How to bet on horse racing

Apr 3, 2020 |
How to bet on horse racing
The Kentucky Derby opens the Triple Crown in May and is the most popular horse racing event in the world and draws a ton of betting action on its horse racing odds.
Photo By - USA TODAY Sports
The Kentucky Derby opens the Triple Crown in May and is the most popular horse racing event in the world and draws a ton of betting action on its horse racing odds.
Photo By - USA TODAY Sports

Horse racing is one of the oldest and most popular betting markets around.

And even though Triple Crown betting – like Kentucky Derby odds, Preakness Stakes odds, and Belmont Stakes odds – gets all the attention in the spring, there are races being held just about every minute of the day at tracks around the globe.

Picking the winner of a race is the most basic of horse racing bets, however, there’s a large menu of options for horse racing odds, from straight bets to exotics.

How do you bet on horse racing?

Before placing a bet on a horse race there is some information you need ahead to time to find the bet you want to make. Horse races and their odds are organized by:

No. 1 - Date of race/post time: With races taking place all over the world, you need to know when the race is happening and what time it starts (post time).

No. 2 - Racetrack: There 112 horse racing tracks in the United States and countless others across the globe, so you need to know where the race is being held.

No. 3 - Race number:  A track’s racing schedule for the day has a number assigned to each individual race in order of post time. 

No. 4 - Horse number:  Every horse in a race is assigned a number based on their starting gate/post position, starting with No. 1 which is the closest post to the inside of the track. Post position is determined at random before the race.

Types of horse racing bets

There are two different categories of horse racing bets you can place: straight wagers and exotic wagers. 

What are straight wagers?

A straight wager is focused on the performance of a single horse in a single race. There are four versions of straight wagers:

WIN: This particular wager requires your horse to finish first. That’s the only way your ticket is a winner. A win bet carries a higher risk than other straight wagers, and therfor pays out more.

PLACE: Betting on a horse to finish first or second. The payout on a place bet is less than a win bet (a smaller risk due to two possible payout results), but if your horse finishes first or second, you collect.

SHOW: Betting on a horse to finish either first, second or third – also known as hit the board. Due to the nature of this bet, you have a better chance at winning because you have three options (inside the Top 3), but the payout is substantially less than a bet to win or place.

ACROSS THE BOARD: You're also able to combine all three of these straight wagers by doing an across the board bet - betting a horse to win, place and show. If the horse wins, you collect all three different payouts. You can also bet a combination of win and place or place and show.

What are exotic wagers?

Exotic wagers offer the option of tying together a number of horse racing picks from the same race or across various races with one single bet amount.

Exotics have the potential for a much large payout than straight wagers but have a much higher risk due to the numerous results involved. All the picks included in the exotic wager must be correct in order to be graded a winner.

There are multiple variations of horse racing exotics:

EXACTA: Betting on the horses that will come in first and second. You can bet it straight or box the selections, which means that as long as the horses you picked finish in the Top 2 – regardless of order – you win the bet. A boxed exacta costs twice as much as a straight exacta because you’re paying for the added number of combinations.

TRIFECTA: Similar to an exacta but you’re selecting the Top-3 finishers of the race. You can bet it straight, use a trifecta box, or include multiple different horses. Of course, the more horses you include on the bet ticket, the larger the risk amount.

SUPERFECTA: Predicting the Top-4 finishers of the race. This is a very tricky wager. A lot of tracks or horse racing online allow this wager to be played at a 10 or 20 cent base, which allows you to maximize how many horses you can have without changing the amount wagered. Usually with exotics, the base is $1 so lowering the base allows for more combinations.

DAILY DOUBLE: Wagering on the winner of two consecutive races. In order to win, you must correctly select the winner of both races. This bet is usually available in the first races two on the card, or the final two races of the day.

QUINELLA: Similar to the Exacta, you’re betting on which horses will come first and second but the order in which they finish first and second doesn’t matter. However, unlike a box exacta (which requires two bets) a Quinella bet requires only one but normally doesn’t pay as well.

PICK 3, 4, 5, 6: You must select the winner of each race in sequential order. The “pick” number refers to the number of races in the sequence, rather than the order of where they finish. You can bet it straight or like exotic wagers, you can include more horses in each race. But with more horses, the cost of the bet ticket drastically increases.

How to read horse racing odds

Horse racing odds are most often displayed in fractional odds. They’re essentially simple math: dividing one number by another and then taking that sum and multiplying it by your bet amount.

The one key thing when factoring fractional odds are how the numbers are displayed. If the larger number is being divided by the smaller number – ie: 3/1 – then the odds will pay out more than the original bet risked. But if the smaller number is divided by the larger number – ie: 1/3 – then the odds will pay out less than the original bet risked.

For example, odds of 3/1 will pay three times (300 percent) the amount risked, so a bet of $2 would profit $6 if it wins. Odds of 1/3 will pay only 33.33 percent of the amount risked, so a bet of $2 would profit only 67 cents if it should win. Odds of 1/1 will pay the same amount risked, so a bet of $2 would profit $2 if it should win.


What is pari-mutuel betting?

Pari-mutuel betting in horse racing is the total pool of money wagered on a particular type of bet that is then divided up among winners, after the track deducts its overhead costs and taxes.

Due to horse racing being pari-mutuel betting, there are no fixed odds and odds will change as more bets are placed. You may not be guaranteed a profit on the amount wagered even if your ticket hits, depending on how much of that pool is riding on the same bet.

Once the race is off, you will be able to calculate your potential payout based on the chart below. This lets you know what a $2 bet at those particular odds will pay (including the original $2 wagered).















1/1 (EVEN)





























Race distances

Horse racing is done at varying distances and some horses are better suited for faster shorter races while others prefer the steady pace and stamina of a longer race. Horse races are broken into two distance categories: sprints and routes. 


Any race that is less than one mile or eight furlongs (one furlong is 220 yards) is considered a sprint. These include races at 4, 5, 5.5, 6, 6.5 and 7 furlongs. These are quick races that don’t require the entire track and may only involve one turn.


Any race that is greater than 7 furlongs is considered a route. These include races at 1 mile, 1 mile and 70 yards, 1 1/16 miles, 1 1/8 miles, 1 3/16 miles 1 ¼ miles, and 1 ½ miles. These are longer races that require most of or all the track and contain two turns. The Kentucky Derby is raced at 1 ¼ miles while the Preakness is shorter at 1 3/16 miles and the Belmont Stakes is longer at 1 ½ miles.

Track Surfaces

On top of different distances, track surface can also vary depending on the track and time of year. There are three main surfaces in horse racing: dirt, turf, and synthetic.


This is the most common surface found at tracks because it’s much easier to maintain than turf or synthetic. However, it can vary in slickness based on the dampness of the track and can be very messy and cover horses and jockeys in mud during the race. Dirt tracks are considered the fastest of the three surfaces and all three Triple Crown races are held on dirt.


Turf or grass tracks are more commonly seen in European horse racing rather than American tracks and is considered to be the easiest track on a horse’s body due to its softer surface and cushion. That soft surface does, however, tend to slow horse down, so times can vary between turf and dirt performances. Much like dirt tracks, the integrity of a turf surface can vary depending on the amount of rain and dampness. 


This is a man-made track surface, which means it retains its integrity despite varying weather conditions. It's also more durable and often more forgiving on the horses in terms of wear and tear compared to dirt. There are three main types of synthetic surfaces used at tracks: polytrack, tapeta and cushion. 

Triple Crown horse racing

Horse racing’s Triple Crown is a series of three graded-stakes races for three-year-old Thoroughbred horses held from the first Saturday May to early June. There have been 13 Triple Crown champions since the Sir Barton in 1919, including the two most recent, American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018. The three races that make up the Triple Crown are:

Kentucky Derby

Held at Churchill Downs racetrack in Kentucky on the first Saturday in May, the Kentucky Derby – also known as the “Run for the Roses” – is the first jewel of the Triple Crown and the most famous horse race in the world, run at a distance of 1 ¼ miles. Kentucky Derby odds to win are the most popular betting market in horse racing and are available almost year round, adjusting with race results and qualifying times as Derby Weekend draws closer. 

Preakness Stakes

The second jewel of the Triple Crown is held at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland on the third Saturday in May. Also known as the “Run for the Black-Eyed Susans”, it is the shortest of the Triple Crown races at 1 3/16 miles. The Kentucky Derby winner has gone on to win the Preakness Stakes 23 times. Preakness odds don't come out until after the Kentucky Derby is completed.

Belmont Stakes

The “Test of Champions” is the third and final Triple Crown race, held at Belmont Park in New York. It is the longest of the three events and is one of the longer race distances in the sport at 1 ½ miles. The Belmont Stakes takes place on either the first or second Saturday in June. As mentioned, only 13 horses have gone on to win the Belmont after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Just 11 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont, and only 18 horses have followed a Preakness Stakes win with a spot in the Winner's Circle at the Belmont. Belmont Stakes odds - and odds to win the Triple Crown, if there is a contender - don't come out until after the Preakness Stakes is completed.

Horse racing betting terms

Horse racing almost has its own language, especially when you get into horse racing betting. These are the most common words or phrases you'll hear around the track or terms you will come across in a racing program:

Also eligible (AE): This horse is officially entered in the race, however, not permitted to run unless there is a scratch.

Claiming race: Every horse entered is available to be claimed (or purchased) for a particular price. Claims are put in before the race and are public knowledge that they are entered.

Condition race: An event with particular restrictions limiting it to a certain class of horse. Example: fillies, aged 3 years old, non-winners of two other races other than maiden or claiming.

DH or Dead-heat: Two or more horses finish in a tie at the wire.

Drop down: This refers to a change in classification. A horse dropping in class is facing off against easier competition than they did in their previous starts.

Gelding or first-time gelded: Refers to a castrated male horse.

Firm: This refers to the condition of a turf course. This is similar to a "fast" track on dirt and usually the most desired.

Inquiry: Reviewing the race to check for potential infractions. This could happen before a race is listed as official and changes to the finishing order can still occur.

Lasix: Usually referred to by this term, although the proper name is furosemide. This is a medication used to treat bleeding in horses. This is a legal medication and monitored very closely.

Maiden: A horse who has not won a race.

Morning line: This refers to the horse racing odds in the program. These are approximate odds (almost always done by an oddsmaker, not a computer) and an educated guess at what the horse's odds will be at post time.

MTO: Main track only. This is listed beside a horse's odds in a racing program. These are horses that will be entered if the race is moved from turf to the dirt. These horses will not race if the conditions of the race stay the same.

Overlay: A horse going off at higher odds than they appear to warrant, based on the past performance.

Sloppy/muddy: Condition of footing. The grading of a track will be done before the racing card and can be downgraded or upgraded while seeing how the track changes between races.

Stakes race: A race where connections almost always must pay a fee to run a horse. These fees are for nominating, maintaining eligibility, or just entering. After a fee is paid, the track then adds more money to make up the total purse. These are the races on the card ran for the most money.

Graded stakes: The highest quality of race to take place. Within this there are three levels: Grade 1, 2, 3. Grade 1 being the highest. An example of a Grade 1 stakes race is the Kentucky Derby.

Restricted stakes race: Lower level races where strict restrictions apply.

Overnight stakes: These stakes are written three days in advance and are similar to allowance races, but they carry a much higher purse.

Takeout: Commission deducted from pools taken from the local track, and government. Your potential payouts on the tote board when listed as "official" after the race will be the money you receieve already after the takeout.

Underlay: A horse who is racing at shorter odds than they should be.

Under wraps: Horse under restraint. The jockey slows down a horse by wrapping the reins in their hands, either to avoid tiring the horse, or because they are comfortably in the lead.

Yielding: A turf course that has a great deal of moisture.

Horse racing betting tips

Tip No. 1: Pay attention to trends and stats

There are so many different trends and tidbits of information, which can prove useful when betting on horse racing odds. Much like human athletes, some horses excel at particular racetracks, over certain surfaces, or at different times of the year. It's important to read the trends and play into particular strengths of trainers, jockeys and the equine athletes themselves.

Some trainers flaunt amazing numbers with horses making their debut on the racetrack, some excel with juveniles, some do better with horses over the turf. You can find some very useful information in the program, everything from horse racing trends to a jockey and trainer's particular ROI when they meet up.

Tip No. 2: Look for changes in surface or equipment

You will want to keep tabs on notable changes that may help to spark a big effort. Did a horse seemingly not grip the surface well or put forth an uncharacteristically bad effort? Maybe a change of surface could help. Did the horse drift badly in deep stretch or get out to a slow start? Blinkers (used to prevent a horse from seeing to the side) added or removed could help keep a runner's attention down the stretch.

A change in distance could be very helpful. A horse may have tired late which ended up costing them a better placing, or another horse may have been crying out for more furlongs while making a late closing bid. Pay attention to these changes in distance and try to understand why they may be happening.

A drop in class could also help yield a big effort, facing weaker competition than in previous races. On the other hand, a horse racing very well lately could offer a big price when racing against much tougher fields. Although on paper they may appear to be overmatched, a horse entering with confidence or strong current form presents good value.

Tip No. 3: Manage your bankroll

Although this one often seems self-explanatory, it's one of the trickiest things to master. Don't put all your money on one particular horse to WIN or spend all of it on an Pick 4 sequence. Instead, try to diversify your bets and if you don't like the race or don't feel you have a solid read on it, don't bet.

Increase the amount of money you’re willing to play based on confidence in your horse racing picks and don't go overboard trying to chase after that life-changing score in the Rainbow Pick 6. If you're betting hoping to yield a profit long term, there's no get-rich-quick solution. 

Also, don't let high odds scare you away and don't be afraid to take a shot. Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of money and a gut feeling to cash big.

Monique Vág has been providing the Covers audience with her best bets and horse racing analysis since 2013. A race commentator at Woodbine Mohawk Park in Toronto, Monique doesn’t just limit herself to the ponies and is always eager to break down her favorite plays for the day’s biggest games. 

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