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Horse Racing 101
About the author
Tom Law is a native of Saratoga Springs, New York, who grew up going to the races at historic Saratoga Race Course. He started his career in racing as a sports writer and public handicapper for The Pink Sheet, the daily racing publication produced by The Saratogian during the Saratoga meeting. He also spent nearly 15 years on the editorial staff at Thoroughbred Times, an international racing publication based in Lexington, Kentucky, and served a six-year stint as president of the National Turf Writers And Broadcasters. A multiple award-winning writer, including the prestigious Eclipse Award for coverage of the 2011 Breeders’ Cup, Law now serves as managing editor of ST Publishing, producers of The Saratoga Special, back in his hometown.
Types of horse racing bets
by Tom Law
Racetracks offer multiple betting options that give horseplayers plenty of options on how to bet the races.
The types of bets available on racing can be broken down into two categories – straight wagers and exotic wagers.
Straight wagers are win, place and show and at most racetracks the minimum bet is $1. Players that bet to win will collect a payout only if the horse wins the race. Place bets pay out if the horse selected by the player finishes first or second. Show bets pay out if the horse selected by the player finishes first, second or third.
The payouts for straight wagers are determined by pari-mutuel betting odds, which are explained in the “Reading the Odds Board” section of this website. All racetracks typically display the win odds for every horse in every race with odds for the place and show pools available but not as easily displayed.
A combination of those straight wagers is “across-the-board,” where an equal amount is bet on a horse to win, place and show. If the horse wins bettors collect win, place and show payoffs. If the horse finishes second the bettors collect place and show and if the horse finishes third the bettors collect show. The cost of an across-the-board wager depends on the amount bet. For example, a $2 across-the-board bet will cost $6 because there are three bets - $2 win, $2 place and $2 show.
Exotic bets come in two forms – vertical and horizontal.
Vertical bets are those that usually end with a “cta,” such as exacta, trifecta or superfecta. These types of bets require players to pick the top finishers in a single race in the exact order of finish.
“Exacta” bets require bettors to select the first two finishers in the exact order. Players have the option to box an exacta, giving them multiple possible outcomes. For example, a player likes the chances of the #1 and #2 horse in a given race but can’t decide which will finish first or finish second. Rather than risk playing a straight exacta for $2, the player bets a 1-2 exacta box for $2 (the bet costs $4 since it is a $2 bet for 1-2 and a $2 bet for 2-1, in that order).
Trifecta bets require players to pick the top three finishers in exact order, while superfecta bets require players to pick the top four finishers in exact order. Just like the exacta, a box is available for trifecta and superfecta bets.
Some tracks off a super high five bet, which requires bettors to predict the first five finishers in a race, and it’s commonly offered on the final race of the day.
Horizontal bets involve betters picking winners of a specific number of races, commonly ranging from two to as many as six or seven.
The daily double is most basic horizontal bet, requiring players to bet on the winner of consecutive races. Other popular horizontal bets are Pick 3, Pick 4, Pick 5 and Pick 6. In all horizontal wagers the cost of the bet depends on the number of selections in each race multiplied by the amount wagered. For example, betters playing a Pick 3 for $2 and selecting two horses in each race will pay $16 (2x2x2 multiplied by $2 = $16).
All tracks have specific rules related to late scratches to horses in specific races and how they affect horizontal wagers. Horseplayers should familiarize themselves with those rules since they may be entitled to refunds in the event of a late scratch.