PW's Guide to Horse Racing

Las Vegas has numerous horse betting parlors, with simulcasts from many tracks, not only in the US, but also international tracks. Just like being at the track, one can place wagers on win, place and show (first, second and third), along with many “exotic” wagers. These consist primarily of the following:

The Basics:

There are five categories of pari-mutuel betting on horses. 1) thoroughbreds; 2) trotters and pacers (harness races); 3) quarter horses; 4) steeplechase; 5) Arabians. This guide will focus on both thoroughbred and harness races. The types of bets and strategies discussed in this section will apply to most pari-mutuel  wagering including dog racing.

The Bets:

  • EXACTA is a two horse bet, where one must pick the winner and second place finishers in exact order, or “box” the bet so that either order of first and second place wins the bet.

    A 1-2-3-4 EXACTA BOX = 4 x 3 = $12.00. THE FORMULA FOR TRIFECTA'S IS SIMILAR: (# of HORSES x ( # OF HORSES -1) x (# OF HORSES -2). A 1-2-3 TRIFECTA BOX = (3 x 2 x 1 = $6.00)
    AND A 1-2-3-4 TRIFECTA BOX = (4 x 3 x 2 = $24.00)

  • QUINELLA is a bet involving win and place (first and second) only. For example, to win a two horse QUINELLA bet both horses must run first or second, in either order. If a QUINELLA bet links a horse to several other horses, it must run first or second, and any of the other horses must run first or second.  

  • TRIFECTA is a three horse bet, where one must pick the winner, second, and third in exact order, or “box” the bet so that the three can finish in any order.

  • SUPERFECTA is a four horse bet, where on must pick the first, second, third and fourth place horses in exact order, or “box” the bet so that four horses can finish in any of the first four places.

  • A KEY bet requires that you pick one horse to win, and several horses in any combination to complete the bet. For example, a $1 KEY trifecta with your selection to win plus 2 other horses (in any order) will cost $2. Your win horse with 3 other horses, $6. Your win horse with 4 other horses $12.

  • PICK THREE bets require that you select the winners in 3 consecutive races. There are also PICK FOUR, PICK SIX, and even PICK TEN (place bets, where your selections can finish either first or second). On Breeders Cup day the PICK SIX pool is several million dollars.

  • Some tracks have TWIN EXACTA and TWIN TRIFECTA bets, where one must pick an exacta or trifecta in a designated race, then exchange that winning ticket (for which you get paid) to select the second exact or trifecta in another designated race to win or share the betting pool. If there are no winners, the betting pool is carried forward to the next day.


SECTION 1:   Thoroughbred Horses.

They are remarkably intelligent, and born to race. Some are much more capable than others, reflecting the genes in their breeding and other factors. Like all athletes, horses require proper diet and training routines to reach their peak performance levels. Horse trainers are a significant factor in handicapping, as are jockeys. Trainer/jockey combinations should be observed in making betting decisions. Races are offered at various levels of capability, from graded stake and handicap races, allowance races, on down to low priced claiming races. If a horse is entered in a $10,000 claiming race, for example, a qualified person can “claim” ownership of the horse by paying $10,000. The money value of the purses for which they compete is generally related to the quality or “class” of the race, with Grade I stakes, such as the triple crown and other premier races, offering up to several million dollars purse money. Typically, the winning horse earns 60 percent, second 20 percent, third 15 percent and fourth 5 percent of the purse.

When betting thoroughbred horses there are certain basic facts one should consider as a general approach to making a decision.

  1. Only one of three or one of four betting favorites wins the race, on average, during a meet. That doesn’t mean that on some days, usually in ideal weather, that a higher percentage might win. But statistically, over a large number of races, the percentage of winning favorites is between 25 and 35 percent.

  2. As in all sports, relative ability becomes apparent from past performance. In thoroughbred horse racing the Daily Racy Form and track programs provide past performance information, plus the names of the owner, trainer, jockey, along with the sire and dam of the horse, and purse money earned. From a betting aspect it is often important to note leading trainer and jockey combinations, along with the “class” of a horse. For example, if a horse has been racing in stakes and handicap races without notable success, and is entered in an allowance or claiming race by a leading trainer to be ridden by a leading jockey or apprentice jockey, the betting odds will be low, but the probability of success will be high. This brings us to the subject of “value” in placing a wager. Some refer to this as the “risk reward ratio”.

  3. Many horse racing bettors prefer to “handicap” a race to determine what bet(s) to place. The initial reference for odds determination is provided by the “track handicapper”, a knowledgeable horseman whose primary job is to post a “morning line” with his estimate of what the odds will be at post time. Often the bettor, after doing his own handicapping, will agree with the odds of the morning line. But the final odds are determined by the amount of money bet on the horse. For example, if the morning line lists a probable favorite at 2/1, and the bettor tends to agree, but large amounts are bet on the horse, and its odds are even money or less as post time is near, it becomes a questionable “risk reward ratio”. On the other hand, if some other horse attracts unusual betting, and the odds on the morning line favorite becomes 7/2, the bet may become more attractive. The betting decision should be based on a “system” of betting, a topic that discussed in a following paragraph.

  4. The odds in pari-mutuel betting are determined by the amount bet on each horse in the WIN pool. The track “takes” a percentage of the total amount bet (ranging from 15 to 25 percent), and the remainder is returned to the bettors at the closing odds. For example, if the WIN pool totals $100,000 and the track “takes” $20,000, there is $80,000 remaining to pay the bettors of the winning horse. If $40,000 is bet on the winner, the odds are “even”, or 1/1. A $2 ticket will receive $4. If $20,000 is bet on the wining horse, the odds are 3/1. A $2 ticket will receive $8, the $2 bet plus $6 profit.

In my many years of experience as a bettor of thoroughbred horses, I have observed and discussed betting with a few “regulars” who consistently have more winning days than losing days. Here are some of the lessons I have learned:

Over a period of time a flat bet (betting the same amount) on each race is certain to incur a net loss. That doesn’t mean that on a particular day you can’t end up with a gain from your betting. A “long shot” or two can make any day a success, but typically they are few and far between.

Thus, some progressive system of betting must be used to provide a reasonable probability of success. This can be as simple as increasing the size of a wager after a losing bet until a win returns enough to show a profit. Here is a simple example. Suppose you have an “entertainment” budget of $100 for the day or days you intend to bet, and you want to produce a gain of at least $5 for every winning bet. On the first race you bet $2 on a horse at 5/2 odds. It loses. The next choice you decide to bet has 2-1 odds. To show a gain of $5 you must win $7. Therefore, your win bet must be $4. If the horse wins you get back $12, for a profit of $8 on the race. Now you are ahead $6.

One of the “regulars” that I mentioned used a $2,000 bankroll, with a goal of a $20 gain for each winning bet. He did not handicap the races. He used the Daily Racing Form consensus as his selection, as long as the betting odds were even money or higher. In contrast, another “regular” bet only horses at even money or less. But, they had one thing in common; they used a progressive betting system. Remember, though, they were there day after day, and if they had lost the last two races the day before, the next bet was the third one in their progression.

Since many of you who view this document are going for the day (or two), and would like to “strike it rich”, the exotic bets, such as exacta, trifecta, and superfecta, provide more attraction and fun than a systematic small gain. To cash a winning exotic bet with a payout in the hundreds or thousands, a long shot must be in the mix.

Here are a few things to consider when searching for a potential long shot:

  1. The addition of blinkers and/or lasix for the first time.

  2. The second time running after a long layoff. Often a horse

  3. Needs a race to reach its normal racing condition.

  4. A drop in class after several poor races.

  5. On a sloppy or muddy track, a horse with early speed that often “quits” on a fast track.

  6. leading jockey or apprentice on a horse that “has no chance”.

  7. “Horses for courses”. If the past performance shows that a horse with recent poor races at various other courses is returning to a course where it has won or raced well, consider the odds.

  8. A recent “bullet” workout. A “bullet” workout refers to a large lack dot beside a workout, which indicates that it worked the fastest time for that workout distance. It is especially important if there were a number of horses working the distance. For example: 

  • Jan 16, 1/27, ft. 6f 1:13. This means it was the fastest of 27 horses working 6 furlongs on a fast track that day.

  1. When you are handicapping a race with several horses displaying “early speed”, horses that come from off the pace “closers” deserve attention.

  2. In a race where the only horse displaying “early speed” is at long odds, it is often worth a bet.


SECTION 2:   Harness Racing

A typical harness racing program consists of mile races for pacers and trotters, although some tracks also race at 1 1/16 miles. As in thoroughbred racing, the trainers and drivers are important factors in making betting decisions. The same types of betting are offered at both thoroughbred and harness tracks. Past performance of harness horses is provided in the track programs. Here are some things to bear in mind when making betting decisions from evaluating past performance:

Pacers and trotters race every week or ten days. Any gaps, such as two or three weeks, since the last race must be viewed with suspicion. Often a “qualifying” race, which is similar to a workout for thoroughbreds, is necessary to return the horse to racing condition.

The harness racing program provides the winning time of the race, plus the time for the horse. For example, of the winning time was 1:58.1/5 and the horse ran fourth, ten lengths behind, its time might read 2:00.1/5. The most important handicapping tool, providing it is in the same class of race, is the time for the horse.

Like all racing, the money value of the purse provides a clue to the “class” of the horse. If a horse shows mediocre performance in races with a purse value of $10,000 and is entered in a race with a purse value of $6,000, it must be considered for improved performance, because it is dropping in class. Once again, the betting odds determine the risk-reward ratio. Fair or long odds on a horse that is dropping in class is always worth consideration.

Drivers of harness horses are an important consideration. Like jockeys, certain drivers have the knowledge and “knack” of getting the most out of a horse. A good example is John Campbell, who is consistently the leading driver at the Meadowlands harness track. Whether the odds or low or high, he must always be included in the exotic wagers.

As in thoroughbred racing, harness races must be reviewed by the handicapper for early speed and closers. A consistent closer fits nicely in a race with several speed horses, and if there is a lone speed horse in a pace or trot, the closers may not win. This is because if there are two or speed horses in a race, they tend to duel for the early lead and burn each other out.  Pay attention to the ¼ and ½ fractions of the past performances in the harness track program. They provide the clue to the early speed in the race.

PW's Basic Betting Strategies: 

When ever you place a bet on any Pari-mutuel event, remember that favorites win only about 30% of the time. When you are betting on a favorite, you should have a good risk to reward ratio. When I bet on a favorite, I am looking for a return on my investment. After handicapping a race, if I believe that a favorite has a 60% probability of winning a race, than I need at least 7/5 odds (1.4 to 1) to make the risk worth while. I do not recommend betting on favorites that pay less than 1 to 1 unless it is a graded stakes race or it is a leading jockey/trainer combination in a feature race.


If you are looking to just have fun than many of you will be content to place a simple bet on your horse to either Win (1st), Place (1st or 2nd) or Show (1st, 2nd or 3rd). Most handicappers will start a simple progression based on the odds of the horse they are betting. You start with a $2.00 bet (or what ever amount you are comfortable with). If your horse wins, the bet remains the same . If your horse loses keep a running total. The next race you will bet $2.00 + ($2.00 lost/odds) so if your horse is 2 to 1, your bet would be $3.00. If you were down $14.00 and your horse was 7 to 1 your bet would be $4.00 ($2.00 + $14/7). 

Key Horse Strategy:

One very successful strategy that handicappers use is a "key horse" strategy. The handicapper decides that one horse will clearly run "in the money" and then determines the three most likely horses to also be in contention. For this example, the 1 is the key horse.

Bets: Adjust the betting units to suit your gaming budget

$5.00 Win on #1 
$2 Exacta part wheel 2,3,4 with 1 
$1 Trifecta Key (1 with 2,3,4)
$1 Trifecta Part Wheel (2,3,4 with 2,3,4 with 1)


Wheel your key horse
$1 Exacta (1 with All) and (All with 1)
$1 Trifecta (1 with All with 2,3,4)

As you can see by this betting strategy, if you correctly handicap the race and your key horse wins, you will cash both a Win ticket and hopefully a trifecta key. If your key horse runs second and you correctly handicapped the race but your 2nd, 3rd or 4th choice actually won the race, than you will cash a very nice exacta. If your key horse runs 3rd, but your 2nd, 3rd and 4th choice run 1st and 2nd in any order ... than you will cash the $1. Some of my nicest wins happened when my key horse ran 3rd.

PW's Long Shot Formula

We have all seen the huge payouts in the paper or the news clip about long trifecta's. The real question is, why do they happen and how can I play for them if you really can't handicap for a long shot?

The first thing I look for is a day where long shots are coming in. Horses are like pro athletes, they have good and bad days. The difference between a $2500 claimer and a graded stakes winner can be difficult to perceive.  Track bias can occur for many reasons including inclement weather and changes to the way a track surface is groomed. What ever the reason, when long shots win ... the trifecta prices get huge and it can make your year.

Odds Formula: 

6 - 9 - 3: This is one of my most successful plays and although it usually works well on allowance and claiming races, it actually can work in a Graded Stakes Race. The whole premise of this formula is that when there is a speed duel (the speedy favorite burns out) or horses get into trouble (a closer gets blocked), this sets up the race for long shots. You can decide how many horses to include on this play but I use groups of 2 or 3 depending on how I feel about the race. I will eliminate the top 2 horses and take the 3 horses with the highest odds and put them on top of a trifecta part wheel. Then I will take the next grouping of 3 horses (usually the next 3 highest odds) and place them second in the trifecta part wheel. Finally, I will take the 3 remaining favorites and place them 3rd in the trifecta part wheel: 

$1 Tri Part Wheel
7,8,9 with 4,5,6 with 1,2,3 (The numbers are based on the odds favorite = 1) 
This is a $27 play and you are strictly playing for a long trifecta.

Crazy you say ... take a look back at the 2002 Belmont Stakes ... Eliminate the two favorites which were War Emblem and Perfect Drift. Take the 3 highest odds (Artax Too, Sarava and Like A Hero) and then the next 3 highest (Essence of Dubai, Wiseman's Ferry and Medaglia D' Oro) and finally the remaining 3 favorites (Proud Citizen, Magic Weisner, Sunday Break). Laugh all the way to the cashier and cash your trifecta ticket worth $12,604.50.

Other Variations of this play include a simple part wheel - You have your key horses but include the long shots on an extra play (1 w 7,8,9 w 2,3,4). 




Final Advice    

Have fun betting the horses. Treat it as entertainment. Allow yourself a budget, and have some kind of plan or system in your betting. As with all betting, money management is critical. If you are fortunate enough to make a considerable gain, make sure you maintain a profit for the day.