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Playing the Horses For Fun and (Hopefully) Profit

Updated on May 3, 2012
Horse racing at Delmar Racecourse. (Photo by Jon Sullivan)
Horse racing at Delmar Racecourse. (Photo by Jon Sullivan) | Source

Have you ever visited a horse racetrack? To many people, there is no better place to spend a sunny summer afternoon or a warm summer night than at the track watching the horses. And horse racing is one of very few forms of entertainment where you can actually return home with more money than you left with! Sometimes it takes a little luck, but there is some skill involved, too. In this hub I am going to give you the basics of horse racing: the types of racing, how betting works, and the basics of betting.

Winner's Circle photo of my horse Abundason.
Winner's Circle photo of my horse Abundason.

Types of Horse Racing

In the United States there are three main types of horse racing. In order of popularity they are: 1) thoroughbred racing, which is pretty much nationwide, 2) harness racing, which is mainly found in the northeast, the upper midwest, and Canada, and 3) quarter horse racing, which is mostly found in the southwest and on the west coast.

Thoroughbred racing involves races that are contested at varying distances, usually from 1/2 a mile up to a mile and a quarter and occasionally longer. To compete in these races a horse must be a registered member of the thoroughbred breed. Thoroughbreds race at a full gallop, usually over a flat track, which is why you may hear this form of racing referred to as "flat racing." Thoroughbreds also sometimes race in steeplechase races, which requires the horses to jump over obstacles on the track.

Harness racing involves horses from the standardbred breed. These races are almost always contested at a one mile distance, although occasionally longer or shorter races may be held. In a harness race, horses are required to remain in a particular gait; either a pace or a trot. A pace is a gait where the horse's legs on one side of the body move forward and back together. A trot is a gait where the legs that are diagonally opposite from each other move together. If a horse breaks out of its gait and begins to lope or gallop, the driver (in harness racing they are called drivers rather than jockeys) is required to lose ground with the horse, and steer it out of the way of other horses if possible. A horse can break stride and resume racing if it gets back onto the proper gait, so long as it loses ground while off stride.

Quarter horse racing is for quarter horses. It has been described as "drag racing for horses." Quarter horses race short distances (typically from 220 to 1000 yards) usually without going around turns. With the exception of some of the longer distance races quarter horses are raced full out for the entire distance of the race.

The Program

One of the keys to being successful at the racetrack is being able to read the past performances program. I am not going to go into depth about the program in this hub. Just suffice it to say that there is a wealth of information in the program, and some of it is not really necessary to pick the races. The main things you will need from the program in addition to the horses' names and numbers are the split times from the past races, where each horse was in relation to the other horses at those splits, the calibre of the competition from previous races, the calibre of competition of today's race (this alone could be an entire hub), and for thoroughbred and quarter horse races (and occasionally for harness races) the distances of past races and today's race. Most programs have a page near the front that explains how to read the past performance lines.

Types of Bets

I have long maintained that horse racing is practically the only gambling activity that gives the bettor an even break. Why is that? Because unlike casino games there is no built in "house advantage" in playing the races. Horse racing uses what is called pari-mutuel wagering. Pari-mutuel comes from a French term which means "among ourselves." At a race track the odds change based on how much money is bet on each horse in a given pool, and after the race is over money is paid out to the winners by evenly dividing the total money in the pool by the number of winning tickets.

Of course the racetrack has to make money in order to stay open! Unlike a casino, however, racetracks don't make their money because the players compete against the house. Instead, they make it through two things called take out and breakage.

Take out works like this: For every bet that is made, the track is allowed by law to take a certain percentage of the money. That money is taken out of the pool before winning bets are paid. Take out, or "take" will usually vary by pool, with the basic win, place, and show bets having lower take outs, and the "exotic" bets like exactas and trifectas having higher takeouts.

Breakage is even simpler than take out. If you have paid any attention at all to payouts at a racetrack you may have wondered why they always come out to an even dime. (There are exceptions to this, but those aren't important here.) The reason is breakage. Tracks are allowed to round all payouts down to the lower 10¢, and the track keeps the extra. So if after take out a winning bet comes out to, say $5.16, the payout will be $5.10, with the track keeping the extra 6¢. Doesn't sound like much, but you can see how it can add up if there are a lot of winning tickets!

There are any number of types of bets, and it seems that almost every day another track comes up with another way to wager. The basic bets are called win, place, and show, and you find those at every track and in every race. There are other types of bets that are often referred to as "exotic" wagers that are not universal. I am only listing the most popular types of exotic wagers below.

Win means you are picking the horse you think will win the race. This bet only pays you if your horse wins.

Place means you are picking a horse that you think will either win or finish second in the race. This bet pays if your horse finishes first or second.

Show is a bet that your horse will finish first, second, or third in the race, and you get paid if your horse finishes third or better.

So you might say "well, I should always bet show then, because I have a better chance of winning." That is true, but you will also receive less money, as place and show bets typically, but not always, pay less than win bets. The reason for that is simple. The win pool is divided among everyone who holds a win ticket on the horse that won the race. But the place pool is divided among everyone who holds a place ticket on the winner, AND a place ticket on the second place finisher. The show pool is divided even further, among everyone who holds a show ticket on any of the top three finishers. Another way to look at it is the win pool is split only one way, but the place pool is split two ways, and the show pool is split three ways.

In addition to those three basic bets, there are a variety of so called "exotic" wagers. These require the bettor to select the first two, three or four finishers in a race, or the winners of 3, 4, 5, or 6 races in a row. Below are brief descriptions of the most popular exotic bets.

Daily Double is the original exotic bet. In this bet you pick the winners of two races in a row, usually the first two races on the card. Some tracks also have a "late double" on two later races.

Exacta is a bet requiring you to pick the correct winner and second place finisher in the race.

Trifecta requires you to pick the first three finishers in order.

Superfecta requires you to pick the first four finishers in order.

When you play the Pick 3 you have to pick the winners of three races in a row. Other similar wagers are the Pick 4, Pick 5, and Pick 6. You can figure out from the names what the requirements of those bets are. For all bets that span multiple races you must make your picks and bet before the first race of the series.

One other bet that used to be quite popular but is now only found at a small number of tracks is the quinella. This bet is like the exacta in that you have to pick the first two finishers in a race, but it is different in that you win if the horses you pick come in first and second in any order.

While the names I have used above for these exotic wagers are the names that are used at most tracks, you sometimes hear the exacta called "exactor" or "perfecta" and the trifecta is occasionally called the "triactor."

How To Bet

Horse racing is one of the most economical forms of gambling. The basic bet amount of $2 has not changed for many years. Unlike visiting a casino, you can go to the track and have an afternoon or evening of fun without spending more than $20. But if you want to lower the odds against you and are willing to spend a bit more money, you can do that, too!

When it comes to the basic bets (win, place, and show) it is a simple matter to pick a horse out of the program, then go to the window and get your ticket by saying "2 dollars win on number 3" (or whatever horse you picked). Let's take a look at how to play the exotics.

You can play the exotic wagers very simply. For example, if you want to play the exacta, you can pick one horse that you think will win, and another you think will finish second and make this bet: "2 dollar exacta 8-3" (Where 8 and 3 are the numbers of the horses.) But suppose the race is very competitive and you can't make up your mind about just one horse, or maybe you think both of the horses you like can finish either first or second.. In that case you can play either a box, a key, or a wheel. Those bets work like this: suppose you like three horses in a race, and you think any of the three could win or come in second. In that case you would ask for an exacta box. An exacta box means that if one of your three horses wins, and another comes in second, you win. In another instance, suppose you think that a particular horse is certain to win, but you think several horses could finish second, then you would play a key. In this bet you would say something like "$1 exacta key 3 with 1,4,6,9." (When you get into bets other than "straight" bets the minimum bet amount goes down from $2 to $1 or even less. Because of the multiple combinations of horses with keys, wheels, and boxes they can sometimes get rather pricey. For example, the bet above would cost $4, because you are getting the following combinations: 3-1, 3-4, 3-6, & 3-9.)

A wheel or part wheel is similar to a key, but with multiple horses in each position. Maybe you like 2 different horses to win, and three others to finish second. That is a part wheel, and would go like this: "$1 exacta part wheel 2,3 with 5,7,8." with that bet you get 2-5, 2-7, 2-8, 3-5, 3-7, 3-8. The cost would be $6. In this example I used different horses for each position, but you can put a horse in more than one position. Suppose you think that either the 2 or 3 could win, but you think that either of those horses as well as horses 5, 7, & 8 could finish second. You could make this bet: "$1 exacta part wheel 2,3 with 2, 3, 5, 7, 8." That bet would cost $8. (Four combinations with the 2 on top, and four more with the three on top. Since the same horse can't finish both first and second...except in a dead heat...the duplicates are ignored and your bets would be 2-3, 2-5, 2-7, 2-8 and 3-2, 3-5, 3-7, & 3-8.)

Let's talk about dead heats for a moment. A dead heat is where two or more horses hit the finish line wire at the same time. If you have a box or wheel ticket with those horses in the correct positions, you will get a payout on both combinations! Example: Suppose the 2 & 3 finish in a dead heat for the win. There will be an exacta payout on 2-3, and on 3-2. If you have the part wheel ticket from the example above, you will get both payouts! (Don't make your decisions about bets based on dead heats, though. They don't happen that often!)

The examples above all involve exactas. Take the same principles and extend them to picking the top three or four horses and you have a trifecta or superfecta box, key, or wheel.

In recent times many tracks have tried to make exotic bets more affordable by drastically reducing the minimum bet amount. It is not unusual to find bets such as a 50¢ pick 4 or a 10¢ superfecta. If you are good at math you can see that a superfecta part wheel, which may involve a good number of horses in each of four positions can get quite expensive. Reducing the minimum bet from $1 to 10¢ greatly reduces the cost. Of course all payouts are calculated on the base $2 bet, so if you opt for one of the lesser minimums your payout will be less as well. Still, the payout can be worth it. Last summer at the Meadowlands I bought a 10¢ superfecta part wheel that cost me a little over $9. My horses came in and I won almost $200.

Final Thoughts and Suggestions

I had not been going to the track for long when I ran across the name Tom Ainslie. Tom Ainslie was the pen name of sportswriter Richard Carter, who died in 2007, and who wrote what I believe are still the Bibles of thoroughbred and harness handicapping. (No, we're not talking about injuring horses. Handicapping is the term that refers to analyzing the horses in a race and making your picks.) Ainslie talked a great deal about "the playable race." When you go to the track you do not have to spend money on every race. In fact, as you get more experienced, there will be some races that are simply not playable, for a variety of reasons. When you find one, keep your money in your pocket and use it to buy another hot dog or beer.

What makes a race "unplayable?" It could be a race where none of the horses show consistent recent form in the program. It could be one where a lot of horses came from different tracks and you have no program lines that indicate how they are likely to do at the current track. There are other circumstances that could make a race unplayable. Really whether a race is playable or not is up to the individual bettor.

The best thing I took away from Ainslie's writing is this: Never bet a lot to win a little. High rollers know that tracks are required to make a minimum payout of 5¢ on the dollar. Because of this they will sometimes bet very large amounts of money in the show pool if they believe that the horse they like will not pay well in the win pool. Doing this gives them some cover; the horse only has to finish in the top three for them to cash. This has always puzzled me. If you have enough money to make a $10,000 show bet, do you really need the $500 you would make on a $2.10 show payout? I think not.

True story: A number of years ago I was at Freehold Raceway, in Freehold New Jersey to watch a race featuring some of the best standardbreds in the country at that time. One horse was a huge favorite, and there was so much money bet on him that it was obvious that the payouts should he win were going to be $2.10. Freehold's infield tote board shows the amount of money in each of the pools. I sat there and watched the money in the show pool add up and up, and suddenly the pool jumped to over $200,000. Somebody had just made a huge show bet on the favorite. What happened? The favorite didn't win, didn't finish second, didn't finish third. So someone who didn't need the $5000 profit on a $100,000 bet lost $100,000 while chasing $5000. This is why this type of bettor is often derisively referred to as a "bridge jumper."

My last point is my own. Never bet with money you can't afford to lose. If you won't be able to put gas in your car if you lose, then you can't afford to go to the track. If you won't be able to buy your kid a new pair of shoes if you lose, then you can't afford to go to the track. You get the point.

Racing is a lot of fun, and as long as you don't go overboard in betting, it could be rewarding in a monetary sense as well!

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