Horse racing is similar to sports betting in that it’s more exciting to watch when you have bet on the outcome. Horse race betting is fun, and with our help, might be profitable too!
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Thoroughbred racing, which involves a jockey seated on the back of a thoroughbred horse, is the most popular form of horse racing in the United States. Another form of horse racing is harness racing, in which the jockey rides in a small cart harnessed behind the horse. We’ll just be covering thoroughbred racing, since it’s the most popular version.
Typically, any given racetrack offers a “card” or program of nine races per day. Each race has specific conditions that determine the type of horse allowed to participate. These conditions, for example, could limit participating horses to 2-year-old female horses, known as fillies, that haven’t won more than one race. This means colts, geldings, mares and horses aren’t allowed to race, nor are winners of more than one race; all of those horses are disqualified.
Horses are divided into five categories:
Claiming races make up the majority of races for each day. These races offer the cheapest purses—the prize money given to the owners of winning racers. Because the purses are so small, the best horses rarely make an appearance in claiming races. A claimer is the name used for a horse entered in a claiming race. These horses may be purchased from the owners for a certain price. This set price sets a value ceiling on the horses that can participate to try and keep the race as evenly matched as possible.
To keep things competitive, weight allowances are set for categories of horses. This means a horse that hasn’t won in several races may be allowed to carry less weight in its saddlecloth. Horses carrying a novice jockey carry less weight, as well as fillies racing against colts and geldings. Males can’t be entered in a race specifically for fillies, but fillies can participate in male races. The weight of the jockey helps determine the amount of weight put in the saddlecloth.
A race for horses that have never won a race is called a maiden race. Once a horse wins, it’s no longer eligible for maiden races.
The largest purses are awarded in stakes races, so these races attract the best horses. Entrance and starting fees are also required from the owners for a horse to be entered into a stakes race. Owners keep their best horses strictly for stakes races. The most well-known stakes races are the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. If a horse wins these three races in succession in a single season, the horse is said to have won the Triple Crown—the highest honor possible in the world of horse racing. The last horse to win the Triple Crown was Affirmed in 1978.
There’s also a handicap race, which can attract top field horses. Individual weights for a handicap race are assigned to each participant by the handicapper to equalize the field and keep the races fair. The handicapper decides on the weights in an attempt to achieve a nine-way tie at the end of the race. To accomplish this, the weakest horse carries the least weight and the strongest horse, the most.
The final type of race is an allowance race. This kind of race requires that horses meet set conditions, with the weights for each horse based on the number of races or the amount of money won by that horse. “Non-winners of one” is a common condition, meaning the horses can have run only one race at the most. An unraced horse starts in maiden races, and stays there until it wins. Then it moves on to “non-winners of one,” then “non-winners of two.” Eventually, if the horse proves good enough, it can graduate to handicap and stakes races. If it doesn’t prove exceptional enough for that, it ends up in claiming races.
As soon as you step through the gates at the racetrack, you’ll be descended upon by hawkers trying to sell you the official program, which lists the horses participating in each race for the day. The Daily Racing Form is also available from them. The Daily Racing Form is a newspaper containing valuable information about conditions at local tracks, as well as information about each of the horses. A unique version of the Daily Racing Form is printed for different parts of the country. You’ll want to pick up both if you want to pick a likely winner, or handicap, in the races. They’re worth the expense, so don’t miss them!
As a guide to the day’s races, each racetrack offers its own official program. Each race is listed on a separate page in the program. The program makes betting easier, even if you’re only planning on making bets based on the names of horses or the colors the jockeys are wearing. Without the guide, you’ll have to wait for the announcer to introduce each one, and that only happens 15 minutes before the race starts, known as the post time.
Guides usually list the length of the race in furlongs, which equate to 220 yards. A 1-mile race equals 8 furlongs. They’ll also list the type of the race, for example, a claiming race for 4-year-old horses with a claiming race of $5,000 for the participants with fine print indicating the age and weight restrictions. Older horses are considered stronger, and therefore are usually required to carry more weight. For a 5-year-old horse to race with 4-year-olds, it may have to carry an extra pound of weight in its saddlecloth.
The guide also will list the horses in their post position. Provided there’s no late entry in the race, the number 1 horses will be closest to the rail. The rest of the horses line up in numeric order toward the outside. You’ll use the horse’s program number to make a bet at the track or satellite wagering race book—an establishment that is off-track which allows betting on horse races. Not only does the program list the post position and name of each, but also their vital statistics like gender, color, year of birth, owners, lineage, jockey, trainer, and even the colors worn by the jockey.
Another piece of important information written in the guide is any treatments the horses may be receiving. Some horses rupture blood vessels during strenuous activity, and must be treated with a drug called Lasix. It’s vital to know this information, because a horse first treated with Lasix can show increased speed and endurance. Treatments are illustrated with symbols, which are described at the bottom of the page.
The weight a horse carries during the race will be listed in large, bold letters next to the horse’s name. Any reason for deviations in the weight allowance will be written at the bottom of the page, next to treatment descriptions.
The last bit of information you should definitely notice is the official track handicapper’s calculations for the odds on each horse, known as the morning line. These odds will be written as either a whole number, which you can assume means it’s that number “to 1,” or as a fraction, such as “5/2”, meaning 5 to 2 odds.
The tote board keeps track of the bets made on each horse, and changes the odds accordingly. Handicappers watch the tote board religiously.
The Daily Racing Form will give you the most comprehensive coverage of a horse’s past performance, and even tells you how to read the performance charts. Figuring out how to handicap a race properly is a very in-depth process and takes a lot of research. Many books cover handicapping and thoroughbred races exclusively, so you should find them if you’re truly serious about betting on horse racing, rather than keeping things more casual.
You may want to jump right into betting with analyzing the odds, and that’s just fine! It’s important to keep track of the bets you make, because many people throw away tickets without even realizing they’ve won. Lots of casual bettors don’t even realize the type of bets they’re making.
There are three basic bets you can make, namely that a horse will win, place or show. The following table shows how each bet works in detail. A bet on a horse to win means it must come in first, while to place the horse can come in either first or second place, and to show, it may finish either first, second or third. If you want to cover the most possibilities, bet on a horse to show.
|The Bet||Wins When Horse Comes In||Loses When Horse Comes In|
|Win||1st||2nd or less|
|Place||1st or 2nd||3rd or less|
|Show||1st, 2nd or 3rd||4th or less|
To bet on a horse race at a track, simply walk up to the wagering window and tell the employee there what wager you’d like to place. This requires you to state how much money you’re betting and the type of bet you want on your desired horse, usually by using the horse’s program number. Something along the lines of, “I’d $5 on number 4 to win the fourth race,” will do well. Always check the ticket you receive to make sure it lists your correct bet. You’re stuck with the wrong bet if you don’t notice the error before the race starts. Just as important is keeping your safe, because you’ll need it to collect your winnings. You don’t want to drop your ticket and let someone collect on the bet you made!
The most common minimum bet at a racetrack is $2. Payouts are determined by the odds at the start of the race, because odds change depending on how much money is collectively bet on each horse.
Computers are used to issue bets these days, which allows you to make a bet all the way up to post time for the race. Once the race starts, further bets are immediately locked out. Most casinos offering horse race betting stop taking bets as soon as the first horse enters the gate. Unless there’s a computer malfunction, final odds will be posted immediately after post time. They can’t be shown before the race starts, because bets are still coming and changing the odds.
Posted odds are usually rounded down, and this can offer a pleasant surprise on a winning ticket. Final odds on the tote board may be listed as 2 to 1 when they actually come out to 2.2 to 1 instead. This gives you a little more winnings, and is always paid out correctly for a winning ticket.
You likely to win between $6 and $6.80 on a $2 bet with 2 to 1 odds. An easy way to think of it is that 2 to 1 means 3 for 1 on a payoff; the payoff will give you give two times your original bet, plus return the original bet, or $2 x 2 + $2. Odds of 5/2 would equal a payoff of $7 on a $2 bet. Ticket prices are usually rounded down to the nearest 20 cents, though some tracks round down to the nearest 10, which is an even better deal for you!
Payoffs on place and show tickets are easiest to figure out by looking at the tote board after the race is finished It will look similar to the following table.
Beyond the basic win, place and show bets, there are exotic bets. A bet on the first two horses to win a race is called an exacta or perfecta. An exacta wins if you pick the two horses in their correct finish order. You can bet on more than two horses, though, if you like three or four horses by buying an exacta box ticket. This ticket covers every possible combination for those horses winning.
For example, you like horses 1, 2, and 3. This gives you six ways to win an exacta: 1 wins and 2 or 3 comes second, 2 wins and 1 or 3 comes second, or 3 wins and 1 or 2 comes second. Buying an exacta box ticket on three horses costs the same as six individual tickets, however. There’s no distinct advantage to boxing horses beyond making multiple bets at once. You can box 2 and 4 horses, as well, covering 2 and 12 combinations respectively.
Wheeling your favorite horses with the most likely second-place finishers is another exacta option. This costs the same as individual tickets as well, but you can bet on combination like horses 1 and 2, 1 and 3, or 1 and 4 to win if you’re not sure whether horse 2, 3, or 4 will come in second after horse 1 takes first place. Both box tickets and wheel tickets have the same potential payoffs as individual bets.
A quinella bet allows you to make a wager on two horses to win without specifying their finishing order. Quinella bets go into a separate pool from exacta bets if both are offered by the racetrack.
You may also have the chance to bet on a trifecta. This lets you pick the first three horses to win, and their order, similar to an exacta bet.
A daily-double bet is a bet in which you pick the winners of two consecutive races—usually the first two races of the days. The official program will tell you whether a daily-double bet is offered at the top of the page.
Some racetracks also offer a triple, or a “pick three,” which gives you the opportunity to pick the winners of three consecutive races rather than just two.
Like the daily-double and triple, you may even be able to find a pick-six wager. Pick-sixes let you attempt to pick the winners of six consecutive races, and if no one manages to pick all six winners, the pool is split among the bettors that picked the most winners in the races. Occasionally a portion of the pick-six will be carried over to the next day if nobody picks all six winners.