What Is a Trifecta?

A trifecta horse racing bet creates big winnings if a bettor can predict the horses that will come in first, second, and third during a race. As horse racing bets go, trifecta betting is somewhat difficult to win. But if you pull it off, you can conceivably win a great deal of money on a relatively small wager.


No other sport embraces the act of betting quite like horse racing. Whether you’re talking about Thoroughbred racing, jump racing, harness racing, or some other form of the sport, you can bet that wagering is a major part of it. Horse races have been taking place for hundreds of years, and people have been wagering on them for pretty much that entire time.

Yet many people don’t quite know the ins and outs of wagering like diehard fans of the sport can claim. Some feel like they don’t know the lingo and the terminology, which can indeed be quite confusing. Others feel like they might not know the strategies for the different types of bets available to them.

And there are others still who might only know how to bet on a horse to win or how to bet a trifecta. Win bets are relatively easy to hit, but they don’t tend to pay that much. Those looking to come up with a giant payout on a single bet might think that horse racing doesn’t have much to offer them.

Those folks simply need to learn about exotic bets. An exotic bet is one that is defined by the bettor needing to include multiple horses. And one of the most popular of all exotic bets is the Trifecta.

What Makes Trifecta Betting so Popular?

The trifecta, or triple as it is sometimes known at certain tracks, should be able to be understood based on its name, which suggests that the number three is involved in some way. Indeed, to win a trifecta wager, you have to pick the first three horses in the order of finish of a particular race.

You can play a trifecta straight, which means that you specify which horse will come in first, second, and third. Or you can box a trifecta. How do you box a trifecta? Well, you pick three horses and just need them to come in any order as long as they make up the top three at the end of the race.

The tricky part of a trifecta wager is that you need every one of the three horses that you include to do what you expect them. Except on rare occasions, you don’t receive anything back in return if two out of the three come in as expected. It has to be all three or nothing.

When you think about all of the possible combinations that can come in the top three, especially in large fields of 10 or more horses, you realize how difficult a trifecta can be. That’s why many bettors play multiple combinations to increase the odds. Doing that costs more money in terms of the size of the wager.

Why would anyone want to put themselves more at risk for a bet that is so difficult to hit?

Well, the payoff can make it worth it. Depending on the horses involved and the number of people who play that particular combination, you could conceivably win hundreds or even thousands off a bet of just a few dollars.

In the following article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about the horse racing wager known as the trifecta. We’ll talk about how it works, how it gets paid off, and the different ways that you can increase your chances of hitting it. And we’ll also give you some strategies to consider when it comes to making your trifecta bet.

How a Trifecta Wager Works

A trifecta wager is one of the most common exotic wagers found in the sport of horse racing. By exotic wager, we mean a bet that includes multiple horses over one or more races. That’s opposed to a straight bet, like a win, place, or show bet, which includes only a single horse in a single race.

Other popular exotic bets include the exacta, superfecta, and Daily Double. These three, along with the trifecta, can usually be found at just about every track on every racing day. There are other more involved exotic wagers that aren’t always included at every track.

Of these popular exotic wagers, real money trifecta horse betting online stands out as the most popular. Perhaps that’s because it’s always been important which horses finish first, second, and third, since those are the horses that will pay off to pin, place, and show. The trifecta, in a way, puts all of those wagers together.

To win online trifecta betting, you must pick the horses that you think will finish first, second, and third before the race begins.

Keep in mind that they must finish in this order according to the final, official results of the race. Occasionally, a horse may come across the finish line in the top three but might be disqualified or placed out of the top three, or “off the board,” due to some violation.

There are two ways to play a trifecta. Playing it straight means you’re specifying which horses will come in what spots in the top three. For example, let’s say you pick a 2-4-6 trifecta horse betting straight. For you to win, #2 has to finish first, #4 has to finish second, and #6 has to finish third.

The other way you can play a trifecta wager is to box it. In this case, you’re still choosing the horses that you think will finish in the top three. But you will win no matter what order they come in as long as they’re in the top three.

For example, let’s go back to that 2-4-6 trifecta once again. If you were to box that trifecta, here are all the combinations that would make you a winner:

  • 2-4-6
  • 2-6-4
  • 4-2-6
  • 4-6-2
  • 6-2-4
  • 6-4-2

When we talk about the cost of the bets and the way they’re paid, we’ll explain how the monetary aspect of a boxed trifecta is a little bit different than a straight trifecta. But, for now, you can understand what the difference is between the two in terms of what will cause you to win the bet.

Trifecta wagers can be difficult to hit, because you can imagine all of the different three-horse combinations that could possibly come in. Even in something as small as a six-horse race, the number of combinations run extremely high. When you have 10 or more horses in a race, the number of potential trifecta bets gets exponentially larger.

Of course, the payoff for the trifecta reflects this truth. Because it’s difficult to nail down that top three, a winning trifecta horse bet will usually pay off quite handsomely. If you can hit a trifecta while keeping the size of your bet low, you could be looking at a major profit.

How to Make a Trifecta Horse Racing Bet

There are many different ways to lay down a horse racing wager. You can do it in person at the track where the race is being run, or you can find an off-track wagering facility that lets you bet on a race remotely.

Those two methods usually require interacting with an employee known as a “teller,” who takes the details of your bets and your money then prints out a ticket for you. If you win your wager, you return with that ticket to have it redeemed for cash. You can also find computerized self-betting kiosks at many tracks and off-track wagering facilities which let you input all the information yourself.

If you are technologically-savvy, you should also consider online trifecta betting via one of the top gambling websites on the internet.

Horse Racing CTA

These sites generally provide pretty generous betting exposure to horse racing, because of its popularity as a betting sport.

If you are real money trifecta horse betting online, you’ll have to fund your account. Once you’ve done that, you can go to the horse racing pages on their site and find everything you need to know about the bets you want to make. That takes some of the pressure off in terms of having to learn the terminology.

Wherever you’re trifecta betting, you generally have to go into the process with five key pieces of information. They are:

  • The track that you’ll be betting
  • The race that you’ll be betting
  • The horses that you’ll be betting
  • The amount of money you’ll be betting
  • The type of bet you want to make

If you do choose to bet with a teller, a typical Trifecta wager might sound something like this:

“For Santa Anita, Race #7, I’d like a 5-7-9 trifecta.”

That lets the teller know that the bet is at Santa Anita Park for the seventh race of the program that day. It also lets them know that you want a trifecta that stipulates #5 is your pick to win, #7 to come in second, and #9 to come in third.

Notice that one of the five pieces of information listed above aren’t included in that sentence. That’s because, if you don’t say how much money you want to bet, the teller will assume it is $2. $2 is usually the minimum and standard horse racing wager.

You’ll also notice that the sentence included the numbers of the horses and not the names. The tellers simply punch in numbers and have no way of knowing the name of every horse and its corresponding number for every race of every track running. As a result, make sure to know the numbers when you go up to the teller window.

Finally, when you’re betting a trifecta, the teller will assume that you’re playing it straight unless you say otherwise. You would have to specifically say if you want to box the trifecta. That might also affect the size of the bet, which we’ll explain in a moment.

Explaining Odds and Payouts for Trifecta Wagers

When you bet on a horse to win, you can see the odds that you’re dealing with no matter where you are. At the track, online trifecta wagering, or at a betting facility, all of these methods generally include the odds on each horse in a race to win right alongside their name and number.


Win bets are also easy to figure out in terms of your expected return. If your horse is 3 to 1, for example, you will receive $3 back for every dollar that you bet. Thus, if you bet $2 on a horse, you’ll get $6 profit (3 times 2), plus the return of your original $2 wager, for an official payout of $8.

Trifecta bets work the same way, essentially. But the difference is that you don’t really have any way of knowing what your odds will be.

It’s impossible for even the track where the race is taking place to show you the odds for every possible winning trifecta combination on their monitors or tote board. Needless to say, you certainly can’t expect to see them online or at an off-track site.

Rest assured, though, that the same betting system is in place no matter the bet. It’s known as a pari-mutuel wagering system. Payouts are determined by the size of pools that accumulate all the bets made.

Let’s look at it in terms of a trifecta horse racing bet. Imagine that you wagered $2 on a 4-7-9 trifecta straight.

Now, let’s assume a total of $20,000 worth of trifecta bets were made for that race. First, the track will collect their takeout, which comes in the form of a percentage of the total amount wagered.

If the takeout for that track on a trifecta bet is 20%, that means they will collect 20% of the $20,000 wagered. Their takeout is thus $4000 ($20,000 multiplied by .20). When you take that out of the original $20,000, that leaves $16,000 in the pool.

Let’s also imagine that a total of $1,000 was wagered on a 4-7-9 trifecta. To figure out the odds for your trifecta, you would divide the $16,000 in the trifecta pool by the $1,000 on that specific combination. That leaves you with the number 16, which means that you will receive odds of 16 to 1 on that specific combination of horses.

We used that example just because everything divided pretty evenly in terms of the math. In actuality, you will see payoffs that are usually significantly higher than 16 to 1 for a trifecta. But, again, it all depends on the pools.

What it doesn’t depend upon are the win odds. Conceivably, you could pick a trifecta with three horses who have very low win odds and still win a lot if not many people bet that combination in the trifecta pool. Conversely, you could pick three long shots as part of your trifecta that wouldn’t pay that much if a significant amount of people also bet that particular combination.

In most cases, there will be some correlation between win odds and trifecta odds. If a lot of people think a certain horse will win, chances are, a lot of people will also include that horse in the trifecta. But you shouldn’t be taken aback if you find that the trifecta payout is a bit skewed, for better or worse, compared to the win odds.

The Economics of a Boxed Trifecta

As we said earlier, a boxed Trifecta allows you to win your bet as long as the horses you have picked manage to finish in the top three in the order of finish in any order. But you have to raise the size of your bet if you want to box a Trifecta and still make the same amount of money on the payback as those who bet it straight.

As we showed you in our example above, there are six different winning combinations you can have if you box three horses. That means you have to cover all of those combinations in your wager to get paid the full amount. To box a trifecta and get paid as much as a straight trifecta, you would need to bet $12 (6 times $2).

Some tracks allow you to bet what is known as a “dollar box” for a trifecta. In essence, it allows you to bet $1 for the combination, or $6 total. The catch is that you only get paid half the amount of payback that a regular $2 straight trifecta bet would return.

Obviously, the advantage of a boxed trifecta is that you can cover more combinations. And the downside is that you have to make a relatively sizable bet to do it. That will cut into your profit if you win and cost you more if you lose.

You’ll have to decide based on your budget and your tolerance for risk how you want to play your trifecta. Once you do, make sure you specify exactly what you want to the teller. And, just to make sure, check your ticket before you go so that you can be sure you didn’t make the incorrect bet.

Betting Different Amounts on Trifectas

So far, we’ve only talked about trifectas in terms of $2 base wagers. But, if you feel confident enough, you can conceivably bet more in the hopes of winning more.

Imagine that you wanted to bet $10 on a 2-4-6 trifecta straight. The race ends and, indeed, the #2 came in first, the #4 came in second, and the #6 came in third, making you a winner. On the tote board, and on televisions screens showing the race, it says the trifecta payout is $50.

But remember that the payouts listed are always based on a $2 wager. Let’s say you bet $10. Since you bet five times the base amount, you are entitled to five times the payout, which in this case comes to $250 (5 times $50).

You have to be really confident in a trifecta to amp up your bets in this way. Most people stick with a $2 bet if they’re playing it straight because they know they’re already in line for a nice payoff even with that small wager. But, if you have a really strong feeling or desire a massive payout, you can take the chance of raising your bet.

What about lowering your bet?

As we said earlier, at most tracks the minimum bet is $2. But some tracks allow you to divide that $2 bet up to cover multiple trifecta combinations. For example, if you see a track listing a 50-cent trifecta, you still have to bet $2 to play it. But you can then decide how you want to allow that $2. If you still want to play one combination for $2, you can.

But you can also play four different trifecta combinations at 50 cents each. That will give you a lot of the same coverage you would get from a boxed trifecta bet at less cost.

Of course, it also means that you would get paid less than your normal trifecta. You would essentially be getting a quarter of the full price. Still, if you end up with a high-paying combination, a quarter of that amount can still be quite lucrative.

Winning a Trifecta Bet With Only Two of Three

Depending on the size of the pool, it’s certainly possible that not every trifecta combination will be bet in a given race. Especially if there are long shots involved, you could end up with a scenario where a combination that wins the trifecta could conceivably have no money wagered on it.

What happens then? Well, let’s take an example.

Imagine that you bet on a 2-4-6 exacta straight. The race ends and you see that the horses that come across the line are #2 in first, #4 in second, and #5 in third. Normally, you would have just missed out on a trifecta win in this situation.

But what if no one in the pool bet a 2-4-5 trifecta? What would happen next is that the track would pay out all trifecta wagers that had at least #2 in first and #4 in second. That would include your wager.

Keep in mind this will probably dilute your potential winnings somewhat. After all, everyone who bet 2-4-1 would win, as well as 2-4-3, 2-4-7, and so on. But the bottom line is that this is a scenario where you could win a trifecta with only two out of three coming in as you predicted they would.

That’s one example that shows why you should never tear up your betting tickets until you see the official results listed. In the above example, if you had given up on the wager after seeing the horses cross the finish line, you would have missed out on your payoff.

Strategies for Trifecta Wagering

Betting a trifecta is by no means an exact science. In many ways, you have to be as lucky as you are savvy to win the bet. Even astute race handicappers can get tripped up by bad racing luck when betting a trifecta.

Think about it—when you bet on a horse to win, you just need that horse to be the best. That takes a lot of variables out of the equation.

But when you’re betting a trifecta, you need three horses to do exactly what you think they’re going to do. The horses have to be on top of their game, and they have to hope bad luck doesn’t befall them.

You also have to consider, when online trifecta wagering, that it isn’t always the best three horses that finish first, second, and third in the race. That might sound like an odd statement, but ardent horse racing fans know it to be true.

Imagine a scenario where a horse goes toe-to-toe with another and puts up a great battle, only to come up short. The horse could tire late from all the effort and fade at the end of the race. Meanwhile, another horse, who never had any real chance at winning the race, comes up and passes the horse to finish second or third and get into the trifecta mix.

That is why a key part of your trifecta horse racing betting strategy should be to try and picture how you think a race is going to play out. Will there be a frontrunning horse who isn’t bothered on the lead and can hold onto its position in the top three? Or will there be closers flying up into the picture to finish second or third?

You should think in terms of playing the horse you think will win the race along with some combination of other horses that can sneak into the top 3. Maybe that means pairing the favorite with a couple of long shots. It all depends on each race and the fields involved.

Beyond thinking about the way a race will play out, you can also try some different betting strategies that will narrow your chances of winning a trifecta. Here are a few.

Keying a Horse When Trifecta Betting

Keying a horse involves picking a single horse to be involved in all your trifecta wagers then surrounding it with several different combinations of horses. You can make your keyed horse the top of every trifecta ticket you play. Or it can be one that’s included in every boxed combination.

As an example, say that you like the #2 horse more than any other as a win candidate in a seven-horse field. Out of the other horses in the race, the #1, the #5, and the #7 all seem capable of finishing in the top 3. None of the other horses strikes you as a candidate to finish first, second, or third.

If you were to key the #2 with #1, #5, and #7, you would cover the following combinations:

  • 2-1-5
  • 2-1-7
  • 2-5-1
  • 2-5-7
  • 2-7-1
  • 2-7-5

As you can see, that means six different wagers that you must cover. If you were using the $2 minimum, that would mean a $12 wager. But you would be paid off at full price, as opposed to a three-horse boxed trifecta for the same amount wagered, which would only get you half the payout.

Boxing More Than Three Horses in a Trifecta

If you really want to cover more of the field with your trifecta bet, you can include more than three horses in your box. Of course, that would raise the size of the wager exponentially. Take a look below.

Size of Wagers for Boxed Trifecta

  • 3 horses: $6 half-price, $12 full price
  • 4 horses: $24 half-price, $48 full price
  • 5 horses: $60 half-price, $120 full price

As you can see, those wagers are starting to get pretty high so make sure you understand how to bet a trifecta before getting involved. The big downside of these kinds of wagers is that you expose yourself to more money lost if the bet fails. There’s also the possibility that the wager could be larger than the payoff you would receive if you win.

But if you think there are certain horses in a field that stand out from the rest by a long margin, boxing more than three horses in a trifecta can give you a strong chance at winning. If the combination that comes in is covered by your box and turns out to be lucrative, the high price of the bet will have been worth it.

Test Your Skills at Trifecta Horse Racing Betting

How Much Money Would I Need to Wager to Bet a 3-Horse Trifecta Boxed?

You would need to bet $12 to receive the full payoff amount or $6 to receive the $1 bet payoff amount.

Should I Always Expect the Best Three Horses in a Race to Come in First, Second and Third?

No, because racing luck can play havoc with a wager like the trifecta, which needs a lot to go right for you to win it.

Is There a Way I Can Make a Trifecta Bet Where One Horse Is Included in All My Combinations?

Yes. That’s known as a key bet, and it’s a good way to take advantage of a field where one horse seems much stronger than the rest.

Conclusion on Trifecta Wagering

Trifecta betting stand out among the types of horse racing bets you can make because they can earn you a lot of money for a small wager. It’s not out of the question for a trifecta payout to be hundreds or even thousands of dollars. That’s not a bad profit, considering you only have to wager a minimum of $2.

You just have to be realistic about your chances of winning a trifecta bet going in. Even the best horse racing handicappers will miss on a lot more trifecta wagers than they hit. Just be patient, because one big trifecta payout can overcome a lot of losses in a hurry.