The Basics of Betting

Man studying the racing results.

Okay guys, the Kentucky Derby is coming up quickly and I am sure many of you are trying to salvage those bad future wagers you made. How about we go back to basics and look at some simple betting tips and what betting is all about? If you learn something by the end of this, I will have done my job.

So, what is handicapping? Simply put, handicapping is studying all the different factors involved in trying to decipher the winner of a horse race.

How do you do that?

Well, to begin with, you do your prep work — no buying the past performances 30 minutes before the first race. Don’t get me wrong, you definitely should invest in the past performances for that particular day, but if you don’t do your work before the day of racing, don’t expect to be able to spend your rent money and be okay at the end of the day!

If you don’t want to bet your rent money and just want to play to have a little fun, let’s look at the betting basics:

  • The WIN bet is the most common type of bet. The win bet is simply picking the horse you believe will win the race, and putting a bet on that horse. Bets start at $2 and can go as high as your choose.
  • If you think your horse has a shot at finishing first or possibly second, then you might want to make a PLACE bet, which pays back if the horse finishes either first or second.
  • The same goes for a SHOW bet, but it also pays if the horse finishes third.

However, it’s important to know that the payoff amount generally decreases at each “level.” If a horse wins at tote board odds of 5-1 and pays $12.60 to win, it will typically not pay that same amount to place or show. The place amount would be, say, $4.40, while the show payoff would be even less, like $3.40. These numbers are just hypothetical, but you get the idea.

What if I want to play one of the “exotic” bets?

Well, good question. There are several kinds. Most tracks offer an exacta, trifecta and superfecta. To win one of these bets, you have to choose the correct horses to finish 1-2, 1-2-3 or 1-2-3-4, respectively. Sounds simple, right?

On the plus side, you don’t have to play just one horse in each spot. Say, for example, you want to play a trifecta and there are 11 horses in that particular race. You can put the number 7 on top, if you are confident that horse will win, and, then, underneath, you can use numbers 2, 8 and 11.

If you’re betting the trifecta, you can use those same three horses in the third-slot and maybe add a couple others, like the 5 and 6.

Your ticket will then look like this: 7 with 2, 8, 11 with 2, 5, 6, 8, 11. A $1 bet would cost $12, based on the 12 combinations that the above ticket contains (1 x 3 x 4 x $1 = $12).

Let me tell you about one of the times I played an exotic bet: I recently played an exacta at Keeneland on the Blue Grass Stakes undercard. I have a little piece of advice for anyone who plays an exacta — always  box!

Boxing a bet means you can choose two horses like I did. However, because I wasn’t sure which one I liked more, I boxed the two, meaning they could finish 1-2 in any order.

My $4 bet paid back $33.40!

When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, I say have some fun with it! If you have a sentimental favorite, give them your $2 and then play a few more serious bets. The Kentucky Derby is one of the hardest races to handicap, which means, don’t be so hard on yourself if you don’t hit your first-ever superfecta on Derby Day. The basics of betting are easy, but learning the trade takes more time.

Casey Laughter
Casey Laughter has been following horse racing since 2003, when Funny Cide stole her heart and took Louisville by storm. After that, Casey had succumbed to the horse racing bug — and has been unable to shake it after all these years.

Casey has visited tracks in Ohio, Kentucky and New York, covering events from a weekend at Keeneland to the defeat of a Triple Crown winner. As a student, Casey is hoping to break into the racing world with her photos and her writing.

She has a personal blog named A World Full of Furlongs and a photography portfolio on Flickr named Casey Laughter Photography. She also writes for another horse racing website named Lady and the Track.