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How to Bet on Horse Racing

While legalized sports betting across the United States didn’t happen until a U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned PASPA in the summer of 2018, horse racing wagering has been a staple of America for more than a century. 

In fact, most pro-gambling lobbyists couldn’t understand how betting on horses was illegal but, say, boxing or the NFL wasn’t. The short answer was that horses weren’t humans and didn’t have emotions – i.e. a horse couldn’t throw a race for betting purposes. Yeah, but what about jockeys?

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In the early 1900s, horse racing was nearly wiped out in this country out by an antigambling sentiment across the USA that led almost all states to ban bookmaking. However, the sport was probably saved in 1908 when pari-mutuel betting on the Kentucky Derby was introduced, and that changed everything. Most states agreed to legalize pari-mutuel betting in exchange for a cut of the money wagered – similar to what is happening with sports betting today. After World War I, betting on horse racing really took off. As of this writing, pari-mutuel betting is legal in US states.

Most casual American sports fans only pay attention to three horse races a year and those are the Triple Crown events: the Kentucky Derby (always the most-wagered raced of the year) at Churchill Downs in Louisville on the first Saturday of May; the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore two weeks later; and the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in New York three weeks after that.

All three races are on the dirt at slightly different lengths – the Belmont is the longest at 1½ miles and open to 3-year-olds. Fillies, or female horses, occasionally run but it’s mostly just males. The Kentucky Derby has by far the biggest field of the three with a maximum of 20 horses. 

There have been 13 Triple Crown winners of all-time, the last was Justify in 2018. These horses just aren’t bred to race at full speed three times in the span of five weeks so that’s why it’s so difficult. The Belmont Stakes can overtake the Kentucky Derby from a betting standpoint if there is a horse in the field who has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

The 2019 Kentucky Derby was one of the most controversial moments in horse racing history. Maximum Security crossed the finish line first but was soon after disqualified after causing interference earlier in the race. Maximum Security was dropped to the near-bottom of the results field and Country House moved to first. 

There are hundreds of race tracks around the country and races are run at different lengths and on different surfaces (dirt, synthetic, grass), but here’s a basic breakdown of how to bet on a typical horse race. We will use Secretariat as an example as the 1973 Triple Crown winner is the greatest of all-time in the sport. 

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Straight wagers

Bettors can win money on a horse if it finishes first, second or third in a field and those spots are called “win,” “place” and “show,” respectively. If a horse you wager on finishes fourth, you are out of luck (unless there’s a DQ of one of the top three like in the 2019 Kentucky Derby).

Let’s say Secretariat is priced at 5/1 (+500) to win the Kentucky Derby. A $100 wager on Secretariat to win would return $500. If he finished second or third, then the bet is a loser. However, a wager on Secretariat to place would still win if he finished first or second. It would just return more for a second-place finish because the bettor got the exact result correct. If Secretariat finished third, it’s a losing bet.

It’s the same for a show bet. If Secretariat finishes first, second, or third the bet is winner but it would be the most for a third-place finish because the bettor got the exact result. The returns depend on the odds for the horse and the finishers at first and second.

Bettors also can wager on a horse to win/place or place/show. In this scenario, you are making multiple wagers on one bet so it would cost double. A typical $2 wager would cost $4.

An across-the-board bet is win, place, and show and would cost three times a regular bet because it’s a wager on three results – so, a typical $2 bet would cost $6. If the horse comes in first, a bettor gets the win, place, and show money. If the horse finishes second, the bettor gets a place and show money. If the horse comes in third, the bettor gets the show money. Again, prices completely depend on the odds and where the horse finishes, etc.

Exotic wagers

Exotic wagers allow players to bet on multiple horses in a single bet. The payoffs are better in an exotic wager but the odds are much longer to win. Beginners probably should shy away from these. 

Here are the typical exotic wagers:

Exacta: A bet on two horses to come in first and second in that exact order. Let’s say you wager on Secretariat to finish first in the Kentucky Derby and Seattle Slew second. If you placed a win/show bet, it wouldn’t matter which order. However, in an exacta it would be a losing bet if Seattle Slew finished first and Secretariat second. There is also a “box” exacta bet option where the two horses picked can come in any order in the top two spots.

Quinella: This is an exacta bet but where it doesn’t matter which horse comes in first or second as long as you wagered on the right two horses to finish in the top two sports. Because you are getting double the chance of winning compared to an exacta, a quinella bet costs twice as much. 

Trifecta: This is an exacta but betting on which horses finish first, second and third in the exact order. Anything other than that and it’s a loser. There is also a “box” option here where it doesn’t matter which order the top three horses finish. It just wouldn’t pay as well as a regular trifecta. A $2 box trifecta bet would cost three times more, or $12.

Superfecta: Here’s one wager where the fourth-place finisher matters. A superfecta is a bet on which four horses finish, first, second, third and fourth in an exact order. As with exactas and trifectas, bettors can box a superfecta at an additional cost and it doesn’t matter where the top four horses finish as long as they were correctly identified.

Other bets

Sometimes a bettor doesn’t want to wager on a horse to win because he/she isn’t confident in that but is confident the horse will be a certain other horse in the field. Thus, matchup betting. It’s simply two horses priced via a moneyline and whichever finishes higher in the field wins. You won’t find this type of wager available on all races but will on the bigger ones like the Triple Crown.

Futures odds also are available months ahead of the Kentucky Derby. As of this writing, here are the favorites for the 2020 Kentucky Derby:

Tiz The Law        +1400

By Your Side        +2000

Dennis Moment    +2000

Independence Hall    +2000

Maxfield        +2000

A bet of $100 on Tiz The Law would return $1400 if he were to win the Derby. These odds will change almost weekly leading up to the Derby. Shortly after the Derby is over, futures odds would be available on the Preakness, etc.