How to Bet on Horses: A Primer for Playing the Ponies

horse racing jockey
Chris Van Lennep

Making a bet at the racetrack can be quite the daunting task if you’ve never done so before. Horse racing has its own very specific lingo. Forgetting to box that exacta bet could be the difference between going broke at the track or hauling off a bankroll.

Knowing the basics of how to bet on horses can be quite helpful, especially when you’re anticipating a booze-filled afternoon at the track. You can impress your friends and sound like a handicapper in no time. Most importantly, you won’t annoy the regulars who are there to blow their pension checks on 10 cent superfectas and dollar coffees (or mint juleps).

There are two main types of bets: straight wagers and exotic wagers. As you can guess from the names, straight wagers are fairly basic bets, whereas exotic wagers are significantly more complicated. If you’re new to horse racing, start out with straight wagers. Once you’re acclimated (to losing money), then try your hand at the more multifaceted, exotic bets.

Straight Wagers

Win: A win bet is pretty straightforward. You pick a horse to win and that is exactly what it’ll have to do for you to earn any money. In many races, there’s a clear standout favorite and a win bet is a solid, albeit boring option. If you spend all day at the track making win bets on the opening line favorites, you’ll be betting plenty of money with the possibility of making very little. If you throw a few bucks down on the third or fourth best horse in a given race and that horse actually wins, you’ll be raking in a lot more dough.

Place: With a place wager, your horse can either come in first or second. This is a solid betting option if there’s a horse you’re moderately confident about or if you’re the kind of person who likes a little leeway at the finish line. We understand. Commitment can be difficult.

Show: A show wager means your horse can either come in first, second, or third. This type of bet gives you greater flexibility, although the payoff is significantly less than a win or place bet considering you’ve erred entirely on the side of caution. If you’re spending a day at the track, picking a few long shots in a small field race can pay off handsomely. Putting a show bet on the overwhelming favorite is shameful, so we encourage you not to do it.

Exotic Wagers

Exotic wagers often package various horses in a single bet. With this wager, you’re picking multiple horses to finish in a specific order. These bets are exceedingly more difficult to win than a straight wager and the payouts are much higher considering the lower odds of success.

Exacta: In an exacta bet, you’re picking two horses to finish in first and second places in a specific order. If, for example, you want to pick an exacta with the No. 5 horse to come in first and the No. 6 horse to come in second, you’ll want to bet a “five, six exacta.” If the No. 6 horse comes in first and the No. 5 horse comes in second, you lose.

You can, however, “box” any exotic wager. Boxing allows you greater flexibility, although it does make your bet more expensive. If you box your “five, six exacta,” either of those two horses can come in first or second, but you need both in those top spots.

Trifecta: A trifecta bet is even more complex than a basic exacta. With a trifecta wager, you’re picking the first, second, and third place horses in a given race. Again, this can be boxed, so any of these horses can come in first, second, or third, although all horses in your wager will need to show to win. Still with us? Great.

Superfecta: If you’re really feeling like a big shot (or maybe just the right amount of alcohol has hit your frontal lobe), you can try your hand at the elusive superfecta. With this wager, you’re attempting to predict the first, second, third, and fourth place horses in a given race in that exact order. Do yourself a favor and just box it. Unless you’re clairvoyant, you’re wasting your time anyway.

Daily Double: Most tracks feature a Daily Double betting option. The track will showcase two races as part of this Daily Double feature; you have to pick the winners of both races to win. There are many other variations of this. Some tracks will have a Pick 3 wager as well, allowing you to pick the winners of three consecutive races. There is also the Pick 4, where you — wait for it — pick the winners in four consecutive races.

And those are the basics, boys. You can now play the ponies with at least some semblance of confidence. If you’re heading to the Kentucky Derby, learn more about what to do in the fair city of Louisville.

Article originally published May 4, 2017. Last updated April 26, 2018.