Betting On Horse Racing: Breaking It Down To Simplest Elements

(Photo by Philip FONG / AFP)

Let’s look at the types of bets that can be made, the mathematical simplicity of the betting odds, what “parimutuel” means and how to properly place wagers at the betting windows.

One-Horse Straight Bets

These are the basic types of straight wagers you can make on a single horse in a race:

  • Win: This is a bet on a single horse you want to cross the finish line before all of the other entrants and one where the horse must finish in 1st place to collect.
  • Place: This type of bet enables the gambler to collect should his or her horse finish in 1st place (win) or 2nd place (place). The payout is less than a win wager (if the horse finishes in 1st or 2nd), but the bettor has the security of knowing there will be a payback should the horse either win or place.
  • Show: This type of bet enables the gambler to collect should his or her horse finish in 1st place (win), 2nd place (place) or 3rd place (show). The payout in this wager is considerably less than a win or place bet.
  • Across the Board: This combination straight bet is really three separate bets on a single horse to win, place and show and costs more because it’s really three different wagers. If your horse wins the race, you get paid on the win, place and show bets; if your horse finishes in 2nd place, you get paid on the place and show bets; and, if your horse finishes in 3rd place, you get paid only on the show bet.
  • Win/Place and Place/Show: These combination straight bets are two separate bets on a single horse to either finish in 1st or 2nd place (win/place) or in 2nd or 3rd place (place/show). In a win/place wager, the bettor gets paid on both the win and place bets if the horse finishes in 1st place but only on the place bet if the horse finishes in 2nd place. In a place/show wager, the bettor gets paid on both the place and show bets if the horse finishes in 2nd place but only on the show bet if the horse finishes in 3rd place.

Multiple Horse Exotic Bets

Exotic wagers allow bettors to bet on multiple horses in a single bet — somewhat similar to a parlay in sports betting — although by boxing three or more selections, a horse racing bettor can actually have a selection on a ticket that doesn’t finish in the money (win-place-show) and still collect on the bet, whereas a parlay in sports wagering requires all legs to be winners (or pushes) to not lose and be able to be cashed.

Bettors can also ”key a horse,” giving them a chance to pick the exact finishing position of one horse (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th) with the bet allowing the other horses picked to finish in any order to provide a winner. Almost all straight and exotic horse racing bets are made the actual day of the race. Here are the basic exotic bet types:

  • Exacta: This bet employs picking the horses the bettor thinks will finish in 1st and 2nd place — in the exact order — to get paid. A bettor can make an “exacta box” bet where the two horses can finish in 1st or 2nd place to get paid, but the cost is twice as much. A $2 exacta bet in the 2018 Belmont Derby (1-6) paid $89 (below) with Justify (No. 1) winning the race (and the Triple Crown) and 24-to-1 Gronkowski (No. 6) finishing in 2nd place.
  • Trifecta: This bet requires picking the horses in the exact 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in order to get paid. Bettors can also make “trifecta box” bets in which the three horses can finish in 1st, 2nd place or 3rd place — in any order — to get paid, but the cost is three times as much as a simple trifecta. A $1 trifecta bet in the 2018 Belmont (1-6-4) paid $229.74 with Justify (No. 1) finishing in 1st place, Gronkowski (No. 6) finishing in 2nd place and Hofburg (No. 4) finishing in 3rd place.
  • Quinella: This bet lets the bettor wager on two horses to finish in 1st place and 2nd place in any order.
  • Superfecta: This very entertaining but hardly hit type of exotic bet requires surgeon-like precision and lots of luck. The bettor picks the horses he or she thinks will finish in 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th place — in the exact order — in order to get paid. A $1 superfecta bet in the 2018 Belmont (1-6-4-8) paid $1,051.50 after Justify (No. 1) finished in 1st place, Gronkowski (No. 6) in 2nd, Hofburg (No. 4) in 3rd and Vino Rosso (No. 8) in 4th. The minimum bet on a superfecta is just 10¢.

Futures Bets

Futures bets are usually employed by the more serious gamblers as well as the casual fan and/or bettor wanting to get down on a favorite horse, usually weeks and even months before the race. One horse racing guru (winning ticket pictured below) bet $500 on Justify very early, on Feb. 17 — the day before Justify’s first race ever — to win the 2018 Kentucky Derby at 300/1 odds. The bettor won a cool $150,000 when the colt prevailed on May 5.

Sportsbooks offshore and in Las Vegas usually only post futures odds for the bigger North American races like the three Triple Crown events — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes — as well as the Breeders’ Cup Classic and other high-profile races with some shops, like Bovada, even posting futures odds for overseas and non-Triple Crown events like the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the Travers Stakes and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

There are also more complex futures wagers pools that allow gamblers to bet on specific combinations of potential contenders for big races. If a gambler bets on a specific horse in a futures bet and that horse does not qualify or enter, or is scratched from or hurt in the race, the wager loses. Futures proposition bets like, “Any Horse Wins Triple Crown in 2019” (Yes +475, No -650, 5Dimes) are also available at some sportsbooks. There’s only one winner (for the most part) in a specific futures market.

The Odds & the Meaning of Parimutuel Betting

The odds in horse racing — as well as in sports betting — aren’t quite as complicated as some people make them out to be. If a theoretical horse would be a huge, almost unbettable favorite and had 1/10 odds, a bettor would have to bet $10 to win just $1. If a horse was at even (1/1) odds (and wins), a $1 bet wins $1, If a horse (or a team) was at 10/1 odds (and wins), the bettor wins $10. In all cases when a bettor wins, he or she also gets his initial wager amount back.

Unlike sports betting and table games such as poker, horse racing employs a parimutuel betting system where all of the money goes into a pool with all bettors basically betting against each other (as opposed to “the house”) with the sportsbook taking (or raking) out a certain percentage of “vigorish” out of that pool. The race favorite wins around 33% of the time in horse racing.

How to Put in Your Bet at the Race Book Betting Window

With several tracks often running at the same time and a much more frenzied pace on the race (horse racing) side of a race and sports book, ticket writers usually expect horse racing bettors to place their wagers in a sequential order, with track name, race number, bet amount, bet type and the horse’s (saddlecloth) number provided in that order.

For example, from the 2018 Belmont Stakes, a bettor wanting to bet $2 on Justify to win the race would have said, “At Belmont Park in Race 13, I’d like to bet $2 to win on the No. 1 horse.” Ticket writers do understand if you are new to horse racing and will usually work through it with you, but to try to learn this part of the culture and remember that slowly putting bets in at a window minutes or even hours before a big race is definitely considered sacrilegious by horse bettors. In short, get there early and ask at the windows when they aren’t congested or between races if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Sportsbooks and horse racing tracks always have daily track sheets and tools such as the Daily Racing Form to help handicappers with odds, horse saddlecloth numbers and post positions, post times, track conditions, information on owners, trainers, jockeys, horse, past races, Beyer Speed Figures and more. Novices can probably get away with using the sheets to make their primarily recreational bets while the serious bettors intent on trying to churn out a profit often buy and read the DRF and other handicapping tools to aid in their approaches at the race track.