How To Bet On Horses

How To Bet On Horses - Horse Race Betting Guide

Horse betting may seem intimidating, with so many types of wagers, but in this piece, we will discuss how to bet on horses, which will give you the confidence to place a horse racing bet online or at your local horse racing track. You can place horse racing bets online at TVG and Derby Jackpot.

Horse Betting Sites

Let's first start with how the wagering system works for horse racing.

The following article is by long-time horseplaying enthusiast Michael Sherman. Michael has been involved with horse racing for over 25 years. You can follow Michael on Twitter @msherman85.

How Horse Racing Odds Are Calculated: The Parimutuel Wagering System

The wagering system for horse racing is unlike most other forms of gambling that many are familiar with. Wagering on horses is done through a parimutuel system which means 'wagering amongst ourselves'. Unlike casinos where the players are wagering against the house and the mathematically built in advantage, wagering on horse racing is done so by essentially betting against everyone else making the same wager in that particular race, on a large scale. The track simply holds all the bets and issues tickets to its participants with their bet. Once the race is run and declared official, the track pays the winners. The track makes money due to the fact that for each bet made, a certain percentage is taken out by the track to cover overhead, expenses and other operating costs.

When we speak of odds in horse racing, we are most definitely referring to WIN odds. WIN odds are determined by the amount of money bet to WIN on a particular horse in a race in relation to the total win pool for that race. For the purposes of this reading, let's say in Race 1 at Saratoga, there are eight horses in the race, and the total amount of money wagered in the WIN POOL is $1,000,000. The track automatically takes 18% out of the win pool, leaving the pool with $820,000 to be distributed amongst the winning tickets.

Hypothetically, see below for the amount wagered on each horse comprising the $1,000,000 WIN POOL.

  • Horse #1 - $270,000
  • Horse #2 - $95,000
  • Horse #3- $73,000
  • Horse #4 - $192,000
  • Horse #5 - $135,000
  • Horse #6 - $68,000
  • Horse #7 - $81,000
  • Horse #8 - $86,000

Winning parimutuels are calculated for a $2 bet, so therefore, for each horse above, if we divide the dollar amount wagered in half, we have the number of parimutuel tickets for each horse.

  • Horse #1 - 135,000
  • Horse #2 - 47,500
  • Horse #3 - 36,500
  • Horse #4 - 96,000
  • Horse #5 - 67,500
  • Horse #6 - 34,000
  • Horse #7 - 40,500
  • Horse #8 - 43,000

To then calculate the WIN ODDS, as they would be displayed at post time for the race:

1 - 820000/135000 = 6.07 ~ approximately $6 for the winning ticket. For a $2 investment and a return of $6, your profit is $4, or 2-1. Let's calculate the rest of the WIN ODDS:

  • Horse #1 - 2/1 (2 to 1)
  • Horse #2 - 7/1
  • Horse #3 - 10/1
  • Horse #4 - 3/1
  • Horse #5 - 5/1
  • Horse #6 - 11/1
  • Horse #7 - 9/1
  • Horse #8 - 8/1

These odds above are approximate odds, calculated by dividing the win pool total after takeout by the number of parimutuels for that particular horse. The number represented would be the payout for a winning mutuel, in the case of the 1 horse, rounding to the nearest penny, the mutuel ticket would pay approximately $6. Subtract the $2 wager and that means that a winning $2 bet on the 1 horse would yield a profit of $4, essentially making the horse 2/1! The horse which has the most money bet on them in the WIN pool is known as the betting favorite.

Below is a real-life example of the prize pool, Final Odds and payout structure:

Horse Betting Prize pool, Final Odds, Payout Structure

So the odds breakdown of this race:

  • Horse #1 - 8/5 (8 to 5)
  • Horse #2 - 6/1 
  • Horse #3 - 5/2
  • Horse #4 - 11/1
  • Horse #5 - 8/1
  • Horse #6 - 3/1

Below you can see that the 1 Horse took $22,207 of the $70,778 WIN bets, therefore the odds are 8/5 for the 1 Horse (if the numbers don't match to the exact dollar, it is because odds are rounded down for simplicity.)

Horse Betting Odds And Payouts

And below is the official results for Race 1. The order of the finish is 2-3-6-1. If you look at your Finals Odds, the 2 Horse was 6 to 1 (the 2 Horse was actually 6.5 to 1, but odds are rounded down.) This means that for every dollar bet, you will win a minimum of $6. For a $2 WIN bet on the 2 Horse in this case, you would win $15. 6.5x2=13, plus your $2 WIN bet.

You can see the additional prices for the other bets in this race down below. These are always expressed in the domination of the minimum amount that can be wagered for the specific bet.

Horse Racing Payouts For Different Bets

What Are Morning Line Odds?

Each track has a handicapper who is responsible for establishing a Morning Line. A Morning Line is the track handicapper's approximation of what they believe the final odds will be at post time. It is their best estimation of how the wagering public will evaluate and bet on the race. The morning line odds are what the betting public would see on racing forms and publications as well as websites.

As post time for a race approaches, the handle in the win pool will begin to grow, and as this occurs, the WIN odds will change. Most websites as well as the tote board at the track will update every 30 or 60 seconds with updated odds. These odds will continue to change as money is wagered in the WIN pool of the race. In most instances, wagering will close on the individual race when the first horse enters the starting gate. Due to a large influx of late money at the track, online, and various simulcast locations, the final odds are usually posted once the race is already run. It is important to note that the final WIN odds will determine the winning payout for that bet, regardless of the WIN odds on the horse when you initially placed your wager.

Types Of Horse Bets

Ah!, now for that part regarding wagering. You have been introduced to the wagering system used in horse racing, parimutuel wagering and how WIN odds are determined, after all the WIN bet is normally the bet with the most handle on a daily basis. Odds are calculated based on the WIN pool and it is usually the initial bet that the newcomer will make. There are a bevy of other wagers with higher returns at the track, and of course, more difficult to win. It is important to remember that for each one of the bets I will explain below, they all individually have their own wagering pools and the payouts are determined in the same way a payout on a WIN bet is determined. However, for some of these wagers, it will NOT be possible to determine the payout on a winning wager. It will indicate in the bet description if this is possible.

What Is A Win Bet

A Win Bet means the horse you choose must finish first in order to win your bet. You will be able to determine your approximate winning payout.

How To Place A Win Bet

The proper way to make this wager is to follow this process at the betting window:

  1. Declare the TRACK
  2. Declare the AMOUNT OF YOUR BET
  3. Declare the WAGER TYPE (in this case a WIN BET)
  4. Declare the PROGRAM NUMBER FOR THE HORSE

For example, 1st Race at Saratoga, $5 WIN on the 1. The odds (WIN ODDS) will be displayed on the tote board or in whatever application or betting platform you are using. If you horse is 4-1 and wins, you will be returned approximately $25, $20 for your winning wager of 4-1 and your initial $5 investment.

The tote display which is based on a $2 wager will be anywhere between $10.00 and $10.80.

What Is A Place Bet?

A Place Bet means a horse must finish 1st or 2nd. For this wager, you will not be able to determine the payout for a winning wager but keep in mind, there will be more winning wagers for this type of bet since the horse you wager on can run 1st or 2nd in order for you to cash your ticket. The WIN ODDS are a good indicator of your payouts for the place bet, however, unless there is some vast discrepancy in the PLACE POOL, your return will generally be less than that of a WIN BET.

What Is A Show Bet?

A Show Bet means a horse must finish 1st, 2nd or 3rd. This is the easiest wager to win at the track, however the payout is the least amongst all wagers. This is due to the fact that there are more winning wagers in the SHOW pool which must be divided amongst those with winning tickets. Again, there are no SHOW odds displayed but the WIN ODDS will usually prove to be a decent indicator of those horses that will have the most money wagered on them to SHOW.

Note: At most tracks and certainly on online wagering platforms, you will be able to look at POOL totals for these types of bets.

Check Out The Best Horse Race Betting Sites!

What Is Exotic Wagering?

Win, place, and show wagering are known as 'straight' wagers, but Exotic wagering involves more than one horse in a given race.

Types Of Exotics

The type of Exotic Bets is as follows:

  • Exacta
  • Trifecta
  • Superfecta
  • Quinella

Now, let's go through each bet type.

What Is An Exacta?

For an Exacta, horses must finish 1st and 2nd in exact order. Once again, all wagers on exactas are placed in an entirely different pool, however, payouts are determined in the same way.

How To Make An Exacta Bet

To make an exacta bet:

  1. Declare the Track
  2. Declare the AMOUNT OF YOUR BET
  3. Declare the WAGER TYPE (EXACTA)
  4. Declare the PROGRAM NUMBERS FOR THE HORSES

For example: Race 1 at Saratoga, $5 Exacta 1-2. In order for this wager to win, The '1' horse must finish 1st and the '2' horse must finish second. The cost of your wager will be $5. Although you will not see 'Odds' for the Exacta and its various combinations, you will be able to view 'Probables' which are available at the track and on wagering platforms such as NYRA Bets. Probables will display in a grid all exacta combinations and, based on the wagering and money in the pools at that point in time, display the amount that the particular exacta combination will return.

What Is A Trifecta?

For a Trifecta, horses must finish 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, in exact order. Theme remains the same, trifecta pool is independent and payouts determined in the same fashion. The bet is declared the same way as the exacta, simply the third horse is added. You will not be able to determine the payout of a winning wager, however, like all other bets, using the WIN ODDS as a barometer is generally a well accepted practice. If you were to bet a trifecta using the three horses that are taking the most money in the WIN POOL, chances are, they are taking the most money in the EXACTA and TRIFECTA pools as well.

What Is A Superfecta?

For a Superfecta, horses must finish 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, in exact order.

What Is Box And Key?

With any of the bets above, horseplayers have the ability to box or key their wagers.

How To Box A Wager

If the horseplayer boxes a wager, they are really just placing multiple wagers without stating them. If the horseplay were to think for example that either the 5 horse or the 6 horse will run 1st and 2nd and wanted to play the exacta both ways (5-6 and 6-5,) instead of placing two separate wagers, the wager can be placed as such: $2 Exacta Box 5-6. This is essentially two bets: A $2 Exacta 5-6 and a $2 Exacta 6-5, making the cost of the wager(s), $4.

You can box a trifecta as well, essentially placing multiple bets through the method of the Trifecta Box. Say you wanted to make a wager for the top three finishers in a race but wanted to cover yourself and have all the combinations possible. If you were to make a bet, $2 Trifecta Box, 4-5-6, you are making six different $2 Trifecta Bets covering all your combinations (456, 465, 546, 564, 645, 654.) The cost of this wager is now $12.

How To Key A Wager

If you were to want to establish a horse in any one particular position, say in an exacta,  trifecta, or superfecta, you can 'key' a horse in that running position. Say for instance, you believe that the 3 horse will finish first, however you feel that several other horses could run second and third, such as the 1,4,7 or 8. You can play a wager as such: $1 Trifecta Key 3/1478. Essentially, you are saying that the 3 horse will win and any combination of the remaining horses can run second and third. You are making the following wagers: Trifecta (314, 317, 318, 341, 347, 348, 371, 374, 378, 381, 384, 387), in total, 12 different trifectas for a total bet of 12 times your wager.

What Is A Quinella?

For a Quinella, horses must finish 1st or 2nd in either order. This is similar to boxing an exacta, however, the QUINELLA bets are placed in an entirely different pool and may be more or less profitable than the exacta in races where QUINELLAS are offered.

What Is Multirace Wagering?

In addition to exotic wagers which can be placed for a singular race in which the result will be determined in that race alone, there are multirace exotic wagers: wagers which run the span of several races.

How To Place A Double Wager

A double wager is when you must select the winning horse in two consecutive races. You may play one or multiple horses in any leg of the double. The cost of your wager will be determined by your wager amount multiplied by the number of combinations you are playing. The combinations you are playing are determined by multiplying the number of horses you have covered in both races of the double.

For example: if you believe that the 5 horse will win Race 1, however, you believe that the 1, 2, or 8 horse will win Race 2, you can play a Double stating the following: $2 Double 5/128. You are essentially playing three doubles: (5-1, 5-2, 5-8) for a total wager of $6.

  • Pick 3: Must select winning horse in 3 consecutive races. Like the double, you may play one or multiple horses in any leg (race).

  • Pick 4: Must select winning horse in 4 consecutive races. At most tracks, there is a $.50 minimum bet. This allows players to spread, or play many horses in one or more races.

  • Pick 5: Must select winning horse in 5 consecutive races. Also, there is a $.50 minimum bet at most tracks. The cost of your $.50 Pick 5 ticket would be the total number of combinations multiplied by $.50.

  • Pick 6: Must select winning horse in 6 consecutive races. For the Pick 6, there is a $2 minimum, making it a little more difficult for the small player to construct a ticket.

  • Grand Slam: You must select a horse to finish “in the money”, meaning 1st, 2nd, or 3rd, in three consecutive races. In the 4th leg, you must select the horse that finishes 1st.

For all the examples of different wagers listed above, remember to check out the wagering menu for the track you are playing. In addition, on the pages where the races past performances are printed, you will see a list of wagers for that race. Not every race may offer every wager.

Why I Love Horse Racing

I can recall a time, standing at a craps table in Atlantic City, in the middle in my roll, everyone at the table making money and I'm the hero. If memory serves me correctly, I'm pretty sure I was happy, had a smile, and felt good. But was it exciting, exhilarating, or heart pounding? The answer in a word is no. A good friend of mine at the table commented to another player that he would rather be at the track, and that was the truth. In front of my at the craps table was probably $500 yet as entertaining as this was, it didn't deliver much in the excitement department, nor did it take any sense, ability, or thought to be rewarded. Matthew was right, I would much rather be at the track.

The most exciting 25 seconds is having your horse in the race at the top of the stretch!. This is my truth. I have a long history and a love-hate relationship with the horse racing industry and the racetrack scene itself. My beginnings at the track take me back to being a kid. My Grandfather and Uncle would go the track every Saturday, religiously. Growing up in Brooklyn, there was always racing year round on the NYRA circuit (Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga). They were always talking horses and reading the Thorograph at that time, the mystique surrounding the horses was building for me. When I really began accompanying them along with my Aunt around the age of seven, my affinity for the track had begun.

Initially the draw for me was spending time with my Aunt, Uncle, and Grandpa. They would all teach me about the game and how to read the program. Their introduction was a good one, not too comprehensive or as developed but this was the early 90s and I was young. I would spend some formidable years learning about horse racing: the industry, the wagering, the pageantry and the sociability. I have always appreciated the sociability aspect of the track. What outsiders view as strictly a gambling activity has never spent an afternoon at the track and certainly never spent a weekend at Saratoga. The track brings people together and that is always a positive. It brought be closer to my family and I recollect fondly upon those days in my childhood. The track is a social place were horseplayers, casual and otherwise are present trying to figure out the most interesting puzzles of them all; picking a winner in a race and turning a profit.

This leads me to the other draw of the sport. With a little knowledge, wherewithal, and preparation, the horseplayer can pick winners at the track, and that is always fun. The horseplayer believes to some degree that the art of handicapping; predicting the outcome of a race, requires some degree of skill. By no means am I discounting luck and chance here, after all these are animals running, but with all the data available regarding horses, past races, trainers, pace projections, and so on, the public still only gets this right about one-third of the time. It is a blend of skill and pure chance that makes horse racing appealing to me. I like to be right, and the track allows me to display my ability to myself as well as reward me for my efforts, hopefully financially.

But figuring out the puzzle, in this case the race, is just part of the fun. Being rewarded for your efforts encompasses another piece of this puzzle. But more importantly, the social aspect makes up the other reason as to why I enjoy the track. Just as I was introduced to this wonderful game, I want others to experience the track as I do. A place that brings people together as a means to escape the everyday and be rewarded for their ideas and convictions. My attempts at introducing others has been met with mixed reception. Some close friends of mine to this day follow the horses more intently than I do while others are just along for the social ride. This makes me happy and for the past 17 years and counting, summer trips to Saratoga have been wonderful memories.

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