Few figures in racing are respected like Kevin Blake and with a career that has taken him through racing media, Timeform and inside the sport, he delivers his Masterclass entry dwelling on the importance of race reading...
"The point is that when it comes to race reading, there is always someone that knows more than you and there is always more to learn. The relentless pursuit of advancement up the levels is what sets the very good apart from the good."
When asked to write an article about profitable betting strategies in a horse racing context, it was hard to know which way to go.
Anyone that has researched the subject of betting will know that there is endless good advice and guidance out there regarding the crucial fundamentals for successful betting such as staking plans, discipline, psychology and mathematical strategy. Those that want to learn about any of those things are very well catered for both online and in books, so I'm not going to dwell on what are such very important but ultimately well-worn subjects.
Instead, I'm going to focus on an absolutely crucial aspect of betting on horse racing that doesn't get emphasised nearly enough and that is race reading. Assuming a bettor has the above-mentioned fundamentals in order, the standard to which they can read races is often what will dictate the level of their profitability.
Defining what race reading is
I would describe it as the ability to spot and identify the very smallest details of a horse's performance in a race and correctly interpret the significance and meaning of those details. It is an endlessly deep sea of expertise that no one ever truly gets to the bottom of.
The trouble with race reading is that the basics are relatively easy to learn and random chance dictates that anyone analysing horse racing is likely to pick winners. Anyone with an aptitude for the pursuit can throw themselves into horse racing, develop a competent understanding of race reading and have some success.
The relative ease with which this can be achieved and the sense of achievement that comes with picking winners can easily lead to people developing a misplaced sense of confidence in the depth of their knowledge. Another reason why this tendency is so prevalent amongst many followers of racing is that once one gets to a stage of competency, the pathways to more advanced knowledge become far steeper and difficult to access.
As a result, the reality is that most followers of racing aren't aware of how many levels there are to race reading.
Many levels to every pursuit
I'll draw a slightly obscure comparison. When I was in my early teens, my gang of friends absolutely loved playing Jonah Lomu Rugby on the Playstation. Terrible graphics, fast gameplay and Bill McLaren coming out with belters like "he's digging like a demented mole!" on commentary, how could you not love it?
A group of about 10 of us played it endlessly and were very competitive with it. I managed to just about get to the top of the pile in our group and this success made me think I was a very good player.
This lasted until one day when we ended up at a friend of a friend's house and Jonah Lomu was fired up on the Playstation. I took on the significantly younger brother of the lad whose house we were in and my only pre-match thought was not to embarrass the misfortunate young fella in his own house. Within three minutes, the game was essentially over. He absolutely mauled me, using an array of techniques and styles that I had never even seen before.
It was a humbling experience that illustrated the delusion that can come with being a big fish in a small pond. It also hammered home that, even if we aren't aware of them, there is a vast range of levels to every pursuit.
The popularisation of the internet has made the world a substantially smaller place since the days of Jonah Lomu Rugby. Now, the levels of pretty much anything are far easier to see and test, so it isn't as easy to get carried away with one's own ability as it once was. Race reading is one of the very few exceptions to this.
It is a skill that cannot be ranked on a league table, it cannot be effectively tested in a one-off competition and the very best exponents of it rarely showcase their ability in public.
And there are always more levels to climb
Most significantly, unlike all of the aspects of betting mentioned in the opening paragraphs such as staking plans and discipline, there isn't an established means for someone to learn how to race read to a high level.
There aren't any online or offline courses on the subject as far as I'm aware and there is limited quality reading to be found on it either. Thus, the way most people learn is by teaching themselves or by picking it up from others as they go along. Inevitably, the quality of social and professional company that one keeps in terms of race reading ability will tend to have a significant impact on one's own awareness of their ability.
The example we are all most familiar with is our own and I've seen this tendency first hand again and again in my career.
After working for the Irish Field and The Sportsman in my early-20s, I thought I knew a bit about the game. Then I did two years at Timeform where they basically started me from scratch to undo all my self-thought bad habits and half-baked theories. By the time I finished up there, I thought I knew plenty.
I then went and worked very closely with an entirely different range of industry professionals when working as a pupil assistant trainer in England. That experience very much changed the way and depth to which I read racing. From there, I was freelancing for the next number of years and came to deal with a range of very clever and successful people in the betting world that again helped refine how I viewed and analysed the sport, particularly with regard to statistical analysis.
Now facing into my mid-30s, I think I have a well-rounded and strong knowledge of both the sport and the racing industry. Yet, I still only have to sit down and discuss racing for a few minutes with the likes of Aidan O'Brien or John Gosden to have it hammered home that even with tens of thousands of hours of dedicated professional study of this sport under my belt, there are still many more levels left to climb.
The point is that when it comes to race reading, there is always someone that knows more than you and there is always more to learn. The relentless pursuit of advancement up the levels is what sets the very good apart from the good.
Keep learning and plug those weak spots
Given that there are no text books or online courses for it, if you want to become a better race reader, you have to get out of your comfort zone and surround yourself socially and/or professionally with as many of the most knowledgeable people as possible. Not only that, you must ask questions, including "stupid" questions.
If I had my time again, I would have asked a lot more stupid questions than I did, as our natural desire to want to come across as more informed than we are can hold us back from asking the questions that will fill gaps in our knowledge and speed up our education.
This process should never end and there is always opportunity to upskill. The current downtime from racing is an ideal chance to get out of your comfort zone and try to improve the weaker spots of your racing game and expand your knowledge.
Personally, I've spent any free work time in the last three weeks harvesting striding data using video analysis. This is a method that I only occasionally integrated into my analysis in the past, but I suspect it will form a more significant part of it going forward as long-term evidence validates its usefulness. It isn't the most exciting endeavour I've ever undertaken, but you get out what you put in and I strongly suspect it will have a positive impact on my analysis going forward.
Whatever the weak spots in your racing knowledge are, now is the time to stick your thumbs into them and work them out. It might not necessarily be the most enjoyable thing you ever do, but you'll come out the far side of it with a more rounded knowledge of the game which can only serve to make you a better bettor in the long term.
Be sure to check out the other volumes in our Betting Masterclass series, listed below:
Volume 1 - Ed Hawkins on Test Match Cricket
Volume 2 - Ed Hawkins on Twenty20 Cricket
Volume 3 - Ed Hawkins on how to bet on ODI Cricket
Volume 4 - Mark O'Haire on the football stats that don't matter
Volume 5 - Mark O'Haire on benefits of data and beating the closing price
Volume 6 - Mark O'Haire's perfect football punt checklist
Volume 7 - Steve Rawlings on how to make golf tournament bets
Volume 8 - Tony Calvin on how he makes racing profitable