How to Bet on Horses

by JP Sio

Bettors these days might not be able to imagine that casinos, lotteries, and regular sports betting was illegal back in the day.  There were no bookmakers to collect your moneyline bets, your point spread bets, or take your money at a poker game.  There was nothing of all that.  The only legal form of betting was horse betting.  The race tracks were the place where the magic happened -- where the professional bettors separated themselves from the amateurs.

Horse racing, itself, is one of the oldest sports in the world.  Back in ancient times, the Romans and the Greeks had their fair share of horse racing when they were not too occupied with the gladiator fights.  When we leap forward to the 1600s, horse betting had arrived.  Under the reign of King James I, gamblers in the United Kingdom could begin wagering on the final placement of their favorite horse.  Today, horse betting is widespread across the planet.  And there are tons of different types of horse racing bets that go a lot further than just predicting which horse wins.

In this betting guide, we'll take you through the ins-and-outs of horse racing.  We'll teach you all about the different types of bets you can place on a horse race, the way you can calculate your earnings, and some practical tips that will start you off the right way!  Also, if you’re in need of a place to wager, then consider BetAnySports, which is our top-rated race book.  BetAnySports offers 10% bonus payouts on winnings at major tracks, as well as a 9% rebate on losing tickets (not to mention reduced juice (-105 odds) on football and basketball games), so join today.

What are the most common bet types in horse betting?

Whereas the first horse races had few bet types for bettors, nowadays there's a massive variety in wagers you can place.  You can take as much risk as you like, wagering on a single horse to finish in the top-three or betting on multiple horses in consecutive races.  We should make the distinction between straight wagers and exotic wagers.  With a straight wager, you only bet on one single horse in a single race; with exotic wagers, you can bet on multiple horses (whether in single or multiple races).

Straight wagers
The straight bets are the most common, as they are the easiest to digest.  These bets are perfect for beginners in the horse betting industry, or people who simply wish to try their luck at the horse tracks for entertainment purposes.

The simplest (and first) bet type of them all - the win bet.  You have a winning ticket if you manage to predict which horse finishes in first place.  Usually, the payout for a win bet can be pretty impressive since the chance of picking the winning horse can be relatively small.

The place bet is a little different, but quite similar to the win bet.  You pick a horse that will end up in either first place or second place.  So, it does not matter at which exact position the horse finishes, so long as it's in the top two.  It's less risky than the win bet, but your payout is less as well.

The least risky straight wager you can place is the show bet.  You're betting that your horse will finish in first place, second place, or third place.  The show payout is substantially lower than either a win or place bet since your risk is accordingly much less.

Across the board
The win, place, and show bets are the only straight wagers.  If you don't feel like choosing among the three, you could go for an across the board bet.  This means you are wagering on your horse to win, place, and show.  If your horse manages to win the entire race, you have three winnings bets.  But if your horse comes in third place, you only have one winning bet with a smaller payout.  This type of bet is not very popular since it's harder to realize a profit with this bet type.

A variation on this bet is leaving out either the win bet or the show bet. That leaves you with two bets instead of three and thus increases your chance to walk away with profits after taking away your initial stake.

Exotic Wagers
When you feel like spicing things up, it's time to look at the exotic bets.  These are the bets you place on multiple horses in a single bet, or multiple horses in consecutive races.  These are bet types that are not meant for novice bettors since they can get complicated (and expensive), depending on the structure.  They require actual skill in handicapping horses -- much more than straight wagers.  However, if you are comfortable with exotic bets, you could realize substantial profits.

With the exacta bet, you're not just picking one horse to finish at the top; you're betting on two horses.  You have a winning ticket if you successfully predict the horses that come in first place and second place.  Also, it's required here that you predict the correct order of both finishers.  The exacta bet is popular among horse racing handicappers since the payout can be very lucrative.

As a variation on the exacta bet, with the quinella wager, you're betting on two horses to finish in first and second position, in any order. So, while the exacta bet requires you to predict the top two finishers in the exact order, the quinella bet allows any order.  Understandably, the payout for a quinella is lower than an exacta.

When we take it up a notch, we come to the trifecta bet.  You pick three horses that will finish in the top three positions, in the exact order.  That means you only win if you manage to successfully predict which horse ends in first place, which one in second place, and which in third place.  It's a difficult bet and requires some serious handicapping skills, but the large payouts often seduce gamblers.

The hardest exotic bet you can place is the superfecta.  It's one of those bets a gambler makes who is either really confident or has no confidence at all.  Because it’s a bet where people often simply try their luck, the minimum bet usually is very low.  With a superfecta, you're betting on the top four finishers.  That means you only win if you successfully predict the horses that finish in first, second, third, and fourth place in the exact order.

Other bet types in horse racing
As you can see, the straight wagers and exotic wagers offer a great variety of bets.  Usually, these are enough for most bettors.  But for some, there's never enough.  Please note that we do not recommend these types of exotic wagers since the risk is incredibly high.  Of course, your payout can be enormous since the chance of success is minimal.

Daily double
With a daily double, you predict the winning horse of two consecutive races.  Usually, the two consecutive races are either the first two races of the day or the last two races -- early double and late double.  And if you hit the two back-to-back races, you’re in for a nice payout.

Pick 3 / Pick 6
Those who really want to take a long shot can always take things to the extreme.  With a pick 3, you choose the winning horse in three consecutive races; with a pick 4, in four consecutive races, and so on.  The payout is often extraordinary, but history instructs that there are very few bettors who can be successful at these high-risk bets.

How to calculate your payout in horse racing

Let's talk about money.  In regular sports betting, there's a system where the bookmaker comes up with certain odds for each game.  With horse racing, there's a different system:  the pari-mutuel system.  Instead of betting against the house, bettors are betting against each other.  The house handles all the bets and collects them in prize pools.  Each race has its prize pools for the available bets.  There can be a win prize pool, a quinella prize pool, and an exacta prize pool.  After the race finishes, all the winning bettors share what's left of the prize pool.  A short example to illustrate:

Let's say we're at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby.  A total of 100,000 bettors place a $2 wager on one of the 18 horses in the field to win (for $200,000 in the win prize pool).  Of those 100,000 wagers, 1,000 tickets were on the #4 horse for exactly $2, the minimum bet. Horse #4 crosses the finish line first such that 1,000 bettors end up with a winning ticket.  That would create the following formula:

  • 100,000 x $2 = $200,000
  • $200,000 / 1,000 = $200

Horse number #4 was a longshot in the race.  Each bettor who picked #4 can collect $200 from the prize pool.  Now, bear in mind that the track always takes a portion of the prize pool to cover operational costs and government taxes so that the actual reward will be a little lower than $200.  However, this is the way pari-mutuel odds work.

How to win at horse racing

You might be thinking:  "Sure, thanks for sharing all this information about these types of horse racing bets, but how do I win?"  Let's remove any illusions straightaway -- there's not one single method.  It takes years of practice and research before you might develop your own winning strategy.  Nevertheless, we can give you some tips to get you started the right way.

Reduce your risks
When you're gambling, it's inevitable that you will take a risk.  Part of the fun of wagering is risking your stake.  But, if you want to create a sustainable strategy, it's good to also have a plan.  With horse racing, two of the most effective ways to hedge your bet is by creating a box bet or a wheel bet.  To take an exacta box as an example, if you believe horse #4 will win, and #5 will come in second, then your exacta ticket looks like this:

  • 4 - 5

With an exacta box, you win with either of the two possible combinations of your two key horses, so your ticket will look like this:

  • 4 - 5
  • 5 - 4

Either way, you end up with a winning ticket.  It's very similar to a quinella wager.  The other possibility is setting up a so-called wheel.  When we take the same example as above, where we strongly believe horse #4 will be the winning horse, we can set up our wheel. We now consider each possible combination to cover the exacta. Your ticket looks like this:

  • 4 - 1
  • 4 - 2
  • 4 - 3
  • 4 - 5
  • 4 - 6

As you can see, you're now placing five straight wagers. Your chance of success increases, but so does your initial stake.

Act rationally
We can't stress enough the importance of using staying in control.  Don't let emotions get the better of you.  When you're at the race track, adrenaline and excitement overtake rational thought.  But make sure you always stick to your plan.  That means doing proper research and managing your bankroll.  Never bet more than you're comfortable losing.  When it comes to research, use the following checklist when analyzing a horse:

  • How were its past performances on this type of surface?
  • What is the class level of the horse, and those of the competitors?
  • What is the past performance of the jockey on top of the horse?
  • What do the odds tell you?
  • What are the official ratings of your horse?
  • Have a look at the horse in the paddock -- does its form in real life correspond with the statistics?

There's a ton more to look at, but this is a good start!

Pick the right place to bet
There are hundreds of racecourses throughout the world.  In the United States alone, there are over 100 tracks that host either thoroughbred or harness racing.  We know that it's impossible to visit all these places yourself.  But the beauty of the modern age is that we can wager at online sportsbooks on horse races in Hong Kong, Australia, and all across the United States.  When choosing a sportsbook, don’t necessarily join the first one you encounter.  There's enough to choose from, so make sure they offer you a proper reward for your business!  A great choice is BetAnySports -- our #1-rated sportsbook -- which offers 10% bonus payouts on winnings at major tracks, as well as a 9% rebate on losing tickets.  And MyBookie and GTBets aren’t far behind.  MyBookie offers an 8% rebate on losing horse race tickets, while GTBets’ racebook goes even further, with a very customer-friendly 15% rebate on monthly losses.

That's all there is to know about the basics of horse betting.  When you follow this betting guide, you'll be able to start placing your first bets on any type of horse race.  Have fun out there, and especially enjoy cashing in these exotic wagers!

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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