Bets on horse racing have a rich tradition in the sports world, so it's important to know about it before wagering, particularly on the biggest events.
There are a myriad of horse bets you'll need to know. If you ever look up at one of the Triple Crown races and are confused by the graphics that flash across the screen once the race is finished, this is the place for you to discover what those numbers mean.
We'll start this horse racing betting primer with the most basic forms of wagers, and then progress into the more complex prop bets that can really win you a ton of money in a hurry.
This is the simplest type of bet on a horse, and it's very straightforward. All you're doing is picking a horse to win. Easy in theory, yet difficult in practice. Casting aside the potential for beginner's luck, betting horses is not for the faint of heart, nor is it a facile proposition.
Horse racing lines will most often be displayed in fractional form, either with a hyphen (e.g. 10-1) or a fraction division symbol (e.g. 5/2). If fractional odds are a foreign concept, please read our tutorial article on how to read the major types of odds. To sum up quickly, all you have to do with fractional odds is divide the second number by the first number plus one to get implied probability that a horse will win.
In the case of a 10-1 horse, the math would go as follows: 1/(10+1) = .1 --> 10% implied probability
For a massive favorite with 3-5 odds like Tiz the Law, if you'd been betting the Kentucky Derby this year, the first number is smaller than the second number. Thus, the formula changes a little bit, as you take the initial dividing of the odds and add one to the answer in the denominator to arrive at the implied chances of winning:
5/3 = 1.66 --> 1.66/(1+1.66) = 62.4% implied probability
If a horse had 1-1 odds, the chances to win would be precisely 50%, per the oddsmakers. In American odds, this would be equivalent to +/-100, or even money. For Tiz the Law to garner such odds in a field of 18, the horse was a serious Triple Crown contender, but those dreams were dashed abruptly when Authentic won by 1 1/4 lengths.
Bettors who took a shot on Authentic at 8-1 odds were rewarded handsomely, as Tiz the Law finished in second. The longer the odds, the higher the profit you stand to gain on a winning bet.
Knowing what to take into account when betting on a prospective winner is more important than anything. At least for the biggest races in the world, this information can be easier to come by if you know where to look. For races at your local track, it's a little more of a shot in the dark when you're betting.
The aim is to ease into the bigger picture of horse bet types, so later on in our "quick tips" section, you'll find the keys to look for in all the horses in a race prior to betting on one of them to claim victory.
We already covered what a winning horse bet looks like, but there are other wagers you can throw down in such races that cover other top horse finishes. First, second and third place in horse racing is known as "Win, Place and Show."
Whether you bet on each of these individually or in combination, sportsbooks will offer you all kinds of blends of wagers, which we'll get into later. But just know this is the main piece of business when the payouts are revealed at the end of a race. It's also a way to distill all the potentially overwhelming elements to bets on horse racing into a much simpler, easily-digestible form.
To go back to our 2020 Kentucky Derby example, since it was this year and is, after all, the most widely anticipated horse race in the world, the top three horses would be Authentic, Tiz the Law and Mr. Big News respectively. Here were the pre-race betting odds for every horse in the field:
One point of clarification for these bet types: the odds will be more in your favor the lower you pick your horse to finish. A Win bet only hits if your horse crosses the finish line first. However, a Place bet is going to earn you a payout whether the horse you chose finishes second or first. Show bets mean your horse can finish anywhere in the top three — or, as it's called, "in the money" — to net you a winning payout.
That mostly does it for the basic, standalone bets on individual horses, but say you're feeling lucky or develop expert knowledge of the horses involved in a particular field. Maybe you're feeling confident you can call this race and predict where multiple horses will finish. This is where the big money can be made if you play your bets right.
Hat tip to Eli Ghen of LEX 18 News for this graphic showing the payouts for the 2020 Kentucky Derby, which will go a long way in helping us decipher the significance of the super-fancy terms that headline this subsection:
To quickly run through the terms, an exacta means a bettor picked Win and Place (first and second) successfully, in order. A trifecta is the successful wagers on three horses to Win, Place and Show in the exact order. This is also referred to as an "across the board" bet. Finally, if someone is really good, lucky or both, they can smash the superfecta: picking the top four finishers, correctly, in exact order.
That table above shows what the winning payouts look like for each of these successive bets save for the superfecta, based on the final odds before the starting gates opened and the race began. First, it's useful to break down the main bet types for context.
Usually, bets for Win, Place or Show have a minimum requirement of $2, so that's what the payouts are based on. If you'd bet $2 on Authentic to win, place in second or third, you'd have won $18.80, $6 or $5 respectively. For Tiz the Law, a wager to finish in second place would've paid $3.40 or $3.20 off a $2 bet to Show. Since Mr. Big News was a 46-1 shot to win, the payout for even a Show bet was high at $16.80.
Now of course, those bets aren't big moneymakers. That's where these combo bets come in. As can be seen in the payout table, picking Authentic and Tiz the Law in the correct order would've netted a $41 payout off a mere $2 exacta wager — or $410 on a $20 bet. Finally, for only a $0.50 trifecta bet, thanks to Mr. Big News' super long odds, you'd have earned $655.90.
The oddsmakers were really on their game for this Kentucky Derby, because despite their far-away starting posts, the two pre-race favorites wound up finishing in the top two. Mr. Big News was a major surprise, but Honor A.P. held his own as the projected No. 3 horse in the field.
Although we've gotten through most of the high-usage bets in horse racing, you'll see other types of bets that are less commonplace, yet still have their merits and appeal.
For instance, let's start with the quinella. Unlike with an exacta, a quinella bet offers some flexibility in that a bettor doesn't have to get the order right, but does have to correctly predict the top two finishers in a horse race. So, if you went down the line in the Kentucky Derby and bet Tiz the Law and Authentic, you may have gotten the order wrong, but you'd win the quinella, since the two horses both finished in first or second in their own right.
As a horse racing bettor, you have the option of "boxing" together all the possible outcomes in these combination bets — otherwise known as a box bet. This requires a higher wager to accomplish, yet it also gives you flexibility and a greater margin for error in winning a bet.
Then there's the matter of choosing multiple race winners in a single day. Even before the Triple Crown races, there are other preliminary events on the schedule that bettors can put some money on. In the case of a Daily Double bet, you'd be wagering on a horse to win in two races that are selected for you. As we saw in the Kentucky Derby payouts, a $1 bet on that day's Daily Double race would've netted a $127 payout.
A Daily Double can be stretched across as many races as a bettor wants. Say it was a prop to pick three race winners. That's what's known as a "Pick 3." Want to try your hand at picking four winners in a day? That's called a "Pick 4." Six winners in as many consecutive races is a "Pick 6" and so on. You can go as high as you want. Just know that these "horizontal bets" are extremely hard to hit the deeper you go. That said, the lucrative potential of correctly guessing the winner in many consecutive races is evident. Just to avoid any potential confusion, vertical bets are wagers that involve the same individual race, which is what we've discussed for the majority of this tutorial anyway.
The final couple bet types to know of the single-race variety are Wheel bets and Key bets, which zero in on one horse. If you wager a full wheel, that means you're picking one horse to finish in a specific place, and then the rest of the field to finish in all the other spots. A partial wheel is betting one horse to finish in a particular spot, but only a select portion of the field to finish in the other specified places.
So, in a trifecta that involves a partial wheel, you could have one horse to win, and four of the other 10 horses in the field to finish in second or third place. This requires wagers on all of those different outcomes in order to reap the benefits, but as long as you hit one of them and the proper horse wins, the investment should be worth it.
Finally, we have the "Key" bet, which is where you pick one horse to definitely win or place in a certain spot. From there, in these "exotic" combination bets, you can create any kind of combination around the key horse in a trifecta, superfecta or any other wager for a single race. The other horses you choose can finish in any order, as long as they're in the places you bet on.
OK, now that all the multitude of bet types for horse races are more or less understood, it's time to dig into what key factors to look for prior to betting, because knowing about all these bets doesn't mean a whole lot unless you know how to act on them. Again, like we mentioned in the introduction, some of this information will be easier to find than other bits. For several good sources to tap right out of the gates, visit Horse Racing Nation, BloodHorse, TVG, and any of the official websites you can find for a given race.
What to look for, though, and what does it all mean? Starting with something that may seem obvious yet needs addressing: ask yourself who is riding the horse you want to wager on. Crunch the numbers with jockeys. particularly in big races, the athletes mounting these incredible horses are going to vary in experience, accolades and riding style.
Also important to monitor is where your horse starts. The post position draw is where race organizers decide where the horses will begin in the starting gates. As a general rule of thumb, the farther outside a horse starts, the less advantageous of a position it is. There's the concern of traffic, too. Horses that are farther from the rail have more track to cover, at least at the start, and that can derail even a prohibitive favorite's hopes if not handled properly. Having a smart jockey who knows how to pace a horse and navigate the early traffic smoothly is all vitally important to determining whether a bet is wise or not.
Revisiting the 2020 Kentucky Derby one last time, Tiz the Law and Authentic were among the three pre-race favorites at Churchill Downs, along with Honor A.P. Those tough post positions weren't enough to stop them from finishing in the top four, but 50-1 long shot Mr. Big News took advantage of starting in the No. 9 post to pull off a surprise finish in the money.
Who trains the horse is also important to monitor, and that goes hand in hand with another crucial element: pedigree. So, firstly, inquire as to whether this trainer has groomed other top race horses before. Check in to see what their horses' records are at this particular race, at this track, or what have you.
If you find an experienced trainer who's produced a number of winning horses, chances are, the horse you want to bet on from that trainer descended from another accomplished horse. The better the bloodlines and pedigree in a horse's family tree, the more secure you can feel about betting on them — even if they're still really early in their careers.
How's this for a combo? Authentic won the 2020 Kentucky Derby with a Hall of Fame trainer in Bob Baffert — who's now had a record-tying six winners at the Run for the Roses — and jockey John Velazquez, who's the all-time leading money winner in his occupation. Oh, and Authentic was sired by Into Mischief, who has consistently ranked among North America's best sires over the past half-decade.
One final pointer: simply look at past race results for the horse or horses you're about to wager on. A big reason why Tiz the Law was so heavily favored at the Kentucky Derby was his six wins in seven career starts coming in, including four consecutive first-place finishes. As for Authentic, he'd lost only once in six prior races, with the lone defeat coming as a runner-up to Honor A.P. at the Santa Anita Derby, which is one of the marquee events prior to every Triple Crown campaign.
How a horse runs on a particular surface or for a specific distance is a smaller but still important detail you can also look for if you're torn or undecided on certain horses. For instance, the Belmont Stakes is the final Triple Crown race, and it's the longest track of them all, so a bigger, more powerful horse with stamina may fare better than a traditionally lighter, faster one.
And that should get you off and running to success when it comes to bets in horse racing. For more of abe's tutorials, visit our "How to Bet" hub, where you can find anything from the very basics to advanced strategies that'll help maximize your upside and potential in sports betting.
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