There was a time when horse racing was among the most popular sports in America. People would stop what they were doing to listen to races on the radio, and some thoroughbreds were as popular as today’s NBA or NFL superstars.
The explosion of modern sports and entertainment options have diminished the popularity of a day at the track, but there is still little as thrilling as watching your horse cross the finish line, your arms raised high with winning betting slips clutched in your fists. Indeed, there is little to compare to an afternoon at the track, watching spectacular athletes compete.
If you ever seen a race at a track, or even on television, the system of odds and betting can seem intimidating, and even a little confusing. But it doesn’t have to be. With just a couple of basics, you can understand the odds and place bets just like a pro.
Bets at tracks these days are either taken by clerks at betting windows or entered electronically at machines. The true race aficionado still loves to interact with the clerks at the windows, who can often be characters and enhance the race-day experience, but the terminology is the same for both.
First, horses are identified by number in the track program for the day or the Daily Racing Form, both of which can be purchased at the track. Both the program and the Racing Form contain data on each race, like the length, purse and types of horses that are running, plus how each horse has performed in previous races. (The Racing Form contains much more information, but you can save that for later.) The numbers correspond to the order that the horses are placed in the starting gate, and you use the individual numbers to identify the horses you want to wager on.
Second, you have to decide on the amount of your bet. The minimum is generally $2 for each wager. The more you bet, obviously, the more you can win. But beginners should probably bet small until they are truly comfortable with the system.
Third, there is the type of bet. This is where it can get confusing for the beginner because there are many exotic variations. But the basics are pretty easy. Horses pay off bettors if they finish first, second or third, also known as Win, Place and Show. A horse that wins also pays off bettors who wager it to come in second or third, albeit at lower amounts. Likewise, a horse that comes in second also pays off bettors who wagered that it would come in third. So the easiest three bets are Win, Place or Show. Put simply, these are bets on a horse to finish first, second or third.
To put it all together, say you wanted to bet on a horse listed as No. 4 in the program to come in first, and you wanted to wager the minimum. The order of the bet goes as follows: amount of wager, type of bet and finally, the horse. So you would tell the clerk you wanted to bet “$2 on No. 4 to win.”
And those are the basics.
There are a couple of variations that are worth knowing right off the bat. If you wanted to bet on a horse to finish first, second and third, you would bet it “across the board.” Recognize that it is three separate bets, so at the $2 minimum, it would cost $6.
You can also wager on two horses to come in first and second. This is known as an exacta bet. The order is like a straight bet, but you identify two horses, like this: “I’d like a $2 exacta, Numbers 4 and 5.” Sometimes you might like two horses but can’t decide which one will come in first. In a case like this, you can “box” the exacta, which means the two horses can finish in either order. The phrase at the ticket window would be “I’d like a $2 boxed exacta, Numbers 4 and 5.” Because it’s really two bets, it would cost $4.
If you are feeling adventurous, there is a bet called a trifecta, which is wagering on the horses that will finish first, second and third. A $2 boxed trifecta would be $12 because it’s really six bets. (Not every race will allow trifecta wagering.)
How much you win on a successful bet depends on the odds, which flutuate before a race and are displayed both on electronic boards at the track and on TV screens. The odds can seem confusing but are actually straightforward division.
Until the early 1900’s, wagers were taken at tracks by bookmakers, who set their own odds. Horse racing exploded after the Civil War and by 1890, 314 tracks were operating in the United States. But the rapid growth of horse racing without a regulator allowed criminal elements to infiltrate tracks. Antigambling sentiment led almost all states to ban bookmaking, and by 1908, only 25 tracks remained.
Horse racing was rescued by something called pari-mutuel wagering, invented by a Frenchman, Joseph Ollers, in 1865. Under this system, instead of betting with bookmakers, horse players bet against one another by pooling their wagers, with the winners dividing the pool after the racetrack deducts a certain percentage. Many states agreed to legalize pari-mutuel wagering in exchange for a percentage of the cash bet.
At first, mechanical calculators, known as “tote boards,” kept track of the odds, which are calculated by dividing the amount bet on all other horses by the amount bet on the horse whose odds are being calculated. Today, computers accomplish this task with split-second calculations.
Odds change right up until the horses are in the gate, so waiting until just before the start of the race to bet will give you a better idea of the payout you will receive if your horse wins. closing time today