in his performance, too. The ground would have been on the soft side for him and he got badly hampered by a faller four out and, thereafter, had to make his move out wide in what was the hot part of the race. He looked likely to have been a good third only to fade after the last. He hadn’t run in the calendar year either so, while Aintree is not an option this year, there should be other days with him on speed-favouring tracks.


Champion Hurdle

Key Factor: Nothing

I’m saying nothing was important here to draw attention to the trap that I sometimes fall into when reading a race: there are occasions when a race is just clean, the form is what it is, and searching for an eye-catcher is forcing the issue. I think the Champion Hurdle might be one such race.

The pace was even, the winner was the favourite and clear pick of the home team, the next four home Irish-trained; it looked a case of the UK horse being a star amongst a moderate crop in her own country while the Irish two-mile hurdlers have depth but no standout and if they raced against each other the results would often be different.

One could make a case that Sharjah has come from a long way back which was less than ideal but that is how he is ridden; when they tried to track the pace and Honeysuckle at the Dublin Racing Festival, it backfired and he didn’t run to form. In any case, he was within a length jumping the last and got beaten three.


Mares’ Hurdle

Key Factor: Jockeys

Bizarrely, this race became the main talking point of Tuesday’s card, not only because the odds-on favourite got beaten but also because Willie Mullins came as close as he does to throwing a jockey under the bus straight afterwards when speaking about Robbie Power’s ride on Stormy Ireland:

There was a miscommunication turning for home, maybe, maybe Robbie thought one of our horses was behind him rather than Honeysuckle, it looked like he just gifted the winner a huge gap while Paul was going on the outside, there you are, these things happen…Stormy probably didn’t go fast enough, she should have been going much faster to take the sting out of the rest of them, there was no pace…a little frustrating.

I suspect he was correct that riding and the pace were the key factors in the race. Power seemed to be doing what was best for his mount, waiting in front on a mare that was not a total cast-iron stayer at the trip on heavy ground at a stiff track, and she had just put up her best effort over two miles at Naas on her previous start. That pace would not have suited Benie Des Dieux who has posted her best efforts over three miles but whether she should be setting a pace for a more fancied stablemate (but not in the same ownership) is a discussion for another day.

If there was a plan for Power to shift off the rail before home turn to allow the favourite through is neither here nor there, but he did move at that point which allowed Honeysuckle a clear run through whereas her main rival had to go the long way around. What Mullins did not mention, however, is that Rachael Blackmore had squeezed Paul Townend out of his position behind the leader after three out and that forced him back after which he seemed to panic a little and pulled wide, a move that could well have been costly, the winning margin half a length.

There’s a strong possibility the result would have been different on another day with different rides or a stronger pace and a rematch would be fascinating. It is also worth mentioning that the third, Elfile, deserves some marking-up too as she got hampered as Benie Des Dieux made her move before staying on which isn’t ideal as she’s more about stamina than speed.


As I've said, it is often difficult to review a race clinically in its immediate aftermath, the pocket's heart often ruling the form judge's head. But, with the dust now settled on the Festival and most people finding themselves with a few more hours to spare, the replays may reward time invested in the search for horses to mark or down.

- TK

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2 replies
  1. Ian Dykes
    Ian Dykes says:

    Race-reading is a skill that takes time to master. I’ve been watching horseracing since the late 1960’s, but it wasn’t until I acquired a video recorder and could watch a race multiple times that I could learn the skill. But as Tony says, if you leave it a few days, let the emotions drain away, and have the benefits of researching the form again in hindsight, plus having knowledge of the race time and ground, you can (perhaps) spot something most have missed.

  2. Samuel Carson
    Samuel Carson says:

    Thanks again Tony. Captain Guinness would have set me up well for the week but thankfully seemed OK which is all that matters. I have to say watching NH racing in a closed arena was quite unsettling. It is one thing, which I feel guilty about, seeing horses pay the ultimate price in front of a crowd, but quite another when you can no longer say it is a sporting risk but simply for the benefit of bookmakers and the levy.

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