Betting the ponies requires some skill, but odds are on you to learn how with a bit of perseverance.

By Sarah E. Coleman

While attending the races is exhilarating in its own right, being able to bet the ponies makes the day even more exiting. You don’t need to bet the house to have fun; the minimum bet for straight wagers at most tracks is only $2. The one thing to remember when you’re wagering, however, is that you usually need to bet money to make money.

There is no “correct” way to handicap, or predict the outcome of, horse races; some people rely on a horse’s past performances, some watch the horses in the paddock prior to the race and some rely solely on a racehorse’s pedigree. While no method is foolproof, there is one tool that will provide you with additional knowledge to be able to make an educated wager: a racing form.shutterstock_191808173

While a bit more complicated than simply choosing the horse with the best name (though this has been known to elicit a lot of laughs as the horses come down the stretch), the ability to read and decipher a racing form will improve your chances of making a winning wager.

How to Read a Track Program

If you’ve never seen a race-day program, it can look a little like gibberish, with all sorts of numbers and lingo. But it’s worthwhile to learn how to read one; it has statistics and history on all the horses that will run that day. If you plan on betting the ponies during your next trip to the track, it can be helpful to check out Equibase, the company that creates all race-day programs, for an interactive guide before you go.

Some key terms to look at when reading the track program:

The level of race the horses have been running. There are four race classes: maiden, claiming, allowance and stakes. The higher up in class you go, the more purse money is offered, with stakes being the highest.

While horses move up and down in class during the racing season, if you notice that this is the first race in a higher class for a horse you like, you might be wise to hold your bet as he may be outclassed by horses who have been performing in these races all year.

shutterstock_332752571Jockey: The jockey’s performance history will also be in the program. If he consistently rides horses that come in first, second or third, it’s a pretty good indicator that the jock has talent. You will also be able to see the history of the jockey with that particular horse; if they have done well together in the past, they might make a repeat performance.

Past performance on track surface type. Different racetracks offer different surfaces on which the horses run; these can include all-natural dirt and grass, or artificial polytrack. The program will tell you each horse’s past performance on the different types of tracks; if a horse is running on a new-to-him surface, you may not want to wager he will win on a new surface.

Odds: Every horse in every race will be listed with his odds of winning next to his name (updated odds will also be available at the track). The “favorite” horse, meaning the one expected to win, will have the lowest odds. If you’re looking for an easy way to handicap with a good chance for a (small) financial return, bet the race favorite to show.

Betting Variations

There are two basic options when betting: straight wagers and exotic wagers. Straight wagers are the easiest for a novice bettor to place; you bet only one horse. If you bet a horse to “win,” you’re betting that the horse will come in first place; you only collect money if the horse wins. If you bet a horse to “place,” you’re betting that the horse will come in first or second. If he does either of these, you collect a payout. Payout for a place bet is less than a win wager, but you will be able to cash in if your horse comes home in the two top spots.

shutterstock_355901525A “show” bet means that you are betting that the horse you like will come in first, second or third. Here you have a higher chance of winning, but the payout will be lower than a win or place bet. The minimum bet at most tracks for a straight wager is $2.

If you bet a horse “across the board,” you’re betting one horse to win, place AND show. Essentially three bets in one, you will generally pay $6 for this wager. If your chosen horse wins, you get the win, place and show money; if he comes in second, you get the place and show money; if he comes in third, you get the show money only. These bets, while tempting, are not generally a good wager because they are more expensive to place, with less potential for profit.

Exotic wagers are more complicated and allow for multiple bets on multiple horses in one wager. These bets are typically more difficult to win, and more expensive to place, but the payout is much greater. These bets require more skill in handicapping horses than simple, straight bets.

-Exacta: The easiest of exotic wagers, you’re betting on two horses to come in first and second in an exact order. For example, if you placed a $2 exacta on horses 4 and 6, you can only collect if the number 4 horse wins and the number 6 horse comes in second. The payout for an exacta can be quite lucrative. There is an option to “box” your exacta bet, which means the two horses you chose can finish in either order in the top two spots and you win. Boxing an exacta costs twice as much as a straight exacta bet.

-Trifecta: In a trifecta, you bet that three horses will finish in first, second and third in an exact order. You can box your trifecta so that you will win if your three chosen horses come in in any order. Boxing will increase the cost of the bet because there are so many combinations.

-Superfecta: In a superfecta, you bet that four horses will finish in places one through four in an exact order. You can also box a superfecta. The minimum bet on a superfecta is usually 10 cents, so this is a bet many people place.

Placing Your Bet

Now it’s time for the fun part: Placing your bet. Placing a bet is not intimidating, but you will need to know exactly what you would like when you get to the counter–things tend to move quickly, especially closer to the race’s post. Be sure to have your money in-hand by the time you reach the counter!

shutterstock_563793To place your bet, you will need to tell the teller the following information, in this specific order:
1. The race number of the race you wish to bet
2. The amount of your bet
3. The type of bet you are placing
4. The horse’s race number
It will sound like this: “Race seven, $2 to win on number 7.” The teller will take your money and give you your ticket.

Be sure to keep your ticket in a safe place; you don’t want to be scrambling when it’s time to collect your winnings!

There are tons of resources out there to make your wagers more effective. Some of them to look into include the Daily Racing Form, tip sheets from professional handicappers, and track odds maker’s write-ups.