How to bet on horse racing

By Dave Tuley  ( senior reporter) 

Are you new to horse racing?

We know the lingo can be intimidating at first. So can trying to figure out the past performances of races that bettors use to handicap. But it's not as difficult as it first appears.

The first thing to know is that most horse racing wagering in this country is done pari-mutuel, which means "wagering among ourselves." Unlike sports betting, in which you might be used to getting the current odds at the time you place your wager at a sports betting counter or on an app, the odds in horse racing aren't finalized until all wagers are made. The track then takes out its hold percentage and returns the payoffs to the winners. So in this case, you're not betting against the track or casino but against the other bettors. Futures, such as those for the Kentucky Derby or Breeders' Cup, are handled the same way as sports futures.

Here's a quick list of the most common horse racing wagers:

Single-race wagers (aka "betting vertically")

  • Win: Your horse has to win the race.
  • Place: Your horse has to finish first or second.
  • Show: Your horse has to finish first, second or third.
  • Across the board: You make three separate bets to win, place or show.
  • Exacta (aka perfecta): You must pick two horses that finish first and second in the exact order (unless "boxed" or "keyed" – see below).
  • Trifecta: You must pick three horses that finish first, second and third in the exact order (again, can be boxed or keyed).
  • Superfecta: You pick the top four finishers in order (again, can be boxed or keyed).
  • Hi 5 (aka Super 5): You pick the top five finishers in order (again, can be boxed or keyed).
  • Box: A bet in which you pick multiple combinations in a wager, so you cash if they hit the board in any order. Beware: This can get expensive, as you pay your wager amount times all possible combinations.
  • Key: A bet in which you pick a horse in a particular spot, usually to win, and then pay for the combinations going to the rest of the horses listed. This saves money by not paying for a lot of extra combinations, but if your horse doesn't finish in the specified spot, you lose.

Multiple-race wagers (aka "betting horizontally")

  • Double: Pick winners in successive races. This traditionally used to be an early double on the first two races of the day and a late double on the last two races, but now tracks have "rolling doubles" throughout the card.
  • Pick 3 (aka "triple"): Pick the winners of three straight races.
  • Pick four: Pick the winners of four straight races.
  • Pick six: Pick the winners of six straight races. This is obviously very hard to hit. If no tickets have all six winners, the jackpot carries over to the next day, with that day's pick six wagers building the pool. Carryovers of several days can build huge pools that attract lottery-type crowds trying to hit it.

How to bet

This has become easier for newbies who have already been betting on smartphones, as it's very similar to sports betting once you learn what all the wagers mean. You choose the track you want from the menu, find the race you want to bet on, choose the type of wager, choose your wager amount and then decide whether you're boxing or keying or not.

For those going to a betting counter, a certain protocol helps the ticket writer get your wager correct and helps the line run smoothly:

— Track name. Don't assume the ticket writer knows what track you're betting, even if it's the next live race.

— Race number. You don't have to give this if you're betting the next race, but it's a good habit to develop. On Kentucky Derby day, if you don't give a race number, the writer will just give you a ticket on the next race at Churchill Downs.

— Wager amount and type of bet (such as $2 across the board, $10 to win, $2 exacta) and, if necessary, type of instructions like "box," "key," "10-cent superfecta box" or "$1 trifecta key."

— Numbers of horses. Don't say horse names; use betting numbers for that race. For straight bets like win, place or show, just give the number like "5." If a box, give all horses like "1, 3 and 5." If keying a horse, say "5 with 1 and 3.").


What to bet

The best advice for beginners is just to bet to win — or place and show, though the payoffs on those are much lower. In addition, the takeout on these types is usually lower, about 15% to 18% at most American tracks, while the takeout on the exotic wagers can be well above 20%. Besides, it's also very difficult to string together a bunch of horses in a race to get a big payoff or hit a string of winners in multiple races. It's hard enough to pick just one winner.

How to handicap

Tons of books are available to teach you how to handicap, and it's much too complex to attempt to do it here. But let me start you with a few things to look for when going over those complex past performances:

  • Look for lone speed: The easiest way for a horse to win is to go wire to wire as they go to the lead and never get caught. Often a race will have a lot of speed horses, and it's tough to single out a horse to dominate a field. But the more you look at races, the more you'll be able to identify when a race is absent a lot of horses that go to the front (with a lot of 1s in their running lines of the PPs). That will help you find the lone speed horse that has a chance to control a race from start to finish. Those will pay off in the long run — meaning they'll win enough to pay for the losing times.
  • Identify the top closer: Conversely, if a race has a ton of speed, look for a closer to be running late. You'll often have several to choose from (that's where a "box" can help), but you can use other handicapping factors to try to find the best choice.
  • Other handicapping factors: These would include things like class (a horse that has been running against tougher competition but drops into an easier level in today's race), breeding (this can be tied to class, but certain sires and dams produce runners who are better on turf or in sprints and so on) and current form (horses in "good form" will consistently run their best race).

Good luck in betting the ponies.

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