Placing a Straight Bet on a Horse Race

Straight bets are the simplest kinds of lets you can place, if you're betting on a horse race. A straight bet means that you're betting on a single horse to do one good thing for you. (For those wanting bigger payoffs, try the family of bets called exotic wagers. Exotic wagers link up multiple horses in a vertical fashion or multiple races and horses in a horizontal manner.)

Straight bets: Win, place, and show

A straight bet refers to three types of wagering: win, place, and show. What do these terms mean? Glad you asked.

  • A win bet means you bet on a horse to win. (Duh.)
    One advantage to win betting is that you can see the win odds (the value to win) on your horse just by looking at a television screen or the tote board, which is the information board located on the infield of the track. For example, if the win odds on the number three horse are 5/2, you know he'll pay out between $7 and $7.80 for every $2 wagered. If you multiply 5/2 win odds by $2 and add your $2 back, you get $7. It can't pay more than $7.80, because if the horse paid $8.00, the win odds would be 3/1. A few racetracks post the probable payoffs in the place and show pools.
  • A place bet means you bet on a horse to come in either first or second place.
  • A show bet means you bet on a horse to finish first, second, or third (commonly referred to as finishing in the money).

Place and show pool payoffs for straight bets

Place and show pools aren't that much different to figure than the win pool. A pool is the total amount wagered on a bet, and a payoff is the price returned to the winning bettor. The winning payoffs are smaller in the place pool because the top two finishers share the money, and even smaller in the show pool because the top three finishers share it.

The equation for place and show pools is simple but takes some getting used to. You can do the math quickly in your head or jot it down on some scrap paper. Just remember, these figures are estimates. Unlike the win pool, the place and show pools are shared among the top two or three finishers. Here's the equation for figuring an estimated place payoff:

1. Start with the total amount bet to place and subtract 15 percent for the takeout (the percentage withheld from the betting pool by the host track).

2. From that total, subtract the place money wagered on your horse and the highest amount of place money bet on another horse to get the profit from the place pool.

3. Split the profit amount between the two place horses.

4. Divide that amount by the number of $2 place bets on your horse.

5. Add $2, and you get your estimate place price.

The estimate show payoffs are done the same way as the place payoffs. In step 2, subtract the show money wagered on your horse and the two highest amounts of show money bet on other horses. In step 3, divide the profits by three — not two — horses.

What you do with these estimates is make comparisons back to the win payoff. For example, a big favorite may pay $3.60 to win and $3.20 to place. Although it's not advisable to bet lots of money on short-priced horses, if you did wager on this animal, do so with a place bet. If the horse loses the race, you'll collect a slightly smaller payoff if the horse finishes second.

Also, at times, the estimated show payoff will be the same or larger than the place payoff. In that case, why not bet to show and take advantage of an aberration in the betting pools?

These are two ways to bet that are considered safer plays, but you need to do the math yourself if the track doesn't post probable payoffs for the place and show pools.

Dead heats and other complications that affect straight bets

Certain things can happen within a race — good or bad — that alter the final outcome or the payoff you receive. For example, once in a while, horses get disqualified (moved down in the final order of finish) for interfering with another horse or two. The stewards (three judges appointed to officiate the races) decide which horse or horses were bothered and place the offending horse behind them. If this situation occurs, it can change your win, place, and show bet payoffs, or make them losing tickets altogether.

Sometimes the scenario works in your favor. If your horse is the benefactor of a steward's disqualification, moving up in position can improve your straight bets from losers into winners.

Don't discard your mutuel tickets until you're absolutely certain you lost the bet. Many scenarios can occur after a race is run and before it's made official that can change the outcome. For example, a horse can be declared a non-starter, meaning if you bet that horse you're entitled to a refund. A refund means getting the amount of your bet back.

Another situation that can occur is a dead heat, where two or more horses literally tie for a finishing position. Table 1 illustrates a payout schedule for a dead heat for win.

Table 1: Payout Schedule for a Dead Heat for Win

Scenario

$2 Win

$2 Place

$2 Show

Dead heat for win

Collect

Collect

Collect

Dead heat for win

Collect

Collect

Collect

Third place finisher

Lose

Lose

Collect

Although a dead heat lowers the payoff you would've received if your horse had won first place, a common saying at the racetrack is that "half a loaf is better than none." Wouldn't you rather win a smaller payoff than throw away a losing ticket?

Styles of wagering straight bets

Most professional handicapping books advise their readers to bet on a horse to win only and to pass on place and show wagering. The reasoning is if you're a good handicapper and can pick a lot of winners, the extra money you bet to win on a horse earns enough profit to compensate for all the lost place and show wagers that you would've cashed.

Although statistical studies bear this strategy out to be true, beginning horseplayers should bet to place and show.

Newcomers and casual fans most likely play with a modest bankroll. So although studies show that in the long run, win betting is the way to go, newcomers need to experience the enjoyment of cashing tickets and sustaining the bankroll

Different styles of straight betting, such as across the board, parlays, and group parlays, are excellent for newcomers to try. They promote interaction among your group or peers, add to your fun and enjoyment, and hopefully make you some money.

Across the board

A fairly safe way of wagering is to bet a horse across the board, meaning you bet an equal amount to win, place, and show. A typical across the board bet costs $6, because it's three different bets: $2 to win, $2 to place, and $2 to show. If your horse wins, you collect all three wagers. The worst case scenario? Your horse ends up in fourth place or worse, called an out of the money finish, and all three bets lose.

In an across the board bet, the board refers to the infield tote board. After the race, look at the tote board and you see the order of finish and the number of your horse followed by the win, place, and show prices going across. That price, my friend, is how much you collect for a $2 payoff. Table 2 shows you how an across the board wager works.

Table 2: Cashing an Across the Board Straight Bet

Result

$2 Win

$2 Place

$2 Show

Your horse wins.

Collect

Collect

Collect

Your horse places.

Lose

Collect

Collect

Your horse shows.

Lose

Lose

Collect

Your horse finishes out of the money.

Lose

Lose

Lose

You come across just as many different betting philosophies as you do horseplayers. But one constant is that without a healthy bankroll, you're not going to bet on much of anything. You could categorize betting across the board as bankroll building in the sense that unless the horse is a huge long shot, you're not going for a big score. You're trying to win money and grow your bankroll.

For example, if you like a horse that's a juicy 10/1 long shot, you want to maximize your profit. You want your horse to win, of course. But if he runs well and finishes second, which happens a lot in this game, at least you catch decent place and show prices.

Place and show payouts are affected by the odds of the winning horse, which is something you can't control. Your horse shares the place and show pools with the winner, so you're better off if the winner is another long shot and not the favorite. At some point, you'll develop skills as a horseplayer and handicapper and will be able to use exotic wagers effectively. But for right now, betting across the board is a lot less stressful. After all, horse racing is supposed to be fun!

Parlays

In horse race wagering, if you take your winnings from one horse and bet it all on a second horse, you are parlay betting. Continue this process through two, three, or more races, and the payoff grows to be very large.

Parlay betting is legal and quite common in Las Vegas because it's considered a "house" or "book" bet, meaning that your parlay bet goes up against the house (the casino) and not into the parimutuel wagering pool. You find a parlay computer card to fill out in most race books. It saves time and guarantees accuracy, because you're the one filling out the numbers. The mutuel clerk (short for parimutuel clerk) just inserts the card into the totalisator machine, and out comes your ticket.

Many racetracks can't offer parlay wagering — not because it's illegal, but because they don't have the software in their totalizator system.

You can do parlay wagering by yourself. Just keep rolling the profits over onto the next horse, which in horse racing is called let it ride. Parlaying is a good way of compounding your money when you like a few horses during the day and have a limited bankroll to bet with.

Statistically speaking, the parlay pays less than nearly all multiple race wagers. Now why's that? The answer is simple. In a parlay, the takeout for a straight bet is deducted on every race. So, in banking terms, you lose some of the power of compound interest. In multiple race wagers, the takeout is deducted only once at the time you place the bet, which in the long run is a huge advantage for the horseplayer.

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