Horse racing is one of the oldest sports known to man. Variations of horse racing date back thousands of years to the Greek Olympics and ancient Rome. The British brought horse racing to America in the 1600s and it exploded in popularity in the late 1800s, becoming a huge spectator sport and gambling attraction in the US. In 1894, the American Jockey Club was formed in New York to oversee and regulate horse racing. In the early 1900s, horse racing was almost eliminated as a wave of anti-gambling government action looked to outlaw betting on horses. The sport was saved (and revolutionized) in 1908 with the introduction of parimutuel betting.
Parimutuel betting is kind of like the juice in sports betting. Once all of the bets have been placed, the track (or house) takes its cut and then divides the remaining pool of money amongst the winners. This is also referred to as "the takeout." It is typically 15% to 25% of the overall pot.
Nowadays, everyone is a horse racing fan three times a year for the Triple Crown races: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.
Before we get into tips for betting horse racing, it's important for bettors to know the different bet types available to them. There are two basics types of bets: straight wagers and exotics.
Straight wagers are the easiest bet types to understand and most popular among casual or recreational bettors. They are either to win, place or show. If you bet "to win" this means the horse must win the race and come in first place. Betting "to place" means the horse has to come in either first or second. Betting "to show" means the horse has to come in either first, second or third place.
Betting to win carries the biggest payouts, with horses anywhere between 3/1, 5/1, 10/1, 15/1 or 20/1. Betting to place carries a smaller payout, followed by betting to show. One tactic that a lot of smart casual bettors target is betting the favorite to show. The minimum bet is typically $2.
Exotic bets or "exotics" are any non-straight wagers that involve multiple horses, not just one horse. They are typically considered sharp bets used by pros and wiseguys who have intimate knowledge and horse racing experience. They can be confusing the novice bettors. Exotics are harder to cash but also carry much bigger payouts.
An exacta bet means you must pick the first two winners in exact order. For instance, if you have the "3 and 5 in an exacta" that means the 3 horse needs to come in first and the 5 horse needs to come in second, in that exact order. The quinella means you pick two horses and they need to come in either first or second, in either order. The trifecta means you have pick the horses that come in 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the exact correct order. The superfecta means you have to correctly pick which horses come in 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th. The Daily Double is picking the winner of two consecutive races. The Pick 6 is winning six straight races. The further down the river you go, the bigger the payouts.
Once you grasp the different bet type options, it's time to do your research and pick which horse (or horses) you want to bet on. If you're heading to the track and betting in person, the most important thing you need to do first is buy the Daily Racing Form or program, also known as simply "the book." This is your bible for the day and typically costs $5 or $10. It shows you every single race of the day, along with every single horse, all of their background information, past performances (known as PPs), their jockey, trainer, owner, bloodlines and more. This is the book you will use to study the horses. It's like a betting sheet in Vegas, but with much more information. You will carry this around all day and make notes in the margins.
When deciding which horse to bet on, here are a few things to consider. First off, past performance. You want a horse with a good won-loss recored that has performed well recently and posted a lot of top 5 finishes. Check the Beyer Speed Figure next to each horse, which is a 3-digit number that rates how fast they run. Next you want to study the jockey records. Look for jockeys with impressive winning records, especially if they've won across multiple different horses. That's the mark of a consistent winning jockey. Also focus on the lineage of the horse. If their mother or father was a successful race horse that's a good sign that the rich bloodlines will translate into their offspring. Another cherry on top is a successful trainer and owner. If they have a good track record of churning out winning horses, that's a good sign.
Also check to see if the horse has performed at that particular track in the past and done well. That's always a good sign. Be sure to take weather into account as well, along with the track conditions. Some horses perform better on turf or firm grass compared to dirt or mud.
Another tip is to use the "eye test" right before the race when the horses and paraded out in from of everyone around the "paddock." Check their demeanors. You want a horse that is alert and peppy but calm. If a horse is going crazy and wasting their energy that's a bad sign. So are sweat spots around the kidneys, which means they are nervous and overheating.
The morning line is considered the opening odds. It is determined by the oddsmakers at the track based heavily on workouts. Check to see how the line has moved from the morning line to the current line, which will be posted at the track monitors and digital scoreboards. It will also show you "MTP" next to each race, which means "minutes to post." That tells you how much time you have left to put your bet in.
When you're ready to place a bet you have three options: bet in person at the ticket window, bet at the kiosk and bet online using your mobile app. If you're new to betting, the window might be your best bet. Horse racing can be confusing. The ticket writers are friendly and helpful and you want to make sure you get it right. The kiosk can be confusing and also the lines can be long as newbies can take forever submitting their bets.
Once you're up, have your cash in hand and then tell the cashier the race number, amount of your bet, type of bet and the horse's race number. For example, if you want to bet $10 on horse number four to win the race seven, you would say "race seven, $10 to win on $4." They will hand you your bet slip, or ticket. Hang onto it. If you win you return it later to get your payout. If you win, make sure to tip the cashier.
Just like in sports betting, no one becomes a horse racing expert overnight. The key is immersing yourself in the sport, learning as much as you can and leaning on experts who have experience betting. A great idea is to search out the old, wise gentlemen who hangs around the track. Pick his brain. Buy him a drink or a hot dog. You'll be amazed how willing the wiseguys will be to teach you the ropes.
Take it from me: Every summer I spend a day at Saratoga in New York with my friends. We "bet on the ponies" and always have a blast. I highly recommend it. Spending the day in the sun with some good friends or family, having a few drinks and betting on the horses is a fantastic experience. It's even better once you get the hang of it and win a few bets.