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How to Bet on Horses – Online Horse Betting Guide

How to Bet


Betting on horse racing is one of those activities that takes ‘minutes to learn but a lifetime to master’. The basics are very simple and can be picked up very easily. At the highest level it’s a very complex and challenging discipline. At every level, however, the entire sport is circumscribed by some basic concepts that can be outlined and assimilated very quickly.


Obviously you need to find a place to bet before you can do anything else. If you live near a horse track you’re in luck—not only can you bet on the live races at the track but most major tracks also offer simulcast wagering where you can bet on races from around the country and, for that matter, around the world. In addition to live and simulcast wagering at the track there are many off track betting options for horse racing enthusiasts. Some states and cities offer off track betting and there’s plenty of options for horse betting in the casinos of Nevada. There’s also a wide variety of betting options online from US based parimutuel outlets to offshore race books. Most of these offer betting on every major race track in the United States with some booking action from as far away as Australia and Asia.


The house doesn’t care who wins—they get paid regardless. In other words, you’re not playing against the house, you’re playing against the other bettors. The track just facilitates the betting and acts as a middleman, handling the money for a fee (15 to 25 percent of the parimutuel pool). If you’re familiar with sports betting an important concept to get used to is the lack of fixed odds– the track odds are determined by how much money is bet on each horse. In sports betting if you bet early you can get a better price but in horse racing the odds are the same for everyone betting on a particular horse. If everyone bets on one horse—whether it is the best horse, or just has the catchiest name—it will go off as the favorite.


Part of horse racing’s historical popularity as a betting sport has been the diversity of bets available. Like sports wagers or casino games, you can either bet on simple, low odds “straight” bets or more exotic wagers with a higher potential payoff like exactas or perfectas.


The basic wagers are the “win”, “place” and “show” in which you wager that a horse will finish first, second or third respectively. If you bet the horse to win, it has to finish first. A “place” bet will cash if your nag takes first or second. A “show” bet wins if your choice finishes first, second or third. Consequentially, the payoff for a win bet is higher than that for a place bet, and a place bet higher than a show bet.

These are the safest bets, but offer a low rate of return. According to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) favorites win 33% of the time, “place” 57% of the time and “show” 67% of the time. The problem here is that you’ll make very little money—if any—betting favorites to show since the payoffs are so low.


Exotic bets—like their sports gambling counterpart, the parlay—offers more complex bets with a greater potential upside. There’s the “exacta”, which involves selecting the first two horses in order and the “trifecta”, which involves picking the first three horses in order. These are by far the most popular of the exotic bets and we’ll cover them in detail elsewhere.

Offering a higher rate of return are multi-race wagers like the “Daily Double” where you need to pick the winner in two races to cash your bet. More challenging—and potentially profitable—is the “pick six” where you’ll need to pick the winners of six races to win.

In recent years tracks have begun to get even more imaginative with their exotic bets offering new and unique offerings with astronomical odds and the resulting high payouts. Some horse racing experts dismiss these wagers as being little more than an equine lottery, but that doesn’t negate the fact that people love to bet these wagers that can produce life changing scores.