How to Watch a Race
Level: Beginner
By Dana Byerly, Hello Race Fans Co-founder

While it may seem like a no-brainer, there’s a definite skill involved in watching a race. Fortunately for me, the first book I read about racing was “Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st Century: A Professional’s Guide for the Horseplayers” by Steve Davidowitz. On pages 4-8 of the first chapter he discusses the importance of seeing as much of the race as possible and the finer points of how to watch a race. After laying out some how-tos, he offers these words of encouragement:

After some practice you will find yourself using your race-watching skills automatically, making astute observations that others will miss. Believe me, no other racetrack skill will ever be more useful.
– Steve Davidowitz

Much of his instructive passage is geared towards an on-the-track experience and using binoculars, but there are pointers that can be used to your advantage in any situation.

Unfocus your eyes and look for movement
This will help you identify horses on the move, either forwards or backwards! This technique helped me see that Mine That Bird was making a monster move coming out of the backstretch while others, including the announcer(!), didn’t see him until he was sneaking by the rest of the pack on the rail. Noticing when a horse makes their move can also tell you a lot about their running style and under what conditions they’re likely to run their best moving forward.

DON’T just watch your horse
Obviously this is a natural tendency when watching a race in real time, but you don’t want to end up having to ask yourself “What happened?” if several other horses pass yours right before the wire when you thought your horse had it all wrapped up.

Keep looking around the pack, not just at the front
Another tendency, particularly when watching on TV or a computer, is to watch the front of the pack. Many tracks broadcast their races with a split screen providing a close-up shot of the front of the pack and wider shot of the entire pack. While it can certainly be spellbinding to watch a couple of front runners duke it out, keeping your eyes moving around the entire pack will help you catch anyone making a move.

Split screen simulcast signal, allowing you to see the full field

Don’t get caught up in the hype
Another common scenario is that all eyes are on the big favorite for a race, and if that horse fails to make it happen, you’ll miss the real action. For example, in the 2008 Belmont Stakes, everyone (myself included) was so busy watching Big Brown going in to the turn that we all missed Da’ Tara wiring the field. By getting caught up in the hype, you’ll miss the real story.

Pay special attention to the turn
Davidowitz points out that on the turn into the stretch is the place “the majority of races are won or lost”, for a variety of factors. He specifically speaks at length about what you can learn from watching the decisions a jockey makes about how and where to position the horse. Some tracks have a longer stretch than others. For instance Fair Grounds in New Orleans has one of the longest stretches, so a horse that seems in trouble coming into the stretch there might be able to recover by the wire. Oaklawn in Hot Springs Arkansas on the other hand has a very short stretch, so in the same scenario a horse might run out of room.

Learn the colors of the saddle cloths
Most tracks use standard set of colors for saddle cloth numbers, #1=red, #2=white. Some tracks, such as Keeneland, use a uniform color for branding purposes on big race days. What’s helpful about the saddle cloth colors is that sometimes the only differentiating thing you can see in a pack of fast moving horses is a glimpse of the saddle cloth (and not even the number!). In these cases knowing that blue is #3 or yellow is #4 can really help you to figure out who’s who. You should also note that the saddle cloth colors are different for harness racing.

Saddle Cloths

Try to note the helmet color and silk color
Like catching a peak at the saddle cloth color, sometimes the only thing you can really make out in a pack of horses is the helmet color. Of course this doesn’t help if they all have white helmets! Another place you can look to determine who’s who is the upper arms of the jockeys as they wear arm bands that display their number.

Practice makes perfect. Don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t catch things during the race, it’s not easy! You can always go back and watch replays. And if you find yourself confused about what the announcer is saying, be sure to check out “Understanding Race Calls” for a list of commonly used phrases used during races!

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  • I never realized that there was a way to do this! Joan the Magnificent predicts that Hello Race Fans is going to be known as ground zero for a generation of future wise guy bettors!!

  • Let’s hope so, Joan the Magnificent!

  • Great item, awesome website.

  • Thanks Steve, glad you’re enjoying the site!

  • years ago, the saddle cloth color for #7 was purple. somewhere along the line, that got changed to orange. can someone tell me when and why the change?

  • Hi Don, we’ll try to track this down for you. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Do you guys know anything about RTN, the Racetrack Television Network? I’m thinking of trying it out?

  • Hi Ryan – No, we’ve never tried it. Be sure to let us know how you like it if you give it a try, and thanks for stopping by!

  • Please answer, I need advice. How can I make the most out of watching horse races at home on my computer?

  • Hi Ryan – what are you currently using to watch races, or are you also looking for advice on the best viewing sources?

  • I’m using live video streaming from a wagering platform, and no I’m not asking for the best viewing sources.

  • Got it! Well, I think all the same principles outlined above apply but watching from your wagering platform on your computer can present additional challenges, especially on big race days when the connections can get overloaded causing buffering, pauses and skipping, usually at the most critical and exciting moments!

    One thing that can be helpful is maximizing the size of the player. This really depends on whether your ADW allows it and what kind of options are available (e.g., dragging to the desired size or if it’s only full screen). This can also be a drawback if you have a large screen with a high resolution and your only option is full screen because it won’t really make it easier to see anything + it could cause more sputtering (another variable would be your connection speed).

    Thanks for stopping by, and I hope this helped! Let me know if you had other questions or if this was in the ballpark of what you were asking.

  • Actually, buffering is not a problem for me. My live video streaming rarely buffers because I have a good internet connection. The question I’m asking is that I want to make watching and playing the races on my computer more enjoyable. When I’m planning on watching a race card from a track, I usually buy Daily Racing Form past performances so I can handicap the races. And I get entries and race program info from Equibase. I’m just asking your advice on what can I do to make this experience better. Please respond.

  • Thanks Ryan, now I understand the question! These suggestions are all general in that they may not make the experience any better for you per se, but they can definitely be an enhancement. I’ve found that Twitter can be a fun and sometimes useful tool for race days. Even if you don’t have an account (and don’t want one!) you can always visit a list of accounts that someone has put together to keep an eye what people are saying. Here are a few that should cover most bases:

    While having some camaraderie with fellow players via Twitter will never replace hanging out with people at the track, it can definitely enhance the “playing from home” experience.

    Another thing you could keep an eye on if you’re not already is DRF Live, which is sort of Twitter-like in that it’s a stream of insights of DRF staff at various tracks, but it’s not limited to 140 characters and you can’t comment or interact directly with it. But, it can be a great source of up to the minute info:

    You could also try some online handicapping tournaments if you haven’t already. I have only played a few times but it definitely ratchets up the excitement, especially if you’re following fellow players on Twitter. Not all tourneys are free, but here are a few to check out:

    One non-racing related thing that always enhances my playing from home experience, ordering my favorite pizza :)

    I hope this answer was more helpful!

  • Thanks, Dana. This was helpful.

  • Glad to hear it, thanks for stopping by Ryan!

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