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Betting on Horse Racing: A Beginner’s Guide

by | Last updated Sep 28, 2018 | Horse Betting

Your friends and you decided to spend a Saturday afternoon at the horse races, but you know nothing about horse racing. Oh sure, you’ve watched the Kentucky Derby and enjoyed the parade of who’s who with the funky hats. Although you have no idea how to pick a winner, the idea of extra cash gets the mind already picturing how to spend your winnings.

Horse Track Admission

Before heading to the races, here are some of the basics you need to know. Some tracks have social classes; there’s general admission that gets you into the park, but may not allow you to access all areas and amenities. At these types of tracks, a few bucks more and you are riding first-class.

Usually, the enhanced admission option means better access to the finish line, less people, shorter betting lines and cleaner bathrooms (due to less use.) It’s worth the extra ten bucks or so if you and your friends want to hang out. Ah, but if you want the ambiance of fans screaming, the experience of being an everyday horse player, then general admission is for you.

Typically, these types of tracks have similar amenities as a food court at your local mall; pizza, hamburgers, nachos, ice cream, beer… They are fun and the food is usually pretty good.

The other type of track only has general admission, which allows you to go anywhere on the grounds. Instead of a food court, it’s more like a concession stand. It’s less of a social scene and more centered on the races.

Tip Sheets or Past Performance

So you and your crew have paid the admission fee; next up, selecting your handicapping materials. At many tracks, and Off-Track Betting Parlors (OTB), you’ll make your choice at the admission window or right after entering at the trackside tipsheet and program kiosk.

Mostly, handicapping products fall into two categories: Tip Sheets and Past Performance Data.

Tip sheets offer “expert” handicapper picks. Typically, these sheets list horses in the order the handicapper believes the entries will finish the race, with the winner on top. Sometimes, the picks include a little commentary on the thinking behind the selections.

While it used to be the only place to get a tip sheet was at the track, you’ll now find many online options including mobile apps. For this, Predict’em recommends Guaranteed Tip Sheet. Unlike other tip sheets that are based solely on computer stats, Guaranteed Tip Sheet’s horse racing tips combine past performances with good old-fashioned intuition and each race is hand-picked by their expert handicapper. Plus, Guaranteed Tip Sheet stands behind their product with a 100% money-back guarantee, something you’ll likely never encounter with trackside products.

Do-it-yourself handicappers prefer the past performance variety, as it lists all sorts of data: from past races, racing conditions, race length, jockey, trainer… the list is rather extensive. The data heavy DIY info is typically available via the Daily Racing Form, which covers many tracks and a track specific program. You’ll find more on some basic handicapping angles below to make you look like you know your stuff with your friends.

Tote Board & Mutual Pool

Now you are armed with your handicapping tools and “at the track.” One of the first things you’ll notice in the middle of the track is a giant scoreboard looking contraption with flashing numbers. This is called the tote board. It’s in numerical order and shows the odds for the horses in the field. For example, if six horses are in the upcoming race, you’ll see numbers 1 through 6 listed with each horse’s odds to win.

Speaking of odds, they are determined by the betting public. Although the track’s “house handicapper” will set what’s called morning line odds, final odds are determined by the win bet mutual pool. All the money bet on horses to win is put into one pot (the mutual pool), the track takes its cut, and what’s left is for the bettors to collect. The mutual pool is divided by the number of win bets placed on each horse.

For example, if there is $100 in the win pool, and 10 people bet the number 6 horse to win; the win bet payout will include $1 bet plus $9 in profit, meaning that horse had odds of 9 to 1.

In addition to odds, the tote board also has a running clock that counts down to zero. That clock tells you how many minutes there are to post time, i.e. the start of the next race. Typically, the track announcer will belt out “two-minutes to post” to remind bettors it’s time to stop procrastinating and get your bets in. You’ll be surprised how many people wait until the last minute to make up their minds. If you don’t want to risk missing out on a winning ticket, get your bets in early, but not too early as the odds can change dramatically in the last few minutes before a race. It’s frustrating to bet your favorite horse at 8-1 only to watch him get bet down to 2-1 in the last 5 minutes.

Types of Race Tracks

It’s time to get serious and start putting the pieces in place if you want to handicap yourself. The first things you’ll need to consider are the length of the race and the racing surface.

For thoroughbred racing, lengths of races are either sprints or routes. A sprint is usually defined as seven furlongs or less. What-the-heck is a furlong you wonder? It’s a funny way to describe an eighth of a mile or 220 yards. Routes are races that are more than 7 furlongs. Generally, they are at least a mile, but some tracks do have 7.5 furlong races.

These races are on dirt, all weather tracks (AWT) and grass, which is called turf. AWTs are typically some combination of rubber, wax, synthetic fibers and sand; no two synthetic surfaces are identical.

With the length and surface of race in mind, a few general rules come into play.

Short dirt/AWT races tend to favor horses that get out of the gate the fastest. This also holds true for turf sprints, but to a lesser degree because running on grass is more tiring than dirt/AWT.

Routes typically require more stamina as the speed demons start to tire around the six furlong mark. At which point, the horses in the middle and the back of the pack make their moves to the front. There is a big exception to the early speed rule fading in routes, which brings us to our first handicapping angle – lone speed.

When examining past performances, you’ll see recent races with a bunch of numbers. The may look something like 1hd 21 32 54 with some short commentary at the end of the list. The first, larger number shows what place the horse was in at that point of the race. The second, smaller number is how many lengths behind the lead horse.

Horses with all large 1s or 2s tend to be speed horses. In routes, if there is only one, maybe two horses, with mostly 1s or 2s, that horse is called lone speed and can get to the front and stay there. That’s called a wire-to-wire win. This doesn’t hold up in sprint races as most will try to be near the front. In fact, the opposite can be true. In sprint races, if a bunch of horses spot a lot of 1s and 2s, there could be too much speed and the pace is too fast, leaving room for slower horses to rally from behind for the win.

Racing Odds

While on the subject of speed, another handicapping tool is a horse’s speed rating. You’ll see something like 68 right before the series of large and small numbers; the higher the number, the better. Studies show that the horse that had the highest speed rating in their last race wins about 30% of the time, but has a negative rate of return. In other words, for every dollar bet, you get something less than a dollar in return. To bet these horses and make money, you should only wager on those horses with odds of 5/2 or higher.

Things do improve if the horse is also the post-time favorite i.e. with the lowest payout out for winning. This combination hits the wire first roughly 40% of the time, but won’t win you much money as it pays around 90 cents on the dollar. However, your chances to profit increase if you only bet this combo at odds of 2-1 or higher.

On a side note, the post time favorite wins roughly 30% of the time, finishes first or second a little more than 50%, and first, second, or third a touch more than 70%. Finishing 1st, 2nd, or 3rd is called “in the money” (ITM). This info will come in handy a little later when we discuss betting strategies.

Betting Angles

Another angle to consider is the jockey and trainer. The top jockey in any given race generally wins 25% of the time. The same is true for trainers. This angle could payoff better than favorites and top speed horses despite a lower winning percentage. That’s because having the top jockey or trainer doesn’t mean the lowest odds. With a 25% chance, betting the top jockey or trainer at 5-1 or higher is a good bet.

Aside from numbers, jockeys and trainers, the most important part of any race is the horse. The pony’s recent form gives a lot of clues too. Looking at past performances, if you see a horse’s position in its most recent races is improving, but not winning, it might be rounding into shape and ready for a big run. Finishing 5th, then 4th, then 3rd may not look too appealing on the surface, but it shows a horse on the rise; whereas, 1st, 2nd, 4th looks better, but that trend is in the wrong direction and could show a tiring horse.

On the flip side of picking a winner, another useful handicapping tool is eliminating horses. A few loose rules on this subject include not picking a horse to win that won its last race, unless it has a history of winning multiple races in a row. In looking at past performances, you’ll see how infrequent back-to-back wins occur, never mind four or five in a row. Those types of streaks tend to be for the best of the best.

The mirror image of not picking the winner of its last race is to eliminate a horse that finished last in its most recent effort. We are also not big fans of horses that haven’t participated in a race in the last 90 days or more. The exception to this rule is a horse that has won following a similar time off.

After picking a few possible winners and eliminating a few with a limited chance to win, it’s time to craft some possible bets.

Bet Types

The most basic bet type is a win bet where you win if the horse finishes first. You can also do a place bet that pays out if a horse finishes first or second, but pays less than a win bet. The final running order bet is a show bet that pays if your horse finishes in the money (top 3). Betting to win, place, and show with the same horse is called “across the board”.

For higher payouts, bettors should consider exotic bets.


a winning ticket needs the first and second place finishers in order and in the same race.


a winning ticket needs the first, second and third place finishers in order and in the same race.


a winning ticket needs the first, second, third and fourth place finishers in order and in the same race.

Super High Five (Hi5)

a winning ticket needs the first, second, third, fourth and fifth place finishers in order and in the same race.

Daily Double

to win you need the winner in back-to-back races.

Pick 3

a winning ticket needs the winner in three consecutive races.

Pick 4

a winning ticket needs the winner in four consecutive races.

Pick 5

a winning ticket needs the winner in five consecutive races.

Pick 6

a winning ticket needs the winner in six consecutive races.

Exotic bets can get expensive, but the payouts can be huge. It’s important to use money management and betting strategies to limit dollars out, but still a give yourself a chance to cash in.

For exactas, if you really like one horse, you can wheel it with all. That means if your top pick wins or finishes 2nd, you win. If you key with all, you’ll need your top choice to win and any other can finish second. This is a little more expensive, but can lead to nice winnings if a long shot completes your ticket.

For trifectas, and superfectas, consider using a key horse. After picking some potential winners and eliminating likely non-winners, you might have three to five horses left. Of those few, one might stand out because of the jockey, trainer, form, speed or favorite status. Put that one in first place and put the remaining in 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th depending on your bet type. You can also wheel “the one” by putting your top-choice in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th depending on your bet type and your other potential winners in all the other spots.

In the bets that require consecutive winners, isolating one (called a single) or two horses in one of the two (double), three (pick 3) or four (pick 4) races, will help keep costs somewhat in check. We’d recommend no more than three other horses, four if you have a big bankroll, in the remaining races for pick 3s and 4s.

You’ll need to isolate multiple singles for pick 5s and 6s. While these payouts can be amazing, they are extremely difficult to win and tend to have high price tags.

Making Your Bets

Let’s put it all together and make some bets. At the track, you can use the automated teller or a live cashier. For the automated teller, first you’ll put your money in; select the race number, your bet type, the amount you want to bet, and your horses. You’ll get a voucher for any unused money.

For beginners, the computer can be confusing and lead to mistakes. With that in mind, a live cashier can help you get your bets right. You’ll tell him/her the race number, the amount you want to bet, type of bet, and your horses. Then you pay. For all tickets, double check them before walking away from the computer or cashier. There is no worse feeling than watching your horse hit a huge payout only to find that the cashier or computer gave you the wrong horse number (or you gave them the wrong horse number, which can happen after a few drinks).

To cash winners, you can insert your bet ticket in the automated teller and get a voucher, or hand it to a live cashier and get cash or a voucher.

Two-thousand-five-hundred and nineteen words ago, you knew nothing about horse racing. Now, you’ll look like a “pro” with your friends on Saturday afternoon, and maybe win enough to buy your own funky hat.

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