Horse racing

As in most other sports, betting on horse racing can be done in person or via an online racebook. There are several dedicated racebooks to choose from. You can also bet with more general online sportsbooks that also offer a comprehensive range of horse racing betting markets.

In this guide, we will give you an overview of horse racing from a betting perspective. We'll explain how horse racing works and outline the various types of bets that can be placed. We'll even give you a few betting strategies to consider using the next time you try to pick a winner!

Rules and Gameplay

Before betting on horse racing, there are a few essential basics that you would do well to understand. The first is that there are many different types of races that you can bet on. These include sprint races, maiden races, harness races, stakes races, and more. At the same time, races take place on different surfaces (turf or dirt) and are run over varying distances.

Racing programs are published that provide all the information you need to analyze events at a particular meeting. The information given will include the names of the runners, their post positions, their weight, the jockeys riding, and how they have fared in past races. That last piece of information, which is referred to as 'the form', is essential for anyone who wants to bet on horse racing, as you'll see later.

If you visit a racetrack in person, the program will be available as a published pamphlet. When you bet on horse racing online, you can view the same kind of information at the racebooks or sportsbooks you choose to use.

Top Horse Racing Bets

When you have picked one or two horses that you want to bet on, you will have to decide what kind of bet you want to place. There are many different wagering options in horse racing, each with its own level of complexity and earnings potential.

You have the option of making a "straight" wager or an "exotic" wager. Straight wagers include Win, Place, and Show, and are the staples for most serious horse racing bettors. Exotic wagers include the Exacta, Trifecta, Superfecta, and Pick 5. These will offer bigger potential returns but are typically much harder to win with.

In order to choose between these various bet types, you need to understand how they work. We will therefore take a quick look at each of the main bets in turn.

The Win Bet

The Win bet is perhaps the most straightforward and the easiest to understand. It requires you to predict which horse will win a given race. If the horse wins, your bet will also win.

The Place Bet

A Place bet requires you to select a horse that you think will finish in first or second place in a given race. Again, if your horse succeeds then so will your bet. However, because this bet effectively gives you two chances of succeeding (because two finishing positions are covered) it pays lower odds than for the corresponding win bet.

The Show Bet

The Show bet is really an enhanced Place bet. Here you need to bet on a horse that you think will finish in first, second, or third place. Again, because this bet gives you three shots at winning instead of just one, the odds are lower than those for a Place or Win bet.

The Win-Place-Show (W/P/S) Bet

You can also choose to bet "across the board" with a Win, Place, Show, or W/P/S bet. This wager is essentially a combination of the three previous bets. It, therefore, costs more, but it also gives you the chance to win more.

If your selected horse wins the race you will receive payouts for the Win, Place, and Show. If it finishes in second place, you will receive payouts for the Place and Show. Should it only finish in third place, only the Show aspect of the bet will pay out.

The Exacta

We now come to the Exacta, which is the first of the exotic bets. Here you need to select two horses in the same race - one to win and the other to place second. If both of those horses finish in those exact positions (hence the name) the bet will win.

This bet requires you to make two successful predictions. It is therefore much harder to win with than any of the others already mentioned. As a result, you'll receive a much bigger payout if you succeed.

The Trifecta

This bet is very similar to the Exacta, but here you also need to select a horse to finish in third place. If all three of your selections finish in the positions predicted (first, second and third) the bet will win. Again, because making three correct predictions is even harder than making one or two, a winning Trifecta will pay even bigger odds.

The Superfecta

The Superfecta is very hard to hit, but it often has a huge return. It requires you to select four horses to finish in first, second, third, and fourth place, in that exact order.

The Pick 3, 4, 5 and 6

All of the previous bets were focused on just one race. However, it is also possible to place an exotic bet that revolves around several races. Your task in a Pick 3, 4, 5, or 6 bet is to select a horse in each of three, four, five, or six consecutive races. If all of your selections win their races, your Pick bet will also win.

The odds for a winning Pick bet can be enormous. That's because the odds for each of the horses will be multiplied together. Even modestly priced favorites will give you a bumper payout. If one or more of your selections is more generously priced, the resulting payout will be significantly bigger.

Of course, picking the winner of just one race is challenging enough, so you can imagine how much more difficult it is to pick winners in three to six consecutive races.

The Box Bet

When wagering on a horse race, you can also box your bets. This means including a second or even a third outcome for a race in order to increase your chances of winning.

A Box bet costs more than a regular bet due to the additional chances of winning that you have. For example, if you box an Exacta bet, you would pay twice as much as for a standard Exacta so that your two selections can be covered in either order.

Three key roles that you need to be particularly aware of are as follows:

The Owner

Owners are important because many great thoroughbred runners come from the same stables. As in all walks of life, some owners are better than others. The more experience you get in horse racing the more often you will recognize familiar names cropping up. A horse won't win just because it happens to be owned by a particular person, of course. But the horses that have been carefully selected by a good owner will have every chance of succeeding.

The Trainer

It is the job of the trainer to take the 'raw material' of an unraced horse and turn it into a race winner. Horses are beautiful creatures, but they all have their own personalities and traits. The trainer will do his or her utmost to recognize those traits and train each horse accordingly.

Again, when you have been betting on horses for a while you will come to see that the best trainers produce winner after winner. Getting to know those names and understanding what type of races they are best at winning in could prove very useful when trying to pick winners.

The Jockey

A jockey is a man or woman who rides a horse in an effort to win the race. You might think that jockeys simply sit in the saddle and go along for the ride, but there is a lot more to it than that. Jockeys work hard to make the most of the stamina and speed of their horses by holding them, positioning them strategically, and then letting them run more freely as the race progresses.

Racehorses can have different jockeys from race to race. However, they more commonly have regular jockeys who work alongside certain trainers and owners. A good jockey will seek to build a relationship with the runner and can keep him or her steady, focused, and calm.

A much better way to go about things is to study each race and runner more carefully. Compare and contrast the form of each horse, consider the jockey who will be riding, take a look at the post position, and so on. The more you study the form in this way, the better you will get at being able to select the most likely winners.

Top Horse Race Betting Strategies

If you don't have the time for all of that, you could consider following a 'ready to go' betting strategy. A good strategy will tell you what kind of races and horses to look for and give you a few guidelines about how to bet in those races.

To help you get started with this approach, here are a handful of betting strategies that you can consider using.

Recent Winners Strategy

The Recent Winners Strategy is one of the most straightforward tactics for betting on horse racing. After choosing which race to wager on, you look for any runners on the race form that have had a recent victory. If they did have a recent win, there is a higher likelihood that they will perform well in the coming race.

This strategy is relatively easy to follow, but it isn't perfect. Not every horse with a recent win will win again, so you should always be prepared for the unexpected. This strategy is also far less useful when there are several runners in a race that have recent winning form.

A recent winner often has lower odds than a horse with less impressive form. That means a winning selection using this strategy will probably have fairly modest odds. Of course, you are more likely to win by betting on proven form than unproven outsiders, so it's a fairly safe approach, overall.

Back the Beaten Favorite

This strategy relies on the public doubting a highly ranked horse after watching it getting beaten in a recent race. Following the recent loss, bettors often wager against the same horse in its next race. That causes the odds for that horse to increase.

Of course, a high-level runner losing a recent race doesn't always mean they will perform poorly next time out. This is the basis of the Back the Beaten Strategy. Look for a horse that was a beaten favorite in its last race. If it is being offered at good odds for the next race, consider placing a modest bet on it. The higher odds will give you a good payout if the horse bounces back and proves the previous result to be nothing more than a temporary blip.


If you like the idea of maximizing your chances of winning in any given race, you can do so by employing a Dutching approach. This involves placing separate Win bets on two or more horses to win the same race. Because you have more horses running for you, your chances of success will naturally be much better than relying on just one runner.

In order for this strategy to be effective, your chosen selections must be offered at odds that are big enough to give you an overall profit should any one of them win. That generally means betting at odds of more than +200 for two selections, more than +300 for three selections, and so on. Of course, if none of your selections wins the race, all of your bets will be lost.

Modern horse racing began in the 12th century in England. Back then, only the nobility wagered in private, and it wasn't until the 1700s that it became a professional sport.

That was when spectators also began to wager on the events. Large purses (sums of prize money) were offered to attract the top horses. The sport spread rapidly, and in 1750 the Jockey Club was established. The Jockey Club is the central governing authority and still regulates English racing even today.

Horse Racing in the US

The first racetrack in the United States was built in 1665 in Long Island. Horse racing was a popular local sport before organized racing established itself after 1868. Throughout the next few decades, especially during the industrial expansion, horse racing and betting increased rapidly.

Because the sport was exploding and there was no governing authority, top track and stable owners met in New York in 1894 to establish an American Jockey Club, based on the English version.

However, the early 1900s saw a massive downturn for the sport as antigambling sentiment spread throughout the nation. The number of operating tracks in the country went from 314 in 1890 to just 25 in 1908. Ironically, the same year saw pari-mutuel betting offered on the Kentucky Derby, one of the most well-known horse races globally. As a consequence, more racetracks were opened.

The sport's popularity waxed and waned until the 1970s when top names like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed brought more attention. These horses did this by winning the Triple Crown, which is one of the most prestigious titles in horse racing. It is given to horses that win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes in the same year.

Horse racing today draws massive crowds to top events each year. In the United States, it often attracts the most spectators among any sport. In 1989 alone, over 50 million people attended 8,000 race days in the U.S., with the total amount of bets hitting $9 billion.

Hall of Fame

There have been many great racehorses throughout the sport's history. The names of the very best are enshrined in an extensive Hall of Fame, along with the names of top jockeys, trainers, and owners.

Among all of the greats, there is one name that reigns above all others, and that is Secretariat. An American Thoroughbred racehorse, Secretariat is considered by many as the greatest runner in history. He is mostly known for his record-breaking victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, which he won by 31 lengths.

He was the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, largely responsible for jumpstarting interest in the sport once again. Secretariat was Horse of the Year at ages two and three, and he was nominated to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1974.

Some other names on the Hall of Fame include:

A.P. IndyMan o' War
AffirmedSir Barton
Gallant ManZenyatta

Some of the Hall of Fame trainers include:

Steve AsmussenRoger Attfield
Bob BaffertThomas H. Voss
William Mott

Distinctive Elements

Some of the most distinctive elements of horse racing are its simplicity and the pace of the action. Other sporting events often have many rules and take hours to determine a winner. But horse racing is a simple Win, Place, Show sport, often lasting less than two minutes.

Because of this, horse racing is very welcoming to those who are just getting into sports betting. You can take a single horse race, study a few aspects of the card, and begin betting right away. The rookie bettor will not get bored with the sport due to its fast running.

Horse Racing Statistics

Horse racing isn't so much focused on statistics as records and other indicators. A bettor will focus on career and yearly records for horses, jockeys, and trainers, as well as the course record for each. This can indicate how well they perform over a given track.

Distance is also critical when betting on horse races, with races covering various lengths including 1 mile, 1 1/8 miles, 1 1/16 miles, etc. This can significantly impact a runner, and it is a good indicator as to when the horse might tire or drop off.

Some other statistics and numbers in horse racing include previous market moves, race classes, and speed figures, which indicate how fast a horse ran in a race.

Popularity and Cultural Impact

Besides the US, horse racing culture is prominent in Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, the Middle East, South America, and Australia. There are often major events like the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup World Championships, which offer much more than racing. These festival events are broadcasted globally, and attendees often adhere to old traditions regarding attire, drinks, and other forms of entertainment.

Horse Racing FAQ

How to bet on horse racing?
The basic principle is very simple. Pick a horse that you think will win a race, visit a racebook or sportsbook and place your bet. If the horse wins the race, your bet will also win.
What is a Trifecta in horse racing?
A Trifecta is a bet on the horses that you expect to finish in first, second, and third place. Your selections must finish in that precise order for your bet to win.
What is the Triple Crown in horse racing?
The Triple Crown is a prestigious title given to horses that win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes in the same year.
How to bet on horse racing online?
You can bet on horse racing online with a racebook or sportsbook, as you prefer. Take a look at our online racebooks and online sportsbooks pages for more information.
About Cole Paganelli
Cole Paganelli author profile

Cole is really big into Major League Baseball, but really the big four Pro US sports are his passion. Cole grew up a Yankees fan, but married a Red Sox fan. It's tough around the house during those big games, but his distain for the Red Sox has waned a little. Cole's bucket list ambition is to visit every Major League Baseball Stadium.

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