Beginners Guide to Betting on Horses

The Kentucky Derby ushers in the first leg of the Triple Crown on May 4, and is among the most popular horse racing events in the world. Make the most of the "Run for the Roses" by learning about horse racing odds, strategies, and bet types.

Robert Criscola - Contributor at
Robert Criscola • Publishing Editor
Apr 30, 2024 • 11:49 ET • 6 min read
Rich Strike Kentucky Derby
Photo By - USA TODAY Sports

Horse racing is one of the oldest and most popular betting markets in the world. And though the Triple Crown events — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes — grab all the headlines in the spring, races are being held nearly every day of the year at tracks around the globe.

Picking the winner of a race is the most basic of horse racing bets, but there’s a large menu of horse racing odds options to choose from. Join us as we break them down below.

Types of horse racing bets

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

Straight wagers

When making a straight horse racing bet, the focus is on the performance of a single horse in a single race. There are four versions of straight wagers:


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


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.


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 on 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 payouts. You can also bet a combination of win and place, or place and show.

Exotic wagers

Exotic wagers offer the option of tying together the 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 larger payout than straight wagers but have a higher risk due to the numerous results involved. All the picks included in the exotic wager must be correct to be graded a winner.

There are multiple variations of horse racing exotics:

Exacta bet

Betting on the combination of horses that will come in first and second. You can bet it straight or box the selections, which means that as long as the ones you pick finish in the Top 2 — regardless of order — you win the bet. A two-horse boxed exacta costs twice as much as a straight exacta because you're paying for the added number of combinations. The more horses that are added to an exacta box, the greater the cost will be since more combinations are being added.

Quinella bet

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. It typically pays half the exacta payout.

Trifecta bet

Trifecta wagers are similar to exacta bets but you're selecting the Top 3 finishers of the race. You can bet it straight, use a trifecta box, or include multiple horses. Of course, the more horses you include on the bet ticket, the larger the risk amount.

Superfecta bet

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 on a ticket.

Daily double bet

A daily double wager is betting on the winner of two consecutive races. To win, you must correctly select the winner of both races. 

Pick 3, 4, 5, 6 bet

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 added, the cost of the 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, then taking that sum and multiplying it by your bet amount.

For example, odds of 3-1 will pay out $8 for every $2 wagered. That's $6 in profit plus the original $2 stake.

Oftentimes, winners will pay out at less than even-money. If a horse wins at 1-2 odds, that results a $3 payoff — $1 in profit plus the original $2 stake. 

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 the winners after the track deducts its overhead costs and taxes (otherwise known as "takeout").

Due to horse racing being a pari-mutuel system, odds are not fixed and will change as more bets are placed. The more money is placed on a particular outcome, the smaller each $2 payoff will be.

Horse racing betting sites

Legal online horse racing betting sites fill the void created by sportsbooks for wagering on the races.

Check out our guide that identifies the best horse racing betting sites in your area.

Horse racing betting tips

Follow the 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 and distances, 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, and 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.

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 the 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 the distance could be very helpful. A horse may have tired late which ended up costing them a better finish, 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 that has been racing well recently could offer a big price when running 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.

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 a 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.

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