What Types of Bets are there in Horse Racing?

by JP Sio

What types of bets are there in horse racing?

When you think about the history of sports, consider the small bets humans used to make with each other:  ‘who can swim across the lake first?’...‘which person can run the fastest?’...and ‘who is the strongest?’  These early tests of athleticism then developed into formal sports, with rules, like marathon races, baseball and weightlifting competitions.  Who would've thought that years later there would be arenas filled with people who would be betting ungodly sums of money on the action?

Horse racing was one of these sports that quickly gained in popularity.  It started with small races, but nowadays, there are hundreds of race tracks all over the world.  Indeed, the economic impact (both direct and indirect) of horse racing within the United States is estimated to be north of 120 billion dollars.  And betting plays a significant role.  Every day, there are bettors at race tracks rooting on their horse to finish first.  Not only is horse racing one of the most exciting sports, it can be very lucrative when you approach it the right way.

In this betting guide, we'll examine what horse race betting is all about, how you can start wagering on your favorite horse today, and what bet types are the most lucrative.

What are the most common horse race wagers?

Horse racing is a diverse sport.  There are not just two teams competing against each other to score as much as possible.  No, in most horse races, there are upwards of 12 horses that compete against each other to finish first.  This creates lots of opportunities when we start looking at the bet types.

Straight bets
We start with the easiest bets, the straight bets. These are the most common bets and the easiest wagers when you first start exploring the field of horse betting.  Straight bets can be made on single horses in single races.

Win bet
In any race, there's a winning horse.  With the win bet, all you need to do is pick which horse finishes first, and you have a winning ticket.  Admittedly, there’s often a small chance to choose the right horse, so the payout can be pretty impressive.

Place bet
With the place bet, you take a slightly different approach.  Instead of picking the winning horse, you pick a horse that will end up in either first or second place.  So the exact position does not matter, as long as your horse ends up in either of the top two positions.  The risk is smaller than the win bet; thus, the payout is also less.

Show bet
When you want to reduce your risk further, you can choose the show bet.  Similar to the win and place bets, you pick a horse to finish among the top of the field.  Unlike the other bets, though, with a show wager, your horse can end up in either first, second, or third place.  And if your horse winds up among the top three finishers, your ticket is a winner.

Exotic bets
The straight bets are simple and perfect for novice bettors, who simply visit the race tracks for entertainment.  Now, when you wish to delve into horse betting a little further, it's time to look at the exotic bets.  The exotic wagers are a category of bets which require more than just picking a single horse.  Here, we'll guide you through the exotic wagers, one by one.

The first exotic wager is the exacta bet, and it's a type of wager which necessitates a little more research than a regular win bet.  Unlike the straight bets, with exotic bets, you're picking multiple horses.  Thus, with the exacta bet, you pick two winning horses that will finish in first and second place.  The two horses you select as the top two finishers also must finish in the exact order you chose.  So, only if you select the horse which ends in first place, and the horse that ends in second place, in the correct order, will you have a winning ticket.  The exacta is one of the most popular bets, and professional handicappers especially love this type of bet since the payouts can be very rewarding.

The quinella wager is very much like the exacta wager.  The difference, though, is that with the quinella bet, the exact order of the top-two finishers does not matter.  You still pick the horses that finish in first and second place, but you don't need to pick the correct order.  It's an easier bet than the exacta, and thus produces a smaller payout.

The trifecta is the next level in exotic wagers.  It's a type of bet which requires you to pick three winning horses in the exact order.  And, because of the huge payouts, less experienced bettors are often enticed by this wager.  However, the chances to win are exceptionally small, as you must successfully predict the top three finishers in the precise order.

The superfecta bet is for those who just want to take on massive risk with both hands.  In this type of bet, you only win if you predict the top four finishers in the correct order.  That means you pick the horse in first, second, third, and fourth place.  The chances are remote; thus, the reward is extremely high.

Reducing your risk
Risk is part of what makes gambling fun, but gambling can be a bit more comfortable when you're able to reduce that risk.  With the exotic wagers, there are two ways you can reduce it.  And that’s be setting up a box bet, or a wheel bet.  The most common are the exacta box, trifecta box, exacta wheel, and trifecta wheel.

Let's take an exacta box, for example.  This bet type is ideal if you like two horses, but can’t decide on the exact order of your favored horses. With a regular exacta bet, if you thought the #1 horse would win, and the #2 horse would finish second, your ticket would be:

  • 1 - 2

However, with an exacta box, you take each possible combination with your two favored horses.  That means your betting slip looks like this:

  • 1 - 2
  • 2 - 1

So, either way, you have a winning ticket if your horses come in as the top two.  The other option is to set up a wheel.  For example, when we take a trifecta, you have to pick the three winning horses in the exact order.  But, let's say you think horse #1 will win, followed by horse #2, but you haven't decided on third place.  Then, you can set up a wheel that takes all possible combinations.  Your betting slip (if six horses are in the field) would look like this:

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

This way, you simply have more chances to succeed.  Instead of having just one bet, you now have four straight trifecta bets.  Of course, your initial stake is a little higher, too.

Other types of horse race bets
There are some other types of horse race wagers that we have yet to discuss.  These are among the most difficult to cash.  You could liken them to buying a lottery ticket, and we don’t advise novice gamblers to play them.  Nevertheless, let's dive right in.

Daily Double
Instead of betting on just one single race, with the daily double, you pick the winning horse for two consecutive races.  You can compare it to a parlay bet in regular sports betting.  These two consecutive races could be any throughout the racing day, but it's common to bet on either the first and second race (the early double) or the last two races (the late double).

Pick 3 to Pick 6
If the daily double is not interesting enough for you, you could go for the Pick 3, where you pick the winning horse in three consecutive races.  And if that isn’t enough of a challenge, you could try a Pick 6, where you pick the winning horse in six consecutive races.  (In between those are the Pick 4 and Pick 5.)  There aren’t many horse bettors who have cashed a Pick 6, but that fact has never stopped people from trying.

How to calculate your payout in horse racing

Horse racing is entirely different from any other kind of sport.  Usually, there's a bookmaker who comes up with specific odds, and you, as a bettor, have to select a side at those published odds.  With horse racing, all bettors play against each other.  This system is called pari-mutuel odds.  You probably have seen a horse racing tote board if you have ever been to a race track, or even watched the Kentucky Derby on television.  On the tote board, there are prize pools for various bet types (e.g., the place bet), and each horse is listed alongside an amount of money.  The various prize pools -- for win bets, place bets, show bets, etc. -- are divided among the winning bettors.  Let's take an example to illustrate your possible payout.

We're at the Kentucky Derby with more than 150,000 bettors in attendance.  They're all wagering on the win bet on their favorite horse for the exact bet size of $5.  That brings a total prize pool of $750,000.  At the end of the race, horse number #1 crosses the finish line first, with 2,000 bettors predicting that outcome.  Have a look at the following formula to see how the payout works:

  • 150,000 x $5 = $750,000
  • $750,000 / 2,000 = $375

That means each of the 2,000 winning bettors would collect (roughly) $375 from the prize pool.  The reason we say “roughly” is that the track always takes a cut from a prize pool to cover its costs (and government taxes), so the payout will always be a little less than the true pari-mutuel odds.
Horse racing tips and tricks

For most, gambling is seen as a fun form of entertainment -- a diversion.  But how do you win?  How do you determine the horses to bet on, and the types of wagers to utilize?  Admittedly, that’s the most difficult part.  And, if we knew the exact outcome of each race, it would also take away all the fun.  But there are things that all bettors can do to put the most money in their pocket.  So, we have two tips we want to share to get you started the right way:

Find the right place to place your bets
With horse racing, the approach is a little different than with regular sports betting.  You can visit a race track and start wagering there, or open an account with one of the online bookmakers.  Whatever you do -- make sure you always get the best odds and/or take advantage of the best promotions.  It might be hard at first, but once you compare different sportsbooks here and there, you'll see that some are better than others.  For example, our current #1-rated sportsbook is BetAnySports.  Not only does it offer reduced juice (-105 odds rather than -110 odds) in football and basketball, but it also offers 10% bonus payouts on winnings at major horse tracks, as well as a 9% rebate on losing horse tickets.  And GTBets is another of our highly-rated sportsbooks, and is popular among horse players for its very customer-friendly 15% rebate on monthly losses.

Make intelligent decisions
With sports betting, it’s of utmost importance to make well-thought out decisions.  To that end, we have a couple of rules that you could take as friendly advice:

  • When you're just starting, stay away from exotic wagers and especially the daily double and Pick 3/Pick 6 bets.
  • Don't just bet on a horse because it’s a favorite on the morning line; do your research as well.
  • Is the horse in good form?  Has it raced before at the current track?  How good is its jockey?
  • Are the odds in your favor?  Does it make sense to place a wager in comparison to the risk you're taking?

Finally, the last advice we want to give everyone is to have fun!  Horse racing is an entertaining activity that you should enjoy, even when there's a substantial amount of money on the line!

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

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