A Beginner’s Guide to Betting on Horses
If you’re new to horse racing, this betting guide is for you. It will guide you through the basics of betting on horses online, which can seem intimidating at first but are really quite simple once you get the hang of them. And it will offer some tips that the pros use to ensure that they are getting the best return on investment (known as ROI) possible.
The online horse betting explained by Mike Brunker, horse racing columnist at Review Journal.
The first thing I want to emphasize is the need to keep detailed records of your bets placed on the U.S. horse betting sites like Twinspires, TVG or Amwager, as they will allow you to identify your strengths and weaknesses and hone your strategies in different situations. I literally do not know of a single winning player who doesn’t do the dirty work of record-keeping.
Basic win, place and show bets
The simplest wagers in horse racing are win, place and show bets. Here’s how they work:
- Betting a horse to win means you believe the horse will finish first and are willing to back your opinion with hard-earned cash. If your horse wins, the odds on the horse will determine how much you collect. You can read about how to calculate win payoffs here.
- Betting a horse to place means you think it will finish first or second. If either of those outcomes materialize, you will collect.
- Backing (the same as betting) a horse to show means that you believe it will finish somewhere in the top three. If it does, you will collect.
It should come as no surprise that betting to place returns less than a successful win bet: You have, after all, effectively doubled your chances of collecting. Likewise, a show bet returns less than a bet to win or place.
Place and show payouts are calculated by taking the amount wagered into the place and show pools, deducting the track’s “takeout” – usually around 16 percent – and distributing the remainder by dividing the total equally among the winning place and show tickets.
Here are a couple of examples to show how this works:
Let’s say you bet $5 to win on horse no. 3, who goes off at 5-1 and runs second. You collect nothing.
But if you bet $5 on the horse to place, you can head to the parimutuel window or bookmaker to collect. This case, your place bet might pay $4.20 for each $2 wagered (win, place and show payouts are always calculated based on a $2 bet), so you would collect $10.50 on your $5 bet.
If you bet $5 on the 3 to show, you also would collect, but not as much. Let’s say your horse pays $2.80 to show, you will now collect $7, producing just a $2 profit on the race.
The strategy of betting to win, place or show is pretty basic and depends on your level of confidence and the odds on the runner you intend to back.
One exception would be if your horse is going off at long odds, in which case backup place and show bets can be considered.
Win betting takes discipline. You should not make a win bet, or any bet, in every race, for instance. It also requires a player to develop a keen sense of what the fair odds are for each horse in a race in order to find “overlays” that are being undervalued by the bettors.
Place and show betting can be used if you are confident in a horse’s ability to “hit the board,” or finish first, second or third, but not in its ability to win the race.
Because payouts are diminished, some players use paylays – multiple race bets determined by the player – to increase their profit.
For example, you might connect a $20 show bet on the 3 horse in the first race. If that horse finishes in the money, you would roll over the amount collected – let’s say $32.00 for the purposes of this example – and bet it to show on another horse in another race. If that horse also wins, the entire amount could be wagered on a third horse in a third race, etc., etc.
Exotics betting strategies
So-called “exotic” wagers are bets that require the player to either pick winners of multiple races or forecast the top finishers in order in a single race. Most horseplayers include such bets in their repertoire because they can return significant rewards for a relatively small investment.
First let’s discuss multirace wagers – usually Daily Doubles and Pick 3s, 4s, 5s or 6s.
The object in all these bets is to pick the winners of successive races, two in the Daily Double, four in the Pick 4 or six in the Pick 6, for example.
To improve their odds of hitting multirace bets, most horseplayers use more than one horses in one or more of the races.
Here’s an example of how that works:
In a Pick 4 sequence, a player might feel there are three contenders in the first race with nearly equal chances of winning and use all three. In the second race, the player figures that the solid favorite will carry the day, but race three looks like a real grab bag so five horses go on the ticket.
Finally, in the final race the player “singles” – or uses one horse – a steed that appears to have a significant class edge.
Expressed mathematically, the ticket looks like this: 3x1x5x1=15. In other words, you have 15 possible winning combinations on this ticket.
The combination concept is important, as that allows you to calculate the cost of a ticket. If the base unit in the example above was $1, for example, the cost of the ticket would be $15. If it was a 50 cent base unit, the cost would be $7.50. Using a $5 base would increase the cost to $75.
In order to win multirace wagers like the Pick 4 consistently, you’ll want to perfect the skill of identifying what are known as “chaos races.” These are races where the no horses appear to have obvious edges over their rivals, creating a situation where long shots have increased chances of winning a race. When that happens, the payout can be expected to skyrocket.
Conversely, that means identifying “key” horses that you can single in other races in the sequence to keep the cost of your ticket under control.
Let’s turn next to multihorse wagers in a single race.
The object with these wagers is to pick horses in the correct order of finish:
- exactas (top two finishers in order);
- trifectas (top three finishers in order);
- superfectas (top 4 finishers in order) or
- Hi 5 (top five finishers in order).
As with multirace wagers, many players include multiple horses in these bets to improve their odds of collecting.
These strategies are usually known as “boxing” and “keying.”
Boxing a bet means you are covering different orders of finish involving the same horses to avoid the situation where you correctly select the top finishers but they cross the wire in the “wrong order.”
Here’s an example that should make the concept clear:
If you are playing a $1 trifecta, you can bet three horses in the correct order of finish for $1. But if you select the 1 horse, the 4 horse and the 7 horse, they must finish in that exact order or your ticket is a loser. By boxing the trio, you are ensuring that you will win if they finish in the top three, no matter what the order.
So you know have a ticket that costs $6 and covers these combinations:
- 1/4/7 and 1/7/4.
- 4/1/7 and 4/7/1.
- 7/1/4 and 7/4/1.
Keying horses, on the other hand, means narrowing the field in some placings in order to be able to spread out in others.
For example, a player might decide to play a 10 cent superfecta in a race where two contenders appear to be head and shoulders the best in the field. By using those two horses in the top two placings, the player can use the remainder of the horses in the third and fourth slots, potentially triggering a solid payoff if the top two finish one-two and long shots come in.
Here’s what that 10-cent superfecta ticket would look like in a 12-horse field:
- 1rst place: 3 and 5.
- 2nd place: 3 and 5.
- 3rd place: 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12.
- 4th place: 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12.
The cost of such a ticket would be $18, based on the number of individual combinations needed to cover those horses.
Multihorse wagers usually work well when you have a horse you have faith in to win and can build tickets around that runner.
But it’s also possible to get creative: Sometimes you can build a ticket around a horse that always seems to finish second, for instance, creating a potentially rewarding scenario when a long shot becomes the latest to vanquish the perennial runner-up.
Exchange wagering strategy
Exchange wagering, also known as spread betting, is a relatively new wagering system that has more in common with stock futures trading than with the traditional parimutuel and fixed-odds systems used in horse racing.
It is widely available in the UK and EU through providers like Betfair, Betdaq, Smarkets, and Matchbook, but only one U.S. jurisdiction – the state of New Jersey – currently offers it via Poinstbet and 4NJBets.
Providers of exchange betting essentially remove the racetracks or bookmakers from the equation and match players who take opposing views of the expected outcome of a race or races. The terminology also is different, with players able to “back” a proposition – that is place a bet predicting that an event, such as the no. 1 horse winning, will occur – or “lay” a proposition – or bet that the event will not happen.
The systems also offer the ability for a player to make a counteroffer if the odds being offered are not to one’s liking. Once the two sides agree on a wager and an amount, the provider holds the money until the bet is decided, then pays the winner minus its commission.
Another unique feature of exchange wagering is that it offers the ability to take opposing positions comparable to hedging strategies in stock trading, effectively creating a “spread” that can limit risk and generate generous rewards.
As Investopedia.com explains, “Unlike fixed-odds betting, it does not require a specific event to happen. You can actually close the bet at any time and take home the profits or limit the losses.”
In other words, you can “buy” a ticket on a horse before a race, but then “sell” before it is run.
Put in horse racing terms, you could invest €20 in a Daily Double and decide to sell at a much higher price after selecting a winner in the first leg. Or you could part with some of the investment to hedge against an unfavorable outcome in the second leg. Either way, you have either guaranteed a profit or at least limited a potential loss.
Apart from the flexibility exchange wagering offer, its biggest single advantage is that the takeout – or the provider’s commission – tends to be quite a bit lower than the typical 15 to 17 percent withheld on a win, place or show bet under the parimutuel wagering system.
I’ve never wagered on an exchange betting site like Betfair, but from what I’ve learned during my research most players use them as an adjunct to their fixed odds or parimutuel wagering.
For example, it may make sense to bet on a given race via a parimutuel based website with a generous rebate or bonus program if you can’t get a significant odds advantage on the exchange.
If you are new to exchange wagering, many experts also recommend that begin by laying money against heavily bet favorites that you think are vulnerable, as you should be able to collect in the neighborhood of 3-1 if the horse does not win.
Betting on jockeys
Blindly betting on top riders is a quick route to the poorhouse, as even the best usually win about a quarter of the time and post negative returns on investment (ROI) over the long run. And you’re probably familiar with the old observation that a jockey can’t carry a horse across the finish line, a cute way of saying that the most skillful rider can’t work miracles on a slow horse.
That’s not to say that riders shouldn’t play a role in deciding where to put your money and how much you bet, though. Studying the relationships between trainers and jockeys and the proclivities of riders can uncover profitable betting situations on a regular basis.
To do that, I highly recommend paying for a commercial service that allows you to examine riders’ performances over time and customize the output rather than trying to maintain your own records, a very time-consuming task and one that won’t be nearly as productive if you’re not an ace at spreadsheets.
For example, you might want to know a rider’s record over the past five years at a certain distance while riding for a particular trainer at the track where today’s race is taking place. A query like that may show that backing a rider in that situation returns a long-term positive ROI – not guarantee that he or she will win today, but information that other fans may not have at their fingertips.
In addition to detailed statistics, it’s important to develop a good understanding of a rider’s tendencies and their strengths and weaknesses. Some riders always seem to “send” their mounts hard from the gate to try to gain a good position, a tactic that frequently backfires if a horse is a come-from-behind type. Others may be overly timid or patient and almost always assume a position near the back of the pack in hopes of mowing the front-runners down late – a strategy that is more likely to bear fruit in turf racing than it is on dirt.
This is an area where I like to keep my own notes for comparison to the statistics obtained through one of the tools described above or the many other services that produce similar data. A small notebook with a page for riders on a given circuit is a great way to compile observations that can add to your understanding of a rider’s proclivities and help you envision how a given race will unfold.
My last recommendation is to pay close attention to the top riders on a given circuit, as they typically have the best understandings of how a racetrack is playing on a given day as well as long-term trends that favor a given running-style at a particular distance.
If you see a top rider keeping his mount well off the rail in several races in succession on a particular day, for instance, you might conclude that the paths near the rail were “dead” – that is deeper than other parts of the racing surface – and enter that in your records. That may give you an advantage when horses that were stuck on the inside on that day return on a fairer racetrack.
As for longer-term trends, a top jockey might have realized that a high percentage of horses with speed that are drawn inside are winning most of the one-mile dirt races at a given track. These riders will make getting to the rail in front in the early stages of a race a priority, sending a signal to attentive horse handicappers in the process.
Another interesting scenario that can be productive from a betting standpoint occurs when a top rider lands on a long shot. These jocks often have their pick of several mounts in a race, so the fact that he or she is riding an outsider today is often worth additional study.
Some signals that the horse might be live despite its long odds are sharp recent workouts, a change in distance or racing surface that could serve as a wake-up call or a race after the horse was claimed or purchased and moved to a new barn.
Again, it is not wise to bet on such runners automatically. Many top jockeys have strong relationships with certain trainers and will ride virtually anything they send out. Or they may be riding a horse in an unfavorable scenario today in order to retain the mount for when the horses is switched to a new distance or racing surface where it can be expected to be more successful.
- Terms: Min deposit £5. Bet Credits available for use upon settlement of bets to value of qualifying deposit. Min odds 1/5 (1.20), bet (£5) and payment method exclusions (Paypal, e-wallets etc.) apply. Returns exclude Bet Credits stake. Time limits and T&Cs apply.
Betting on trainers
As with jockeys, betting blindly on horses trained by a certain conditioner is almost never a profitable strategy.
Trainers, more so than jockeys, are intimately involved with preparing their charges to race and play a bigger role in the outcome than the riders in most races, in my opinion.
As with jockeys, however, a trainer can’t make a slow horse run fast. But he or she can be sure it is mentally well prepared to compete and place it in a spot where it figures to be competitive.
While some top trainers win a high percentage of races – 25 percent would be considered excellent over the long term — punters usually catch on to their prowess quickly and begin betting their horses to such an extent that the low payouts result in long-term negative return on investment (ROI).
The solution to this dilemma is the same as it is with jockeys:
You need to drill down into a trainer’s overall record to identify their strengths and weaknesses, the riders they use in different situations, their preferred workout patterns, etc.
To do that, I again will highly recommend paying for a commercial service that allows you to examine trainers’ performances in different circumstances over time rather than trying to maintain your own records — a very time-consuming task and one that won’t be nearly as productive if you’re not an ace at manipulating spreadsheets.
You can usually find overall statistics for free, but In the U.S., services like STATS Race Lens and the (DRF) Daily Racing Form’s Formulator software, for example, allow you to tailor your searches to situations that are relevant to the race you’re handicapping.
For example, you might want to know a trainer’s record over the past five years with sprint winners coming off a layoff of at least three months. Database queries like that often uncover situations that return a long-term positive ROI – not a guarantee that he or she will win today, but at least information that other fans may be lacking.
On your favored circuits, I also recommend keeping notes of your observations about how various trainers prepared their winning charges for the race you just witnessed. I typically just use a notebook with a page for every trainer, then start anew at the next stop on the circuit after transferring any top-like takeaways. You’d be surprised the insights that such anecdotal reports can generate when patterns begin to emerge.
A certain trainer who is very good at getting his or her charges ready off a long vacation may, for instance, default to a set pattern in workouts in the final stages of preparations – say five fast workouts six or seven days apart, beginning at 4 furlongs and increasing to 6 in the final spin before a race. The routine may change, depending on whether the trainer is preparing a horse for a sprint or a longer route race.
Some trainers have a much stronger record on one racing surface or distance. That can also be ascertained through the statistics, but it helps if you know what to look for. A high-profile example in the U.S. is Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has produced winners on the dirt and all-weather tracks at the sterling rate of 24 percent over his illustrious career. On turf, however, he has won with just 14 percent of his starters over the past five years as of this writing.
Finally, a trainer may turn to a certain jockey or jockeys when he or she is hungry for a victory. Knowing those relationships can uncover plenty of winners over the long haul, often at very nice prices.
Bottom line: Trainers, more than jockeys, are often a determining factor in my handicapping. If any trainer in the race has been successful in the long term in the situation they find themselves in today, I want to know about it and most likely bet it at the windows.
Read more about how to bet on horse races online
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