What is a Trifecta Bet?

by Big Al Staff

What is a trifecta bet?


Imagine friends surround you, you're talking about plans for the upcoming months, and suddenly a buddy comes up with a fantastic idea:  "Why don't we head over to Churchill Downs to try our luck at the Kentucky Derby?"  You and your friends are passionate about horse racing.  You get together to watch the races from all over the world.  Happy Valley in Hong Kong, the Australian racecourses, and every other track around the world are part of your routine.  But the all-time favorite is the Kentucky Derby.

When you get there, you are astonished by the adrenaline rushing through your veins.  You spy the tote board, and then look over to the jockeys and horses preparing themselves.  You're here for one single reason:  wagering.  You and your friends come up with a strategy and think about the ways you could make the most profit in one day.  You could go rogue and bet outside your chosen strategy, but you could also go the smart route.

In this betting guide, we'll talk about the trifecta bet.  It's an effective way to wager which gives modest bettors an edge at scoring the big bucks with not that much to outlay.  You can imagine a couple of college students who wouldn't have that much to risk, yet are seduced and motivated by the grand prize pools.  It's not weird to see five-figure trifecta pools, and sometimes they can even reach the six-figure number.  We'll share the ins-and-outs to get you started with trifecta betting.  By the way, if you cannot get to your favorite race track, you can always bet the ponies at an offshore race book.  Our current favorite offshore book is BetAnySports, which offers 10% bonus payouts on winnings at major tracks, as well as a 9% rebate on losing tickets (not to mention -105 odds on Football and Basketball games).  Even if you already have a sportsbook, it’s well worth it to sign up with BetAnySports.

Take note that this betting guide refers to horse racing in general.  However, trifecta betting is also possible for greyhound racing and jai alai, as well.

How to start trifecta betting

The trifecta bet is a bit more challenging to understand than the more-straightforward win, place, and show bets.  With the bet becoming more complicated, your risk starts increasing, but your potential profit starts to grow at the same time.  You have a winning ticket when you successfully predict the top three finishers in the exact order.  Meaning, of all the entrants, you have to pick which horse finishes in first place, second place, and third place in the exact order.

The first thing you do when you start fantasizing about your next bet is to look at theracing form.  See which horses are competing along with the jockeys.  To illustrate this, let's pretend we're at Churchill Downs preparing for the Kentucky Derby.  Of course, the number of horses would be larger than six, but to keep this example brief, we'll just work with six. The starting horses are:

  1. Gold Street
  2. Anneau D'Or
  3. Chance It
  4. Enforceable
  5. Gouverneur Morris
  6. Authentic

With each race, you get “morning odds” on each horse provided by the bookmakers.  Your task, as a bettor, is to handicap the race to determine whether the odds are an overlay or an underlay.  Nevertheless, now it's time to start wagering.  You walk up to the counter, and make a trifecta bet.  You pick horses #1, #4, and #6 to be the top three finishers.  The order you choose is Gold Street (1) first, Enforceable (4) second, and Authentic (6) in third.

The race starts, and you're following every move the horses make.  In the end, you only will cash your trifecta bet if the three horses finish in the exact same order as you predicted.  That means Gold Street (1) first, Enforceable (4) second, and Authentic (6) in third.  Any other outcome would mean you have a losing bet.

How to calculate your trifecta payout

The trifecta payoff can get interesting.  To calculate your winnings, you should know how horse racing payouts work in general.  In the NFL, for example, you're betting against the bookmaker, not against all the other players.  You simply get the available odds, and you place your bet.  With horse racing, it's different.  Horse racing works with a pari-mutuel system.  That means that each bet has an individual prize pool.  Each bettor who can claim a winning ticket after the race takes his fair share of the prize pool.

That means it's a bit harder to calculate your potential payout with a trifecta than with, say, a regular moneyline bet in football.  Nevertheless, we can draw a scenario to give you an impression of the trifecta payoff system, and the pari-mutuel system in general.  So, let's pretend we're at the race track and it's time to start wagering:

  • Bettors step up to the window to place their trifecta wagers.  Collectively, 150,000 trifecta tickets are sold, each for exactly $2 per ticket.
  • The betting pool is now worth 150,000 x $2 = $300,000.
  • There are just 100 bettors with a winning ticket as they successfully predicted the correct order of the top three finishers.
  • Each of the 100 winning bettors takes his share of the prize pool:  $300,000 / 100 = $3,000.

This is a perfect scenario:  there's no intermediary in the form of the sportsbook or betting site.  Besides that, few trifecta tickets go for exactly $2.  In reality, ticket sizes vary from the minimum bet of $.50 to thousands of dollars.  Your payout is calculated by your percentage of the prize pool and the number of winners.  Each horse race is different, but each horse race does bring you new opportunities.

Trifecta box betting

As you might notice, trifecta betting is very hard.  You have to pick the exact order of the top three finishers, which is way easier said than done.  There are other ways to reduce your risk and stay away from the actual longshot betting that trifectas could look like.  One of these is the trifecta box bet.  Instead of picking the top three finishers in the right order, you simply pick which horses finish in the top three without regard to the exact order.  To illustrate this, we'll give an example of how a boxed trifecta can look like.  We'll take the same horses of the example above of the Kentucky Derby race.  The ticket for the original trifecta bet looked like this:

  • 1 - 4 - 6

When taking a boxed trifecta, you take away the risk of your number one horse finishing second and then losing your entire bet.  Instead, you bet on all the possible combinations with your top three finishers.  These three are also known as your key horses.  Then, your trifecta box bet looks something like this:

  • 1- 4 - 6
  • 1 - 6 - 4
  • 4 - 1 - 6
  • 4 - 6 - 1
  • 6 - 1 - 4
  • 6 - 4 - 1

As you can see with a boxed trifecta, you are creating a straight trifecta for each possible combination.  The trifecta key consists of horses numbered 1, 4, and 6, but you cover each possible way the horses could finish.  You are taking less risk, but your initial stake also does increase.  Instead of wagering one combination, you would now have to bet six combinations.  The payout would still be more than enough to cover your stake, so this can be a brilliant way to approach trifecta betting.

Trifecta wheel betting

Another way to approach the trifecta bet is to go deeper into handicapping.  One example is to make a wheel bet.  Similar to the trifecta box bet, you pick a key horse to win the race.  Now, you are not sure about the other horses, so you set up a full trifecta wheel.  To illustrate this, we'll use the same example as previously mentioned in this betting guide.  There are six starting horses.  You are confident horse number 1 will win the race, but you're unsure about the other horses.  Now, we simply create each possible outcome with your horse number 1 in first place.  That will look something like this:

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

Suddenly, you're making lots of wagers.  This takes away a lot of risk, but it does highly increase your initial stake.  In the example above, there are 20 separate trifecta wagers within your horse box.  That will cost you a lot, but if you manage to land a winning ticket, you will be virtually guaranteed a profit.

Trifecta part wheel
Another way handicappers efficiently handle their trifecta bet is by not completing their trifecta wheel, but only going for a small part of it.  That means, you don't just look at the winning horses, but you also look at which horses you think won’t finish among the top three.  In the part wheel, you can leave out any combination that involves a horse you believe won’t finish in the money.  In the above example, let's say you don't think horse number 3 will finish as high as third.  Your trifecta ticket will then look like this:

  • 1-2-4 | 1-2-5 | 1-2-6
  • 1-4-2 |1-4-5 | 1-4-6
  • 1-5-2 | 1-5-4 | 1-5-6
  • 1-6-2 | 1-6-4 | 1-6-5

Now you're left with just 12 bets instead of 20.  That takes away a lot of your initial stake, but it does increase your risk.  You never know what might happen on the horse track, so it's on you to decide how much risk you want to take.

What other horse racing bets are there?

Trifectas are a small part of horse racing.  Many other bet types might even suit you better.  We'll go through a shortlist of bets, and you can see for yourself how exotic you want to take things:

  • Win -- You pick the horse which wins the race.
  • Place -- You pick a horse which finishes in either first place or second place.
  • Show -- You pick a horse which finishes in either first place, second place, or third place.
  • Exacta bet -- You pick the two horses that finish in first place and second place in the exact order.
  • Quinella -- You pick the two horses that finish in first and second place without regard to the exact order.  It's similar to the exacta bet, but the order does not matter.
  • Superfecta -- You pick the four horses that finish in first place, second place, third place, and fourth place in the exact order.  The superfecta is the hardest of the single-race wagers.

There are multiple other exotic wagers, the hazardous type of bets.  Do note that we do not advise you to take on more risk than you're able to handle.  Don't risk any money you're not ready to lose, and always do your research before placing any type of bet.  We wish you happy betting, and a long and prosperous career at the track!

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

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