How to Bet at the Horse Track

Horse racing is one of the biggest and most accessible sports to bet on. In addition to international races, dozens of races are run in the US daily. It’s one of few that allow you to bet online or in person, and we’re going to look at the latter, explaining how to bet at the horse track.

To do this, we will highlight what you need to do to place a bet at the track and compare it with betting online. We will also look at betting markets, reasons why you might want to bet at the track instead of online, and added betting strategies to increase profitability from your bets.

What does the term Horse Track Mean?

Betting at the track differs to how to bet on horse racing online. Simply put, it’s placing a bet when you are physically located at the track, betting live on upcoming races at that specific meeting. There are a few other key differences as well which we’ll cover on this page.

Alternative names for the horse track include racecourse and race track. For example, if you’re placing a bet with at Churchill Downs for a race at that meeting, you’re betting at the track. You must be physically present to do this.

How to Bet at the Horse Track – Example

The process of how to bet at the horse track is relatively straightforward, and we will explain how that works.

Horse Track Betting windows
Image credit: Neatjunk/Wikimedia Commons

US racetracks each run their own parimutuel betting pools. We explain more about this in the next section, but this means all bets of a certain type on any given race are collected into a single pool, the race track takes a percentage out as a fee, and the remaining money is distributed to the winning bettors after the race is run.

Like any regular bookmaker, the track will display odds for each horse for the upcoming race, usually in decimal or fractional form. Fractional form, e.g. 4/1, shows the profit a bettor makes for each dollar bet. In this example, $4 profit for each $1 wagered. Decimal odds show the whole return for a winning bet, both profit and stake, so the decimal odds 5.0 is equivalent to 4/1.

Odds displayed at most tracks should be used as a guide only as, like we said before, bets are placed into a parimutuel betting pool and odds are not confirmed until after the race.

To place a bet, you approach the betting window and state how much you want to bet on your selection. You use the horse’s program number and the race number it is running in, and they will confirm the bet.

You hand over the money and receive a betting slip in return. This slip states the horse you’ve bet on and the amount you’ve bet. Always check the horse name and number are right before leaving the betting window. Normally, the odds and returns will not be shown on the ticket as odds can fluctuate in parimutuel systems between the time your bet is placed and the race starting.

Horse Track betting types
Image credit: Wally Gobetz/Flickr

Basics of Horse Racing Betting at The Track

To better understand how to bet at the horse track, you need to know how horse racing betting works. We’ve included the basics below to get started, and this will help you as you look to place your first bet.

Understanding Horse Racing Odds and Payouts

For over a century, horse racing in the US has used a parimutuel betting system. This is a pool where all bets are combined, and then dividends are paid out to the winners.

Some betting boards at the horse racing track will display odds, but these, unless otherwise stated, these are morning line odds that should be used as a guide to the horse’s chance and probable payout. You won’t know the actual payout until after the race.

So, how does parimutuel betting work?

Every wager placed is combined into a single pool for the race. Once the race has started, no more bets can be taken, and the total amount is counted. Upon completion of the race, the number of winning tickets for that horse is counted, and the money in the pool is divided among those tickets.

Let’s look at how that works in a little more depth.

We’re going to bet on a race that has five runners and the total amount wagered on each horse to win is as follows:

  • Horse 1 = $3,000
  • Horse 2 = $5,000
  • Horse 3 = $8,000
  • Horse 4 = $500
  • Horse 5 = $4,500

The total amount staked on the race is $21,000. The race track will take a cut for running the pool. The percentage will vary from track to track, but let’s say it’s 10%, which totals $2,100. This leaves a total of $18,900 to be paid to those bettors who wagered on the winning horse.

To get the dividend paid, we divide the amount in the pool, after the track’s fee is taken out, by the total amount staked. This gives us the following potential payouts for each horse.

  • Horse 1 = $18,900 / $3,000 = $6.30
  • Horse 2 = $18,900 / $5,000 = $3.78
  • Horse 3 = $18,900 / $8,000 = $2.36
  • Horse 4 = $18,900 / $500 = $37.80
  • Horse 5 = $18,900 / $4,500 = $4.20

These dividends represent the total return per $1 wagered on each horse. Let’s say that Horse 4 has won. Given the low volume of bets placed compared to others, it pays a massive $37.80 for each $1 wagered.

Fixed Odds Betting for Horse Racing

Fixed odds betting works differently to parimutuel as your odds are locked in when you place your bet and so, you can work out the returns instantly.

For example, if the odds for the horse you want to bet on are 4/1 and you place a winning $100 wager, you get a $500 return, which includes the original $100 stake, for a $400 profit.

Over the last couple of years, many sources have suggested the on-track US betting market move away from parimutuel betting in favor of fixed odds. The only track currently offering fixed odds betting on-track is Monmouth Park in New Jersey. All others have only parimutuel systems in place for bettors looking to bet on track.

The pros of using fixed odds are knowing how much your bet will return at the point of sale. The cons are that, sometimes, when an outsider wins a race parimutuel odds can be much more generous and you can get much higher returns for the same bet. If you want to place a fixed odds bet on horse racing it has to be online.

Horse Racing Betting Markets

To understand how to bet at the horse track, you must know how the different betting markets work. It’s worth noting that you’ll find a wider range of markets online than at the track, but most of those we’ve listed below are accessible at both.

Most popular markets

Win bet

A straight bet on a horse to win the race.

Place bet

The place bet is where you bet on one horse to finish first or second. The order of the position doesn’t matter, as the bet pays the same for the first and second.

Show bet

An extension of the place bet is the show bet, where you pick a horse to finish in the top three positions in any order.

Each-way bet

An each-way bet is split into two parts. Half the bet is placed on the horse to win, and half is on the horse to show. In the parimutuel system, half your bet goes in the win pool and half in the show pool. If your horse wins, both pay out, if it only manages second or third, you just win the show portion of the bet. Note, when having a bet ‘each way’ at the track, the amount you ask for doubles. That means, if you ask for $10 each way, the total cost of the bet is $20, $10 to win, $10 to place.

Exotics

This next group of betting markets are called exotics. Some are more accessible than others, but the increased difficulty can create huge payouts.

Exacta

An exacta bet involves choosing two horses to finish first and second in the correct order.

Quinella

A quinella is a bet where you pick two horses to finish first and second in any order.

Trifecta

The trifecta is an extension of the exacta bet, and instead of picking two horses, you need to pick three to finish first, second, and third in the correct order.

Superfecta

In the superfecta, you bet on four horses to finish in the top four spots in the correct order. This is one of the toughest exotic bets, but it pays the most for obvious reasons.

Daily Double

The daily double is where you must pick the winners from two consecutive races, usually the first two of the same meeting.

Pick bet

Pick bets can include three, four, five, or six picks and require picking the winners of the allocated number of races. So, a Pick 3 would be three races, a Pick 4 would be four, and so on. Again, these are linked to the same meeting.

Box bet

For a box bet, you have multiple combinations from markets such as the exacta, trifecta, and superfecta. It allows for a wider range of winning combinations from the horses picked for each race.
Wheel Bet: With a wheel bet, you cover all combinations in an exacta, trifecta, and superfecta.

Key bet

In a key bet, you choose a “key” horse to finish in a fixed position for that race, then combinations of other horses in the remaining positions. This strategy is used with exacta, trifecta, and superfecta bets.

Futures

This is betting on the outcome of a race way before the start date/time. Major races such as the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes can be included.

How to Read a Race Program

A key component in learning how to bet at the horse track is knowing how the race program works. This is an overview of each race, with a ton of information about the horses. If you’re new to racing, there’s a lot to take in and it’s not always apparent what each section means.

Horse Racing Program Page

The image above is of a race card from a meeting at Mahoning Valley. We need to stress that even though this is an online race program, the ones you get at the track will have similar information, making it a good reference point.

We’ll run through the key headers at the top of each column to showcase what each section shows.

P#PPHorseA/SJockeyWgtM/L

Program number

This is the number the horse will wear on its saddle cloth and is the number you should quote to the attendant when you want to place a bet on it.

Post position

PP stands for post position, this is the number of the gate the horse will start from. Only in unusual circumstances will the program number and post position be different in races in the US. Horses’ program number and post position are often different in overseas jurisdictions, though.

Horse’s name

Horse’s name. Self explanatory. Sometimes quoting a horse’s name to an attendant at the betting window will be enough, but often it’s also necessary to quote its program number as well.

Age and Sex

This stands for age and sex, the numbers are the horse’s age in years and the letter stands for its sex. Male horses can be represented by C for colts (when they’re under four years old), G for gelding, H for horse or sometimes S for stallion. Female horses are fillies (F) when under the age of four, and mares (M) when older than four.

Jockey’s name

The jockey can have a huge impact on a horse’s chance in a race. It’s position and when ask for maximum effort are decisions they make in a spolit second and can be the difference between winning and losing.

Weight

This is the weight carried by a horse. In high grade races all horses will carry the same weights, but in others the handicapper assigns better horses more weight to try and level the playing field.

Morning line

This is the estimated odds for each horse on the morning of the race. This can and will change as the race gets closer.

On track programs will also publish the colors or ‘silks’ the jockeys will wear and the saddlecloth color. They will also show each horse’s recent run of form in the format 1362-0 where each number is the position the horse has finished in it’s most recent runs. The dash represents a period off the track, usually the break between seasons.

There will also often be a series of letters and abbreviations printed underneath the horse’s name. Most racecards include a key to see what each means as this can differ from track to track. But they usually represent with the horse’s color, like “ch” meaning chestnut and “dk”, meaning dark. They also print letters like “D” which shows that the horse has won at this distance before. Other abbreviations include:

  • CD – Winner at course and distance
  • D – Winner at distance
  • C – Winner at course
  • BF – Beaten favorite last time out

Each horse will also have an official rating that states the horse’s ability and is completed by the handicapper. The rating looks at a lot of information from previous runs. You can find that some horses have better form and lower ratings because of the field quality in those races.

As you can see, there are many moving parts to a race program, and at the track, some cards are even more complicated than in our example. It’s one of those things that takes a little time to work through, but as you get more comfortable, they become much easier to read.

We will add that it’s easier to read the online card than the track cards. We’d even say that if you’ve access to online cards at the track, use these instead.

Is it Best to Bet at the Horse Track or Online?

The age-old question – is it better to bet online or at the track? It’s tough to answer this straight up as there are many moving parts, but as a general rule, we’d favor betting online, especially at betting sites that will take fixed price bets.

Let’s look at how the pair differ.

Social Aspect

Betting at the track is much better as a social occasion. You can go with friends, have a great day out, and enjoy the racing just yards away from the action. There’s nothing like the roar upon the start of the race at the Kentucky Derby or Belmont Stakes to get the juices flowing.

Even if you’re sat at home watching or live-streaming the race, it’s not the same. If you want the social aspect, betting at the track is the way to go.

Better Odds Online

In terms of making money, you’ll be better off betting online most of the time. This is because you’ll get better odds and pool payouts online than at the track.

Let’s explain why. You will still use a parimutuel betting system if you’re betting at the track. However, the pool you’re betting into is small. If you think about how many people are at the track compared to those using sites like BetOnline, which have an international player base with millions of accounts, the pool sizes aren’t going to compare.

Betonline racebook odds

As a result, online will give you more consistent payouts and results. The more people wager into the pool, the less variance there is for strange results.

The counter to this is that if you’re someone who’s willing to take a risk and absorb the times when the dividends are low for the times that they are unusually high, then maybe betting at the track is right for you.

In terms of the odds available, in both fixed odds and parimutuel markets, online is going to win almost every time. This is because you can shop about and get the best odds from dozens of online sportsbooks and pools whereas at the track, you’re betting into smaller pools and therefore, generally, get poorer odds.

Bonus and Promotions

Betting online allows you to tie in your bets with promotions and sportsbook bonuses. It’s possible to claim thousands of dollars from these offers, which can absorb losses.

horse racing betting promotions

You won’t get these betting at the track, so you lose out as a result. Some sites will run cashback rebates on horse racing losses, which allows you to claim up to 20% back on all losing bets.

There are many pros and cons to betting online versus at the track, and it will come down to personal preference. One thing worth mentioning is that, if you’re at the track, you can use mobile betting apps with Android and iPhone to compare online and track odds. This, for us, is the best of both worlds.

How to Place a Horse Racing Bet Online

If you decide that betting at the track is not for you or you want the option of being able to access both online and offline odds, we will show you how to create an account and place a bet with the racebook below.

  1. 1. Open the BetOnline site

    To start, you must open the BetOnline site using a desktop or mobile. Click the “Join” button at the top to begin the account process.
    1. Open the BetOnline site
  2. 2. Create an account

    Follow the steps on the page and fill in your account information. The process should only take a few minutes but remember that you will need to verify your account before placing a bet.
    2. Create an account
  3. 3. Deposit

    Once the account is set up and verified, log in and head to the cashier. You can use the BetOnline promo code “BET1000” to get a 50% match on your first deposit up to $1,000.
    3. Deposit
  4. 4. Go to the racebook

    The racebook is separate from the main sportsbook. To access it, click the menu button at the bottom and select the racebook.
    4. Go to the racebook
  5. 5. Place a bet

    Find the race and the market you want to bet on. Enter our stake within the box and then click “add to bet”, Within the betslip, confirm the bet, and click “place bet.” You can track bets within the bet slip once live and then again when settled.
    5. Place a bet

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Horse Racing Betting Strategies

Whether you’re betting online or at the track, you need a solid horse racing betting strategy. We’ve included a few pointers below on where to start and what to look for.

Form

A horse’s form tells us how well it has run in its previous races. This vital statistic is a key tool for becoming profitable at betting on horse racing.

One thing that many people get wrong here is to look and see if the horse has won recently. Winning is important but not the be-all and end-all for racing.

What you need to look for is whether the horse is improving or not. It might be that it’s finished dead last, fifth, third, and second in its last four races. It shows that, even though it’s not won, it’s improving.

Another key area to note with form is the quality of previous races. A horse may be taking a step up or down in class for the current race, and you need to bear that in mind.

For example, if a horse finishes third in a Class 2 race and is now dropping down into a Class 3 race, that third-place finish is going to carry more weight than a horse that’s won a Class 4 race and is making the step up.

Jockey and Trainer Data

Jockey and trainer data is another good place to start if you’re new to horse racing. Form doesn’t just apply to the horse itself but to those involved with getting the horse race-ready (trainer) and getting it across the line (jockey).

A good tip here is to follow training yards instead of individual races. When a yard gets on form, it breeds confidence in the rest of the horses linked to that yard. This can be achieved through several factors, including training regimes, the quality of the training partners, and even things like nutrition to increase stamina.

There’s no hard and fast rule about an exact number, but if you’re looking at a yard with zero wins from the last 30 races for the month, giving too much weight to any of its horses is tough. Whereas, if there have been 10 wins in the last 30 races, something is going well, and it’s likely a good idea to start tracking where their horses are running.

Track Conditions

Track conditions are one of the most overlooked aspects of horse racing. Not all horses are suited to all tracks. Some like hard and fast, some prefer it wet and slow.

It’s also worth considering the track surface. In the US, many races are run on dirt, which is relatively consistent. Other surfaces include all-weather and grass, with the latter being the most impacted by the weather.

To determine if the ground will suit, go back to prior races and see how the horses performed on similar surfaces. If you’re at the track, you should have a good idea about how the ground is going, and there are plenty of horse racing betting sites that will label the current going for you.

Money Management

Controlling how you bet on each race is vital in horse racing betting strategy. In the industry, this is referred to as bankroll management. This protects you spending too much too soon.

With horse racing, you aren’t going to win every race, and you don’t need to, as you can still profit from a losing record.

The best way to control this is to have a points-scoring system for each bet you place. Assign each point to a monetary value, and the more confident you are of the bet, the more points you assign it, and therefore the more you wager.

For example, let’s assume your strategy is $10 per point on a one through five scale. You research and decide that a horse is worth four points to win the race. This means you bet $40 on that horse. Let’s say you quite like a long shot for a different race but need to be conservative, so give it one point. This would be a $10 bet on the horse.

By doing this, you weight your bets based on confidence levels, and you will massively prolong your bankroll by not betting the same amount on each horse, disregarding the quality of the bet.

Finding Value

Sports betting is about finding value, and horse racing is no different. Value is determined by betting on a horse at higher odds than you think the true odds should be.

For example, if you think a horse has a 4/1 chance of winning, but the bookmaker offers 5/1, this creates value.

This presents a key problem with on track, parimutuel betting, we don’t know the exact returns for each bet until after the race is run. This is why it may be better to find an online site that offers fixed-odds betting.

Learn How to Handicap

The handicapper is the person who asses each race and adds weight to horses that they think are the strongest. Each horse will have a rating, also set by the handicapper, and it’s their role first to predict the result of the race and then apply a weight handicap to create a level playing field.

In a perfect world, the handicapper has done their job if all horses cross the line simultaneously. Obviously, this would never happen, but that’s the goal for each race.

If you can put yourself in their shoes and start creating your own handicap, this will be an incredibly strong tool for finding value. It won’t be easy, and you won’t do this for every race. In fact, you only need to handicap the top three or four horses in most races to see where the value is.

Understand the Importance of Post Position and Race Distance

Draw and race distance are vital to finding winners, especially in shorter races. Tracks will almost always favor one side over the other. This might lead to a shorter line to the finish or just run a bit quicker because of how the ground is.

Most tracks will have decades of trends based on the draw. Do your research, see which posts are favored in races, and then see if any potential picks emerge. For some racetracks, this can be a significant advantage.

Race distance also plays a big role. Horses are trained and used to certain distances. And struggle to step up or down.

If you find that a horse doesn’t have much data at the distance it’s running, look at previous races and see how they finished. For example, you might find a horse that finished fourth in its last race over six furlongs but finished really strong, coming from the back of the pack to make it fourth when others were faltering.

Let’s say the horse’s next race was over a mile (eight furlongs). Given how strong it finished last time out over six, it will likely benefit from running over eight and could be a good example of a value bet.

FAQs

What are odds in horse racing?

What is the difference between win, place, and show bets?

What is an exacta bet?

Can I bet on multiple horses in a single race?

What does it mean to handicap a horse race?


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Jonathan Askew
Sports Betting and Casino Expert

Jonathan is a freelance writer working with Techopedia. He has been working within the gambling sector for over 15 years and has been fortunate enough to work with brands that include Gambling.com, CheekyPunter.com, BasketballInsiders.com and Betfair. He specializes in US and UK-based sports and casino content for Techopedia.