Horse Race Betting 101


We all have a basic understanding of horse racing. Whether it's tuning in for the Kentucky Derby, playing Sigma Derby in The D or MGM Grand, or watching that shitty Toby Maguire movie, you at least know how it works. Bet on the horse you think is going to do well in the race. But how do you do that? And what bets are available to you other than "I bet Seabiscuit wins the race in spite of that shitty jockey."

Well I'm here to help. 

In this post, we'll talk about the various betting options available to the bettor and how to go about making those wagers. We will not get into more advanced horse racing topics or terminology in this post. Maybe another time. I'm just going to introduce you to the basics and the bets and then you can develop your own strategies about the bug rider and the horse's blinkers and how alive the feet look in the paddock before post position and blah blah blah. 

Take a look at the adjacent photo. This is what the odds might look like for a particular race. We'll use this as an example throughout this post. Now take off that goofy hat and put your mint julep down. We've got some bets to talk about. 

Horse Race Betting 101

Win, Place, Show

Win, Place and Show bets are known as "Straight Bets" because you're betting on the horse to finish the race in a specific fashion. For a "Win" bet, you will if your horse finishes 1st. For a "Place" bet, you win if your horse finishes 1st or 2nd. For a "Show" bet, you win if your horse finishes 1st, 2nd, or 3rd.


Let's say you want to bet on the horse named "Hansen" in the above table. You'll see he's 10/1 to win the race and you think he'll finish somewhere in the top 3 and you want to cover your bases. Here's how you would approach betting Hansen at the window:

How to Bet

(1) Track: Tell the attendant what track you're betting. E.g., "Churchill Downs."

(2) Race Number: Tell the attendant what the race number is. Let's say it's "Race 5."

(3) Betting Amount: Say how much you want to bet. Generally, minimum for straight bets is $2.00 and is less for some of the exotic bets. For our example, we'll say "$2.00."

(4) Bet Type: Tell the clerk the type of bet you want -- "Win, Place Show" or "Across the Board" (means the same thing). If you want an exotic bet, look at that section to the right for how to bet it.

(5) Horse Number: Say the horse number, not the horse name. "14."

All together now: "Churchill Downs, Race 5, $2 Win Place Show, horse 14."

At this point, the clerk would print you out a ticket. Make sure the ticket says what you are expecting it to say because once you walk away, there's no changing it. 

This ticket would cost you $6.00 in total -- $2 on each bet of win, place and show. All three bets would pay off if Hansen wins the race. If he finishes 2nd, the Place and Show bets would win. If he finishes 3rd, only the Show bet would win.

How Payoffs are Determined

It's important to remember that you are not betting against the house in horse wagering. This is because horse wagering uses a parimutuel system for betting. In French, it translates to "to bet amongst us." The easy explanation is that all bets of the same bet type are pooled together. The money bet in each of the pools (win-place-show) is divided among those with winning bets, after deductions for to the track and taxes. Payoffs for place and show bets are less than win because the money in those pools has to be divided either twice for place (1st and 2nd place horses) or three times for show (1st, 2nd, and 3rd place horses). 

Each day, the odds of each horse to win are set by the track and appear in the track's program. If you're in Vegas, you can usually find programs for all the tracks in the sports book. Once the wagers begin to come in, the odds will change to reflect the money coming in on the different horses. For instance a horse may start the day at 6/1 chance to win, but because the public bet heavy on that horse, it may move down to 4/1 before the race actually starts.

This is why some people are able to make a living at horse wagering. They don't have to beat the house with odds stacked against them. They just need to be consistently smarter than their horse wagering peers. Because when you win, that means someone else has lost.

Now that we have a good grasp on the straight bets, let's get into some of the more exotic wagers available to the horse bettor. See the section to the right.

Some Longshot Bets

The Pick 3 and Pick 4: The Pick 3 bet requires you to pick the winners of 3 consecutive races. Some tracks have a rolling Pick 3, which means the player must pick 3 races in a row and then that continues for the next 3 races. Some tracks have Pick 4 wagers on their betting menu as well. It's the same as the Pick 3, except it requires you to pick the winner of 4 consecutive races.

Pick 6: The Pick 6 is the ultimate prize in horse betting. It requires hitting SIX winners in a row. Sometimes, a winning Pick 6 wager can be a huge payout because there are days when there are no winning tickets, causing the money in the pool to carry over to the next day. Payouts can be huge on this bet -- into the 6 and 7 figures -- which is why they are so popular at the track. 

Betting the Pick 6: When you go to the window, tell the clerk the track and say $1.00 pick 6 instead of the race number. It should go something like: "Santa Anita, $1.00 Pick 6, 1 with 5 with 10, 11 with 4 with 9 with 11." That means for race 1 - you need horse 1 to win, race 2 - horse 5, race 3 - horses 10 or 11, race 4 - 4, race 5 - 9, and race 6 - 11. Note that for Race 3 we picked two winners, which you can do. It just raises your bet size. Make sure it all looks correct before leaving the window. It should also be noted that you can pick multiple horses per race to win, but your wager will increase. Last, some tracks have a minimum bet of $1, but others may be $2.

Daily Double: A bettor will select two horses, one in the first race and one in the second race. To collect, both horses must win. 

Some Additional Tips

(1) Always have your bets and money ready when you get to the window. Write down your wagers on a piece of paper or in the program before you go up to the window. That way you don't have to think. Just have to read it -- "Santa Anita, Race 5, $2, Across the Board, Horse 5."

(2) Know what the bets are called before you get to the window. If you're new to horse betting, write out the bet on paper before you get up there. "Santa Anita, Race 3, $2 Exacta Box, Horses 2, 4, 11"

(3) Always pay attention to the "Minutes to Post" or "MTP" on the screen. This represents the time left before the horses post and the race begins. If you don't intend to bet on the next race and there are less than 2 or 3 MTP, wait to cash your winning ticket. Let those that want to get in on that race use the window.

(4) Have your money ready at the counter.

(5) Enjoy listening to all the crazy people tell you their strategies and their favorite ponies and their favorite jocks and all that good stuff. It's all part of the experience.

Exotic Bets

The following bets are also very popular in horse wagering because they present the opportunity to bet a small amount and turn it into a large amount. I'll go through the most common of exotic bets and how they work:

Exacta: An exacta bet will pay off only if you pick the 1st AND 2nd horses in a race in the EXACT order that they finish. Hence, exacta. Usually the minimum bet is $2.00. How do you bet it? You walk up to the clerk and say the track and race number, then say $2.00 exacta and then the horse numbers. Since the order matters, be sure the ticket reads correctly before leaving.

Exacta Box: This is like an exacta except you play those same two horses from the "exacta" except you bet both orders of them and double your bet. This means that either horse could finish 1st or 2nd so long as both finish 1-2. You can actually bet multiple horses in an exacta box, but just note that the more horses you add to your pool of 1-2 winners, the more combinations it will be and the more expensive your ticket will be. How do you bet it? You walk up to the clerk and say the track and race number, then say $2.00 exacta box and the horse numbers. The order doesn't matter, but make sure the horses are right before leaving. See below picture of an exacta box on 3 horses with a $2.00 bet ("$2 exacta box, horses 2, 4, 11"). 

Note that the ticket below has 3 horses bet, but that doesn't matter. Any combination of those three horses must finish 1-2 for it to be a winning ticket. The third horse doesn't matter. Generally, the minimum bet is $1 for an exacta box, but some tracks still require $2. Based on a $1 exacta box, a 2 horse box is $2, 3 horse box is $6, 4 horse box is $12, 5 horse box is $20 and it goes up from there.

Sidenote: Some people confuse exacta box bets with quinella bets. The quinella bet is one bet that two horses will finish in some combination of first and second. The exacta box is actually two exacta bets, so a $2.00 exacta box with two horses will cost $4.00. Meanwhile, you could bet a $2.00 quinella. This used to matter more when minimum bets were different between the exacta and quinella.

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Trifecta: You will win a trifecta bet if you select the 1st, 2nd, AND 3rd place horses in the correct order of finish. Generally the minimum bet is $1.00. How do you bet? You go to the clerk and say the track and race number, then say $1.00 trifecta and the horse numbers. Since the order matters, be sure the ticket is correct before leaving the window. $1.00 is the minimum bet, but I have heard of $2.00 in some places.

Trifecta Box: Similar to exacta box, this is the same as "trifecta" except you bet (box) all combinations of 1-2-3. Similar to above, to make this bet, you'll need to tell the clerk the track and race number, then say $1.00 trifecta box and the horse numbers. The more horses you add, the more expensive your ticket will be. A 3 horse box is $6 ($1 for each combination: 1-2-3, 1-3-2, 2-1-3, 2-3-1, 3-1-2, 3-2-1), a 4 horse box is $24, a 5 horse box is $60 and you get the idea. Some tracks may allow less than $1.00 minimum bet on a trifecta box, but it varies. See below ticket for an example of a $1.00 trifecta box on horses 3, 4 and 7.


Superfecta: You win a Superfecta bet if you pick the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, AND 4th place horses in correct order of their finish. See above for how you bet and how it works, except substitute in an additional horse that must be in order. 

Superfecta Box: You get it by now. This is a bet of all combinations of 1-2-3-4 in any order. See above for how to bet a superfecta, except sub in an additional horse that must finish in order. Also, many tracks lower the minimum bet for a superfecta due to the number of different wagers that must be made for a superfecta. A $1 superfecta box would be $24 (represented by 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 or 4!). The below is a 5 horse $1 superfecta box (5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 or 5! = 120). Most tracks have a lower minimum bet (some even as low as $0.10) for a superfecta box. For instance, a $0.10 superfecta box of 4 horses would cost $2.40.



Horse Betting 101