In Britain, unlike the hotel rating system, the grading system for racecourses does not involve annual inspections or assessment of cleanliness, facilities, hospitality and so on. Each British racecourse is simpled graded 1, 2, 3 or 4, according to the amount of money it receives, annually, from the Horserace Betting Levy Board (HBLB). The HBLB, as the name suggests, collects 10% of bookmakers’ gross annual profits, above £500,000, as the Horserace Betting Levy.
Depending on the amount of prize money contributed by the racecourse executive and the amount of betting turnover generated, off-course, over a rolling three-year period, each racecourse receives an annual grant from the HBLB. This General Prize Fund (GPF) grant, is what ultimately determines the grading of the racecourse. Grade One racecourses, such as Ascot, Newmarket, Aintree and Cheltenham, stage the most valuable, prestigious races of the season. At the other end of the scale, Grade Four racecourses, such as Brighton, Chepstow, Hamilton and Redcar, offer meagre fare, in terms of prize money, but nonetheless competitive racing, in a relaxed environment at affordable prices.
Fairly obviously, the percentage of winning favourites is inversely proportional to the starting prices of the favourites in question. For example, favourites sent off at odds shorter than 2/1 win almost twice as often as favourites than those sent off at odds of 2/1 or longer. However, across the whole range of odds, favourites win approximately one-third of all horse races.
In any horse race, the favourite is the horse which proves the most popular choice with the betting public or, in other words, the horse believed to be the most likely to win. ‘Believed’ is the operative word here, because unlike fixed-odds eventualities, such as the toss of a coin or the roll of a dice, the starting price of any horse, including the favourite, involves an element of opinion. Favourites win a higher percentage of races than second favourites which, in turn, win a higher percentage of races than third favourites, and so on, but public opinion, while usually well informed, is not always correct.
Roughly six out of every ten horse races run in Britain is a handicap, in which every runner, theoretically, has an equal chance of winning. That fact obviously has an impact on the percentage of winning favourites but, even in non-handicap races, so many variables affect the outcome, it should come as no surprise that favourites are beaten more often than not.
The American Quarter Horse, a short, stocky breed used to ‘cut’ cattle from herds, is renowned for its speed over short distances, hence its name. Uncorroborated reports suggest that such horses are capable of reaching speeds approaching 55 miles per hour over two furlongs, or a quarter of a mile. However, the fastest racehorse over that distance, as recognised by Guinness World Records, was a thoroughbred, Winning Brew, trained by Francis Vitale. In May, 2008, the two-year-old filly covered the quarter of a mile at Penn National Racecourse in Grantville, Pennsylvania in 20.57 seconds, clocking an average speed pf 43.97 miles per hour.
Of course, in Britain, Ireland and other jurisdictions, the official minimum distance for any horse race, on an enclosed racecourse, is five furlongs. Again, as recognised by Guinness World Records, the fastest horse over this distance was a thoroughbred, although this time a four-year-old, Stone Of Folca, trained by John Best. In June, 2012, Stone Of Folca belied odds of 50/1 when beating 19 rivals to win the Investec Specialist Bank ‘Dash’ Handicap at Epsom Racecourse in Surrey in a time of 53.69 seconds, at an average speed of 41.67 miles per hour.
Desert Orchid was an immensely popular grey – in fact, towards the end of his career, almost white – horse, who won 34 of his 70 starts over hurdles and fences and remains the sixth highest-rated steeplechaser in the history of Timeform. He was trained, throughout his career, by David Elsworth, who first took out a training licence in his own right in 1978. At the peak of his powers, Elsworth had 143 horses in his yard at Whitsbury Manor Stables, near Fordingbridge, Hampshire.
Elsworth won the National Hunt Trainers’ Championship just once, in 1987/88, but nonetheless saddled Desert Orchid to win the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on four times, in 1986, 1988, 1989 and 1990 and the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse in 1990. However, the defining moment for horse and trainer came at Cheltenham on March 16, 1989.
Despite being better going right-handed – a stone better, according to jockey Simon Sherwood – and unsuited by the prevailing heavy going, Desert Orchid was still sent off 5/2 favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Adopting his usual bold, front-running style, he made most of the running until the second-last fence, but came under pressure and looked beaten when tackled by confirmed mudlark Yahoo on the run to the final fence. However, Desert Orchid rallied gamely, forged ahead on the run-in to win by 1½ lengths.