A good question was presented during the Saturday Stakes Open Thread about the best place to follow horse racing, either on the internet or on TV. It occurred to me that if you're a casual observer of horse racing that it could be a little tough to know where to find all the information and data. So consider this a little bit of a primer.
Entries, Past Performances, and Results
If you're looking for the raw data that is the lifeblood of handicapping the horses, you're going to want to get familiar with several websites: the Daily Racing Form, Equibase, and Brisnet. At each of these websites some of the data is free and some of it requires you pay a fee. Generally, Entries (with morning line odds), Scratches and Changes, and Results Charts are free. If you want Past Performances and other handicapping products (clocker reports, pedigree data, etc.) you will have to pay a fee.
At Equibase, you can access Entries, Changes/Scratches, and Results charts without registering. Brisnet and the DRF generally require that you register to access the basic data. The registration is free.
The Daily Racing Form is pretty much the Bible for many horseplayers - it provides past performances for almost every race around the country. You can buy a Racing Form in print at your local newsstand or gas station (there's a Form Finder on their website), or download the Form over the internet at their website using their Formulator program. Equibase and Bristnet also sell past performance information; I've used Brisnet PPs in the past but have never tried out the ones from Equibase. Most of these sites will have samples of what their PPs look like and it's a good idea to see what's out there and what works for you if you want to buy this type of information.
Horse racing, more than any other sport, lends itself to many people trying to sell a potpourri of information to players. Tip sheets, data programs, betting strategies, pedigree analysis, and on and on and on. Some of the information that is out there is great and some is pure crap. If you are just starting out in this game, start slow. Pick up a Form and take it piece by piece. As you get more into the game you'll start to know what information you want to have and what information is just a waste of money.
There are many ways to handicap a horse race in order to pick a winner. Some players rely exclusively on past performances, others are pure physical handicappers (meaning they watch the horses prior to the race to pick out which ones look the best), some play pedigrees, others compile their own speed and pace figures, and others find new and inventive ways to select their horse. There is no one way to handicap a race but there are some basics that every player usually develops.
In my opinion, learning to read the form is the first step in the birth of a handicapper. Even if in the future you utilize other methods than past performances to handicap a race, the foundation of handicapping knowledge can be built by learning how to read a racing form - whether it's a form by DRF, Brisnet, Equibase, or something entirely different. All of the companies that sell past performance usually have "How To" guides explaining what all the symbols and numbers on their forms mean. A form can be very intimidating if you have no idea what any of the names and numbers represent, but once you learn the vocabulary it can be as beautiful as a priceless work of art.
Learning to read a racing form will help you to understand the four basic pillars of handicapping: speed, pace, form, and class. Simply put, "speed" is related to how fast the horses run the entire race; "pace" concerns how fast the horses run at different points of a race; "form" is related to the current condition of the horse and whether it has been running good or bad in its recent races, and "class" relates to the level of competition a horse has been competing against. A set of past performances provides clues to all four of these handicapping pillars, clues that the player must decipher in order to place a winning bet.
Learning to read a set of past performances isn't difficult but it's also something perfected over time. Once you master an understanding of what the data means, you then can move on to determining how much weight you want to give certain factors in making your wagering decisions. You'll also start to develop you're own handicapping style, which is when the game starts to become a lot of fun - when you start picking winners based on your own theories and conclusions.
Live Race Video
If you want to watch live racing from the comfort of your own home you've got essentially two options: you can watch on one of the two TV channels that cover racing, or you can watch live streaming video over the internet.
The two horse racing channels are Horse Racing Television (HRTV) and Television Games (TVG). Both networks broadcast the live simulcast feeds from the tracks and have on-air personalities that handicap the races throughout the day. Most cable companies offer TVG, although many have it as part of a Sports Pack or something similar. HRTV is a little harder to find; it's available on DishNetwork, but tends to be harder to find if you're on cable.
An additional point about these two channels is that they generally have exclusive agreements with tracks that determines which races they can show over the air. For example, HRTV (since they are part of Magna and Churchill Downs) has the rights to the Gulfstream, Santa Anita, Churchill Downs, Arlington Park, and Fair Grounds meets, among others. What that means is that you won't see any races from those tracks on TVG. TVG currently has the rights to Keeneland, Del Mar, Hollywood Park, Oak Tree at Santa Anita, as well as a host of others. So if you want to watch Keeneland on TV, you better have TVG. [Additional note: Racing from the New York tracks (Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct) can be found on both HRTV and TVG.]
If you don't get HRTV or TVG from your cable or satellite provider, you can still watch all the action through the wonderful world of the internet. Live video streaming is provided free by a few tracks (too few, if you ask me). Tampa Bay Downs, for example, is one track where you can go to their website and watch all of their races live. They also provide free replays. Keeneland also provides live steaming during their spring and fall meets.
If you want to watch the action from all tracks over the net you can usually watch through a wagering website if you are a registered member. The next section deals with wagering websites, or ADWs.
Just watching horse racing is great, but the true thrill of the game is the ability to put your money where you mouth is and bet on the horses. If you want to wager on all the action and you don't want to drive to your local track or OTB, AND you live in a state that allows ADW (Advance Deposit Wagering), you can wager over the internet or the phone through one of several sites. Below is a list of a few of the larger ADWs that people use to wager. Every site is different; some provide free video streaming, others charge a monthly fee or a "per wager" fee depending on your handle, and some give you rebates depending on how much you wager. If you decide to sign-up with an ADW, make sure you read all of the rules and requirements. Many ADWs are going to no-wagering fees and free video, but you should always do your homework before you leap. Also, like the TV networks, not all ADWs carry every track. Make sure you check what tracks each site allows you to bet on because you don't want to sign up with an ADW that doesn't allow you to bet on Keeneland if you really like to bet Keeneland.
[Note: If you don't know if your state allows you to bet through an ADW, it's pretty simple to find out. Go to one of the websites and try to sign-up. When you put in your address, the system will let you know whether they can take bets from you or not. Also, an ADW will ask you for your Social Security number. They have to do this since they are required to report to the IRS any winnings over $600, and they have to withhold taxes for any winnings over $5,000. If you hit a trifecta that pays $1,000, that amount gets reported to the Feds. If you hit a superfecta that pays $10,000, you'll have 25% taken out before your winnings are deposited into your account. Don't get me started on the absurd withholding requirements for horseplayers based on a tax law passed about 40 years ago!]
Below is a short list of the big, well known ADWs. There are many others out there - some good, some not so good. I make no representation about any of these; some I've used in the past, others I've never played with. If you have a question about an ADW or just ADWs in general, drop me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I'll certainly try and help you out or at least tell you my experiences.
When I started playing the horses, I began by just following along on TV or at the track with the free program, learning the lingo and the basics along the way. I then started reading the Form and tried my hand an putting together a few simple wagers. From there, I was hooked.
No other form of gambling gives me the feeling that I get when I'm playing the horses. Whether you're playing a $100 Pick Four or just a $2 Win bet, there's nothing like handicapping a race, finding a horse that you absolutely love, and then watching that horse cross the finish line first while you hold a winning ticket in your hand.