With Keeneland's Spring Meet in session and Derby just around the corner, it's time to talk betting, y'all!
There are as many ways to choose a winning horse as there are horses in the world. Do you favor the "pick a horse by his name" tactic? How about the "my favorite color is the color of the silks!" tactic? What about the old tried and true, "Always bet on the grey!" route?
Whatever way you choose the horse to cheer for, you're never wrong. Horse racing is fun to watch and is fun to wager on if you do so responsibly and in the spirit of fun.
A lot of people, though, are mystified by all the jargon surrounding wagers and intimidated by the betting window. What's an exacta? Are they in some sort of box? Handicap? Is that bad for the horse? By no means am I an expert, but I hope I can shed a little bit of light on the subject.
I grew up in a family of horse racing enthusiasts. I remember going to Ellis Park as a child with my dad and loving it - the excitement, the pretty horses, the treat my dad would buy me when his horse won the race. My 88 year old grandmother still goes to the track, regularly, both as a social outlet and as a way to earn a little "fun money" as she calls it.
With that little bit of background, let me start with the basics. The first order of business is to buy a program when you get to the track. You can tell the serious-types by the copy of The Daily Racing Form; they have tucked under their arm. They probably bought it the night before at Kroger and have been studying. However, the Keeneland program is a great source of information. It can give you a lot of information for each race, but I generally look at the following:
- the type of race - turf or track?
- the length of the race
- the purse (prize money) for the race
The program will also tell you the following about the horse:
- the horse's name
- the jockey's name
- the trainer's name
- the owner/farm
- the color of the horse, the color of the silks and the number in the race
- past performances of the horse
There is a lot of information and knowledge to be gleaned from the program, and it can be confusing to read. If you'd like to learn more about how to read it, there's a fantastic guide at the very beginning of the program. It will explain what each little number and symbol mean. Look over it a few times and take it in.
As I said earlier, there is no wrong way to pick a horse. There are no rules. My dad would tell you he likes to study the past performances. My uncle would tell you he likes to take a look at the horses in the paddock and see who has their game face on.
For me, wagering is a mix between sentiment and educated guessing.
Just like in other sports, I have sometimes irrational likes and dislikes. I tend to not like teams with red school colors. In horse racing, I tend to be sentimental about horses bred and trained on Kentucky farms. I also tend to like catchy or witty names, and I do almost always try to put a little money on the grey.
When I'm making educated guesses, though, I compare the type and length of race with the horse's past performances. Is this a horse's first race on turf or is the horse pushing up in race distance? Eh, I'll probably pass. I also tend to look at the purse for the current race and see what sort of purses they've raced for in the past. It's just like people races. If you'll forgive the analogy, all future Olympians probably start out on the high school track, proceed through the NCAA ranks, the national events and on to the Olympic trials. They don't start off racing against Usain Bolt (well, if they're lucky). Horses start out in small purse races. If they win, they may move up in class to larger purse races. So, take a glance at the winnings and the race purses. Are they making the jump from a low purse to a medium purse race? Maybe it's worth betting on, but the odds probably aren't in your favor.
I also take a glance at the morning line odds (printed in the program) and the live odds scrolling across the screens at the track. The odds-makers are smarter than me. If I want to win, I bet on favorites. If I want to win big, I bet on medium- to long-shots.
The thing that can trump all of these educated guesses, though, are the conditions. Be sure to check the big board in the infield where the track conditions will be listed. Sloppy track conditions often make for big payout days! Bet on the longshot and you could win big!
So, I've narrowed down the field to a few horses that I'm interested in placing a wager on. My program looks like a first draft after the editor's gotten hold of it - notes in the margins, Xs over the horses who have scratched (dropped out of the race), etc. I know which horses I'd like to bet on. Now, what kind of bet should I place?
Betting amounts are always a personal preference, but a $2 bet is the standard and is what the payouts on the board will reflect.
A quick discussion about how to word your bet at the window. There are signs that explain this but you generally should say, "Hi! I'd like to place a bet on Race #__ at Keeneland. I'd like $__ on horse #__ to [insert type of bet]."
Your basic bet is Win, Place or Show. If you think a horse can win, you can put $2 on the horse to Win (you'd say, "$2 on horse 7 to Win"). In a Win bet, you will only win your bet if your horse does, in fact, win the race. Since "Place" is really Second Place, you're wagering that the horse will at least come in second. A "Show" bet is for the horse to come in somewhere in the top three. This is interesting when it comes to payouts. If you bet a horse to Show, but it ends up winning, you'll still win some money back. However, it will be less than if you had bet the horse to win outright. Does that make sense? In a nutshell:
- $2 on a horse to Win - pays out only if the horse wins the race
- $2 on a horse to Place - pays out if the horse wins or comes in second (less money than a win)
- $2 on a horse to Show - pays out if the horse finishes in the top three (least payout of these three types of bets)
You might hear people saying that they are betting horses "Across the Board." That sounds fancy, huh? Basically, it is an easy way of making three bets at once. If you say, "I'd like $2 on horse 5 across the board," you've actually made a $2 bet to win, a $2 bet to place and a $2 bet to show. This bet would cost you $6, but your odds of a higher payout have increased. If your chosen horse has heard you cheering hard enough and wins the race, you'll receive the money shown on the board for Win, Place and Show. It's really fun to do this!
There are many bets that are more complicated. These involve picking more than one horse and are called exotics. Basically, there are an Exacta, a Trifecta and a Superfecta. An exacta bet is when you choose two horses to finish first and second. A trifecta is when you choose three horses to finish first, second and third. A superfecta, you guessed it, is picking the top four finishing horses. One very key thing to note - in plain ol' exactas, trifectas and superfectas, your horses must finish in the order you say they'll finish or you don't win. It really stinks when your horses might all finish in the top, but not in the order you specified. To get around this, you can "box" the bet so that any combination of your horses in the right finishing places will win you some money. To box the bet is more expensive, but it could save some heartbreak!
Betting the exotics can be confusing when it comes to knowing what to say. Basically, take your time when placing a bet. To place a straight exacta bet, you would say, "$2 Exacta on horses x & y." It is similar for a Trifecta - "$2 Trifecta on horses x, y, z." For a Superfecta, you name four horses. To box it, simply say "Exacta/Trifecta/Superfect box."
Exotics can also get expensive rather quickly. You will basically have to pay your bet amount (in the case above, $2) for each combination you are betting on. So, a straight Exacta is a bet on one horse to come in first and another horse to come in second. That's one bet and will cost two dollars. What if you want to box it, though, so your horses can come in any order? Two combinations. $2 x 2 = $4 A $2 Trifecta box is really six combinations, so will cost you $12. Superfectas are even more! I would suggest betting a $1 Superfecta Box just for fun. It will cost you $24 - more than I'm willing to idly spend on one race on a fun day at the track.
Exotics can be expensive but can be lots of fun when your educated guessing happens to be right! My husband and I once placed a last-minute Trifecta bet (boxed) for $12 and walked away with nearly $600! That's fun any way you slice it. Just for fun-facts-sharing-time, the trifecta in the 2005 Kentucky Derby (Giacomo, Closing Argument and Afleet Alex) paid $133,000 on a $24 bet! I'd wager that there's someone out there who is a lawyer, a Sting fan (he owned Giacomo) and has a son named Alex who just might have hit that one!
Going to the track is fun if you're just there to people watch. If you manage to people watch, place a few bets and win a couple of dollars (or at least enough to cover your bar tab and taxi fare), then you've had a great day!
Good luck, and Go, Baby, Go!