I have been reading Steve and Linda Dashews The Circumnavigators Handbook this weekend, crammed with good stuff,its one thats going to take a couple readings, but one thing he has said, several times is that racing is the most concentrated way to gain experience in sailing that there is. And to teach how to become one with your boat. And he backs it up with a lot of experienced explanations. Something to think about.
Some parallels to horse back riding. An old Indian proverb is Ride your horse every day, and in a year both will know the others heart. Makes sense.