There are many reasons why horse racing as a sport has captivated audiences
for hundreds of years. Among those are the drama of a tight race at the finish
line, the beauty and power of the horses, and the long, storied tradition on
which the sport is built. But perhaps nothing excites fans more than the
opportunity to win money by gambling on the races.
For as long as there have been horse races, gambling has come along in tandem
with it. And the system for betting on Thoroughbred races in the United States
has been honed and perfected over many years. There are some subtle differences
depending on the tracks where the races are being held, but for the most part,
there are certain bets which are available to anybody who goes to the windows.
If you are a newcomer to the sport, it will be difficult for you to truly
become involved in the wagering process without first understanding how these
bets work. Once you do that, you can start to figure out which fit in with your
style of wagering. You can also build a betting
strategy that you can take to the track with the hopes that you’ll walk away
a big winner.
Two Main Types
Although there are several bets from which you can choose when you go to the
races, they all generally fall into two main categories: straight wagers and
exotic wagers. Although we’ll go into further detail below, let’s start by
saying that straight bets generally involve a single horse in a single race. By
contrast, an exotic wager includes multiple horses in one race or perhaps two or
Besides the number of horses, the other separating characteristic between the
two types of bets is the chances of winning. You are statistically more likely
to win a straight bet, which means that you will also be paid less for it. With
exotic bets, you have a much smaller chance of winning, which is why exotics
will reward you with mostly higher payouts.
As mentioned above, straight bets involve just a single horse. Keep in mind
that you can make multiple straight bets in a race, and you can also make
multiple straight bets on the same horse in a race. Winning a straight bet, as
you will see, requires the horse (or horses) that you play to perform well.
This is the most popular bet in horse racing. In fact, win bets are the ones
which are governed by the odds that are attached to each horse. If a horse is
listed at 10-1, that only refers to its win odds.
Picking horses to win requires you to scan through the entire field and find
the one horse that stands out above all others. As the win bet is the most
difficult of the straight bets to hit, it also means that it will pay off, in
most cases, more than the place or the show wagers. The bigger the field for a
specific race, the more likely you’ll be able to reap big rewards if your horse
comes in to win.
If you bet a horse to place, you will win if it comes in first or second in
the race. Keep in mind that, if you bet a horse to place, and it wins, you will
still only receive the place price. Choosing a horse to place gives you a little
leeway and more chances to walk out of a race with a profit.
The tricky part of betting a horse to place is trying to decide what the
criteria are for choosing such a horse. In many races, the horse who puts on the
second-best performance doesn’t actually finish second. They might be battling
the eventual winner only to tire out, leaving a horse that had a much easier
journey to be the one to come in second.
As such, picking horses to place often requires bettors to diagnose the race.
If you can visualize how a race will play out, you might be able to see how a
horse could sneak up into second even if it doesn’t really have the same talent
as others in the race.
A show wager is the easiest wager to win in all of horse racing. For that
reason, show wagers tend to pay off less than any other. If you bet on a horse
to show, you are predicting that it will finish in either first, second, or
third in the race.
The show wager is a popular one for beginning bettors who want to walk out of
a race feeling like they won something. If you bet on a favorite to show, for
example, your chances are pretty strong that you’ll get something back, even if
it is only cents on the dollar. Or you could play a long shot to show, hoping
that they might be able to at least make it to third even if they don’t have the
talent to win.
If you’re the type that likes to go for the gusto, an exotic bet is perfect
for you. Exotic wagers are designed to be difficult to hit, almost as if you
were playing the lottery. For a very small wager, you can conceivably walk away
with big money, but it isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination.
When betting on an exacta, you are trying to choose the first two horses to
come across the line in the exact order. This is a tough task, which is why it
pays off well when you do it, especially if one or both of the horses have
middling to long odds. An exacta is also the easiest of the exotic wagers to
hit, so it offers the best combination of potential payoff and winnability.
With any of the single-race exotic wagers, bettors have the option to box it.
A box for an exacta means that you would have to pick the first two horses
across in the order of any finish in any order. An exacta box pays half of what
a straight exacta would, but it does open up more possibilities for the bettor.
The trifecta is a difficult wager for a bettor to win, but it is a lucrative
one if you can hit it. As you might be able to tell by the “tri” prefix in the
name, you will win a trifecta wager if you can get the order of finish right for
the first three horses across the line. You can box a trifecta, but it pays half
of a straight exacta and requires you to pay more than an exacta box because of
the increased number combinations that you have to cover.
When you start getting into the realm of trifectas, you are really into an
area where your horse selection techniques must be well-honed. You have to be
able to anticipate the entire race, sensing which horses might be able to stay
on the front end for the entire race and which might come on late. It is a true
test of a race handicapper, which is why it usually pays so well.
To win a superfecta, you have to predict the first four horses in the order
of finish. (A box of a superfecta is also available, but it gets to be a pricey
bet because of the myriad of combinations.) A superfecta will pay off handsomely
to anybody who can accurately pick one.
Superfectas often require a little bit of luck for a bettor to hit them. Even
the best handicappers would have a hard time predicting just how a race will
break down to the point where they can anticipate the first four horses in the
order. Obviously, the bigger the fields, the higher the potential that a
superfecta will pay off into the thousands.
We talked a little earlier about how an exotic wager can take the form of
multiple horses over more than one race. A Daily Double is the wager most
representative of this idea. To win a Daily Double, you need to pick the winner
of two races in a row.
Most tracks include an early Daily Double on the first two races of the
program and a late Daily Double in the last two. Some people find the Daily
Double the most approachable of the exotic wagers because you are trying to pick
clear-cut winners instead of hoping to figure out who is going to trail the
Occasionally, a track will include a specialty Daily Double that ties into
unique races that they host. One fine example of this takes place at Churchill
Downs in Kentucky every May. The Kentucky Oaks, which is held on a Friday, and
the Kentucky Derby, which comes up the day after, are the subject of a
special Daily Double held over a two-day span.
Pick 3 and Beyond
Once you get into Pick 3 wagers and beyond, you will be entering into the
territory where the payoffs will be relatively large. The Pick 3 requires you to
pick winners of three consecutive races. Many tracks go beyond that, offering
Pick 4s, Pick 5s, and even wider stretches of races that require the bettor to
be on top of several winners in a row.
To spur on betting in these admittedly difficult bets, tracks will offer
incentives to make them worth the bettors’ efforts. Some tracks will guarantee a
certain amount for a payout, regardless of how much money goes into the pool for
that wager on a certain day. Other tracks will allow the pools to carry over for
as long as a particular bet is not hit, which, in the case of a Pick 5 or Pick
6, can really pile up after a time.
Methods of Making Exotic Bets Easier
As you might be able to tell, hitting an exotic wager is no easy trick. Even
the best handicappers are happy if they can take down more than one or two of
these per night because they know that there is luck involved, and the margin
for error in handicapping is pretty slim. Bettors have figured out a few ways to
make the bets easier, although it generally requires them to put a little more
money at stake initially.
For example, you might want to play an exacta where you are pretty sure that
one horse is going to win the race but aren’t as certain about who will come in
second. To improve your odds, you can play the horse you like and include the
remaining horses in the field as the second part of the exacta. If the horse you
liked for the win was the #1 horse, you would go to the window and say that you
wanted to play the 1-all exacta for the race. The same tactic works for a Daily
There are also ways to improve your chances of hitting one of the bigger
“Pick” races that follows the same narrowing-down theory. If you were playing a
Pick 6, for example, you might “single” horses in certain races, meaning that
you would only pick one horse in the races where you were relatively sure of the
winner. For the other races, you might pick multiple horses to cover more of the
field, only throwing out the horses that you really didn’t think had a chance.
Obviously, doing this will cost you more money. As a result, many tracks will
encourage bettors by lowering the amount needed to make a choice. Most straight
bets require a $2 minimum, but these incentives might lower the total for a
single ticket to a dollar, 50 cents, or even a dime.
In these cases, you would still probably need to make a $2 minimum wager. But
if you were playing 10-cent superfecta, for example, you would be able to choose
20 different superfecta combinations for that $2 payoff. It dramatically
increases your chances of winning one of these difficult bets.
Once you have a handle on these basic bets, you will be able to take a look
at a particular race and decide how you want to approach it from a betting
perspective. It will also take some of the mystery out of the betting process
for you. From there, it’s just a matter of making the right picks so that you
can collect your winnings.
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