Betting on Horse Racing For Dummies, 2nd Edition
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People have been betting on horse races since horses have been running. Betting on the outcome of formal horse races can be fun and profitable if you know what you’re doing and can beat the odds.

This handy Cheat Sheet has advice on what to pay attention to and what tools can help you at the track, as well as the mechanics of placing a bet, the types of bets you can place, and your odds of winning.

How to place a wager on a horse race

Betting on horse racing isn’t a complicated procedure. Most often, you place your bet, take your ticket, and tear it up if your bet doesn’t pay off.

However, if you’re lucky — or skilled — you get to take your ticket back to the window and collect your winnings. The following list spells out the betting procedure step by step:

  1. State the name of the racetrack.
  2. State what race number you’re betting.
  3. State the dollar unit of your bet.
  4. State the type of wager.
  5. You can bet on a single horse to win, place, show, or on a combination of horses.
  6. State the number of the horse or horses you’re using.
  7. Check your ticket before you leave the window.

Betting tools you need at the horse races

Along with sunscreen (or an umbrella!), a few items come in handy when you’re at the racetrack betting on horses. You may want binoculars to see your favorite pass the finish line, but the tools in the following list are even more useful when it comes to actually placing your bets:

  • Racetrack program: Like a program at a baseball game, it has information on all the players. In this case, the players are the horses, jockeys, trainers, and owners. The cost is $5.
  • The Daily Racing Form (DRF): The DRF provides the past performances of all the horses running on the day’s program and includes informative horse racing articles and handicapping by the DRF The cost is $10.
  • Public handicapper selections: If your racetrack or OTB (off-track betting) is covered by the local newspaper, they may pay a handicapper to make daily horse selections. The cost is $1.

Odds with $2 minimum payoff for horse racing

You’re betting on horse races and want to know how much your winning bet will give you. To compute your $2 win price, take the odds of your horse and multiply the first number by 2, divide that by the second number, and then add $2 — simple as that! Following, is a list of payoffs at various odds for quick reference:

Odds $2 Payoff Odds $2 Payoff Odds $2 Payoff
1/9 $2.20 8/5 $5.20 7/1 $16.00
1/5 $2.40 9/5 $5.60 8/1 $18.00
2/5 $2.80 2/1 $6.00 9/1 $20.00
1/2 $3.00 5/2 $7.00 10/1 $22.00
3/5 $3.20 3/1 $8.00 11/1 $24.00
4/5 $3.60 7/2 $9.00 12/1 $26.00
1/1 $4.00 4/1 $10.00 13/1 $28.00
6/5 $4.40 9/2 $11.00 14/1 $30.00
7/5 $4.80 5/1 $12.00 15/1 $32.00
3/2 $5.00 6/1 $14.00 16/1 $34.00

How to make a show parlay bet on horse races

Are you planning to go with a group of friends to bet on horses at the racetrack? A group show parlay is a fun way to bet on horse races that gets everyone in your party involved.

It works like this: Have each person ante up $5, and pool the money. Each person in the group picks one race and one horse to bet to show. Place the first bet, and parlay the money on the next race and horse if you win.

Your winnings can add up very quickly. For example, if four people start with $20 and each person wins a $3 show price, you’ll have $101 after only four races!

Helpful facts for betting on horse racing

When you’re at the track betting on horse races, you’re looking to put yourself in the best position for winning, right? Of course you are, and the facts and stats in the following list can help you better your odds:

  • Every racetrack has a television simulcast commentator who handicaps between the races. Listen and see if you can pick up any good tips to bet on.

  • The top ten riders in the jockey standings win about 90 percent of the races run during the meet.

  • Favorite horses win about 33 percent of the time, although at low payoffs.

  • The morning line isn’t who the racetrack oddsmaker likes to win the race. It’s a prediction of how the public will bet the race. A no-brainer method of betting overlays is to play a couple of bucks on horses going off at odds two to three times higher than its morning line.

Types of horse racing wagers (and your chances of winning)

When it comes to betting on horse races, you need to decide what type of bet to place before you even place a bet on a horse. As the bets you can make range from a simple bet on a single horse in one race to choosing the winning horses for six consecutive races, you may need the information in the table below to help you explore your betting options.

Bet Type Your Chances of Winning Explanation and Expectation Suggested Plays (Based upon a $100 Bankroll)
Show Very good Your horse must finish 1st, 2nd, or 3rd; modest payoffs $5 per horse
Place Good Your horse must finish 1st or 2nd; payoffs are better than to
$4 per horse
Win Average Your horse must finish 1st; the payoff is determined by the win odds $3 per horse
Quinella Average Your horses must finish 1st and 2nd in either order; a normal play is to box three horses $2 Quinella box using three horses costs $6
Exacta Hard Your horses must finish 1st and 2nd in exact order; riskier bet that can pay a little or a lot, depending on the horses’ odds $1 Exacta box using three horses costs $6; $1 exacta box keying one horse with three horses costs $6
Trifecta Very hard Your horses must finish 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in exact order; can be expensive to play if you use a lot of horses 50-cent four-horse Trifecta box costs $12
Superfecta Extremely hard Your horses must finish 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th; big payoff possible; available in 10-cent minimums at most racetracks 10-cent five-horse Superfecta box costs $12
Daily Double Hard Your horses must win the two consecutive races; chance for a nice payoff with mid-priced horses $2 Daily Double using two horses in each race costs $8; $2 Daily Double keying one horse to three horses costs $6
Pick-3 Very hard Your horses must win three consecutive races; it’s a
Daily Double plus another race; $1 unit makes it affordable
$1 Pick-3 using two horses in each race costs $8; $1 Pick-3, keying one horse with three horses in two other races costs $9
Pick-4 Extremely hard Your horses must win four consecutive races; chance for a big score for a modest amount 50-cent Pick-4 using two horses in each race costs $8
Pick-5 Extremely hard Your horses must win five consecutive races; chance to bet a little to win a lot 50-cent Pick-5 using two horses in each race costs $16
Pick-6 Thinking man’s lottery Your horses must win six consecutive races; most tracks now offer the bet with a 10-cent minimum 10-cent Pick-6 using two horses in each race costs $6.40

Betting against other bettors

Before the advent of pari-mutuel wagering (pooled betting), horse race betting was done with bookmakers. Bookmakers, also known as bookies, are essentially business people that handle gambling bets — mainly on horse racing and sports.

The law that made sports betting illegal in America — the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) — was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States on May 14, 2018. Today, more than 30 states — and growing — offer legal sports betting as well as legal pari-mutuel horse race betting.

Betting on horse racing in the 1960s was easy because it was just straight wagering — win, place, and show. (Straight wagering refers to a bet on a single horse).

Because this era was long before the computer age, betting on multiple horses or multiple races wasn’t available. Profits to the bookmakers came in the form of a vigorish (also called vig) a charge taken on bets — and the remainder of the money bet was paid out to winning bettors.

When the federal government banned bookmakers, pari-mutuel wagering took its place at the racetracks. When you bet on a horse, and it wins, your profits come from the losing horseplayers who bet on other horses in the same race.

That’s the beauty of pari-mutuel wagering. Horseplayers are betting amongst each other, and if you’re smarter than the people around you, you win their money.

The pari-mutuel system puts a tax on wagering called the takeout, which provides the revenues for the horse racing business to pay its bills. The racetrack has to pay for such expenses as overhead costs, maintaining the racetrack and property, employee wages, and most importantly, purse money (the money owners of the racehorses try to win).

Because horse owners need to win enough money to pay their bills, they want to run at racetracks that offer the best purses. Applying the system of supply and demand to horse racing, the bigger the purses, the better the quality and quantity of horses that run at that track. It’s a spiral that keeps feeding itself.

In addition to the racetracks and horse owners, the government — local, state, and federal — profits from pari-mutuel wagering. Depending on the jurisdiction, the government receives a share of the takeout.

The pari-mutuel wagering system takes care of all parties’ needs.

Comparing pari-mutuel wagering to poker

To best explain pari-mutuel wagering, compare it to the game of poker. In poker, you’re betting against every other player at the card table. The theory is the same in horse racing. You’re betting against all the other horseplayers in the pari-mutuel pool.

When you play poker in Las Vegas or in a card room, the house extracts a rake, a percentage of the ante (the stake each player puts in the pot) for itself.

In horse racing, the equivalent is the takeout. After the percentage is taken out in poker, if you like the cards you hold in your hand, you bet and raise.

Similarly, in horse racing, when you think the race has value, you bet into it. The poker play continues until the player with the best hand wins. The same goes for racing, where if you bet the best horse or horses and they run the best, you win.

The essence of playing poker and betting on horse racing is the same: You bet against all the other players. If you’re smarter than the other players, you make money regardless of how much the house deducts from the antes or how much the racetrack takeout is.

Attracting a new gambling audience

A successful horseplayer must acquire two types of skills to win money: handicapping and betting. If forced to choose between which skill you’d be best off possessing, it’s probably betting.

Lots of handicappers can dissect a horse race with great insight. But they can’t construct wagers that’ll make them money. On the other hand, lots of horseplayers can take good handicapping information from other sources and build wagers that give them a strong chance of winning money.

Pari-mutuel wagering is attracting a new gambling audience because you can win even if you’re a good but not great handicapper. If you know that the key to succeeding in the parimutuel wagering system is to find overlays (meaning horses going off at higher odds than their actual chance of winning), and you know how to wager to make money, you can rely on various sources to find good handicapping information and still win.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Richard Eng, a former researcher/writer for ABC Sports, has been involved in thoroughbred horse racing for more than 20 years. He currently hosts a radio show on horse racing.

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