Perhaps no fan experience is quite like the one enjoyed by someone who has
bet on a horse race. The thrill will make your adrenaline spike as you root for
your choice to make it across the line in front. Even if you don’t pick a
winner, it’s a thrill, but it’s no doubt better if you walk away from it a
little bit richer.
When someone studies the past performances of the horses and connections in a
race, he or she is said to be handicapping that race. Handicapping is something
that no one has ever perfected, no matter what they might claim. If there was a
perfect method of handicapping horse races, all the race tracks would go out of
business, because they would have to hand over all their money to winning
The cool thing about deciding upon a strategy for betting on horse races is
that you can choose the method that works for you. That might mean an intricate
look at the program and every last bit of statistical information, or it could
mean a simple gut feeling about the way a horse looks on the track. Whatever
helps you to narrow down your choices and leads you to a winner can be the right
strategy for your betting.
Of course, you can’t expect to go to a race track blindly and expect to come
away with some winners. Experience is the best way to improve at the art of
handicapping. Reading up on some of the methods you can use to get it done is a
good starting point.
Learning the Bets
Before you know which horses you want to choose, you have to decide how you
will parlay that information into some winnings. That means that you should get
to know the different wagers that are available to you.
The following link will
give you a much more in-depth look at how the different bets work and how they
pay off depending on the odds.
For a brief primer, though, you need to know that there are two basic groups
of bets. The straight bets involve a single horse coming in first, second, or
third in the race, which is represented by win (first), place (first or second),
and show (first, second, or third) wagering. Exotic wagers, on the other hand,
require a combination of multiple horses to come in a certain order in a single
race or over multiple races.
Although it isn’t an airtight rule, in general, the straight bets pay off
relatively modestly because they are the easiest to hit. You often have to wager
a decent amount of money to get a hefty payout on a win bet. By contrast, exotic
wagers, while harder to hit, can bring you a big amount of money in return for a
Going into a night at the race track, you should be prepared in terms of
which wagers you prefer. A lot of this will depend on your budget. It will also
depend on whether you’re hoping that you can strike it rich or you’re seeking to
walk away with a few bucks in your pocket at the end of the evening.
Types of Betting Strategy
Picking horses is, in many ways, like picking stocks. Some people pick their
stocks by ingesting every last piece of information that they can, while others
go by nothing more than a gut feeling based on very little technical
information. Picking horses can be done in similar fashion.
In most cases, people who want to learn about the horses do so by looking at
the programs. For casual bettors who might be visiting the track for one of the
first times and have never actually seen the horses race before, a program can
be their entryway into the race. It contains a lot of information, some of which
might be overwhelming the first time you see it.
The good news is that there is usually a page somewhere in the program that
gives a detailed explanation of everything that is found inside. Barring that,
some track employee might be able to help, or another bettor. Here are some of
the things that you’ll find on a program page that will be useful in your
The program will tell you how each horse did in its most recent races. There
will also be little notations showing the horse’s results from the past year,
the previous year, and the year before. Along the way, you will also be able to
tell the horse’s positioning in each race and if there were any incidents that
caused them some sort of problem as the race progressed.
Many people like to look at race results because they feel that some horses
have a knack for getting across the line first. Others might show impressive
efforts but always come up a bit short. As in any sport, there are certain
intangibles that certain athletes possess that allow them to come out on top
more times than not, and horses are no different.
The problem with relying solely on race results is that many horses move up
or down in class at certain points during their racing career. What this means
is that a horse might be facing a certain caliber of competition one week, only
to be facing a much tougher group the next time. Many bettors are leery of
taking horses who are moving up in class, while they gravitate to those who are
When looking at a program, it can be difficult to determine class by looking
at the types of races in which the horses have competed, especially when they
are coming from different tracks. Your best bet to determine class is to look at
the purse of each race. The higher the purse, the better the level of
competition in most cases.
By handlers, we are talking about the people in charge of the horse. The
three main groups of people involved in the sport of Thoroughbred racing are the
jockeys, the trainers, and the owners. In the case of the first two, the program
will include the statistics of these individuals in terms of their wins, places,
and shows for however many horses they may have been involved with during that
Trainers and jockeys are often integral to a horse’s success. You can bet
that a horse who switches jockeys from one who is struggling to another who is
doing well will receive increased betting attention. Owners don’t really affect
the betting all too much, although some bettors may include that information in
This is one for the more serious horse players. A horse that has a mother
and/or father that was successful is often considered a better prospect for
racing than one whose pedigree is nondescript. You need to know which sires and
dams are the best for producing winners for this information to be helpful to
Thoroughbred races are contested at many different distances. And some horses
prefer certain distances over others. In some cases, you might be able to tell
from the past performance lines if a horse is suited for a better distance.
For example, you might notice that a horse who is running a race longer than
a mile was really coming on strong at his last race at less than a mile. That
could mean that the horse will be strong at the longer distance.
For the most part, Thoroughbred races are held on either the turf or the
dirt. Certain tracks also have surfaces within those two main categories that
have subtle differences from others. In any case, some horses prefer certain
surfaces over others, which will show from their performances on those surfaces.
Previous Betting Odds
This is an interesting way of telling how well a horse is regarded by other
bettors. There will be an indication on the program of the final betting odds
for a horse in their last several races.
Why is this important? Well, bettors generally know what they are doing, so
if they are betting on a horse, they might know the horse is good before the
horse does. Seeing a horse that has been well-bet for several races gives an
indication that there is something behind all of that attention.
Thoroughbreds often take weeks or months between starts. That doesn’t mean
that they are idle during that time. These horses generally have morning
workouts that are timed to give an indication of how their training is going.
You have to be aware that a horse doing a fast workout is not necessarily
better than one running a slow one. It could be an instance that the slower
horse was held back a bit and was just using the workout to get in shape. Still,
extremely fast workouts which take place without a jockey doing any urging can
indicate that a horse is at the peak of its game.
The post position that a horse inhabits at the start of a race can sometimes
be overstated in terms of importance. It generally only matters when a field is
particularly big, as in the Kentucky Derby, the most famous of horse races. But
for the most part, even a tough post, be it on the extreme inside or outside,
can be overcome.
At the very end of a racing line in a program lies a very brief description
of the horse’s performance. Many bettors cling to these descriptions because
they provide an unbiased expert’s view of the horse’s effort. These descriptions
will also include any factors that might have mitigated the horse’s performance,
such as being bumped by another horse, getting blocked in traffic, or even being
Most programs also include numbers known as speed figures, which are an
attempt to put a number on a horse’s performance. These figures take into
account all of the factors that we listed above and try to combine them into one
simple number, with higher numbers indicating better performances. These speed
figures are by no means perfect, but they can act as a kind of shorthand for
handicappers who might not have time to pore over all of the other details.
Non-Statistical Methods for Handicapping Horses
All of the things listed in the program are meant to quantify and describe
races that people might not have had the luxury of seeing. Yet there are many
handicappers who will put all of that aside in favor of an eye test. They would
prefer to watch as many races as possible and see for themselves which horses
are up to snuff.
What might they be looking for when they watch? Well, there are subtle signs,
such as a horse’s
body language both before and during a race, the way its ears lie, if their
running style seems effortless or not, and so on. In addition, watching the
races will give them an indication of whether or not a horse has perhaps
outperformed its actual results in previous races, which could mean that it will
be a value at the betting windows.
There is no exact science to any of these methods. But there are many bettors
who feel that these signs that are only visible to the human eye are much better
than any statistical method for judging the horses. As stated above, these are
strategies for the avid handicapper, because a casual observer might miss these
signs and won’t have the time to watch all of the past performances.
Putting It All Together
As you can see, there are a multitude of ways to devise strategies for
betting on horses. Perhaps the best thing to do is to develop a style with which
you feel comfortable. Chances are, if you come up with a method that provides
positive results, you will stick with it. You can always modify through trial
and error as you go along.
It’s also important to decide what kind of bettor you want to be. Are you the
type that likes to handicap every race and find values in each one? Or do you
have the discipline to sit a number of races out and wait for the one in which
there is a horse that you feel strongly will perform well?
You should also develop a plan of action for budgeting for your betting.
Maybe you can go in with the idea that you have a certain amount of money to
work with, stopping your bets the minute you lose that money. Or you could look
at it the other way and walk away the second your winnings hit a certain level,
fearing that you might fall back and cough up all your gains.
In any case, a little forethought and study will go a long way to becoming a
winning handicapper. Thinking that you are just going to walk up to the window
and pull winners out of your hat is foolish.
As we’ve shown, there are many different strategies for horse race betting
available to you. It’s just a matter of you choosing one, or a few, that are
right for your temperament and philosophy.
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