How to Not Be Clueless at Your First Horse Race

You’re headed to the horse track for the first time, and you don’t want to embarrass yourself by picking ponies from the program at random. Use this quick guide to introduce yourself to gambling on horses. Learn how to talk like a more experienced gambler — and look like you know what you’re doing in front of your buddies.

Placing Your First Bet

When you bet on horses, you can make two different kinds of wagers: straight and exotic. Straight wagers are best for beginners because they’re straightforward and cheap, while an exotic wager has you select the correct order more than one horse will finish. Before you go to the track, try betting on a few races at some OTB horse betting sites so that you can get a feel for how the bets work.
Your straight wager options are:
  • Win, place, or show. You can bet that your horse will win the entire race, or you can bet that your horse will place first or second. If you bet your horse will show, you’ll win if your horse comes in first, second, or third. Wins pay the highest, place pays second highest, and show pays least because your odds of victory increase when you bet on more options.
  • Across the board. Across the board is a three-part bet because you’re wagering that your horse will win, place, and show. If the minimum bet at the track is $2, and you bet on one horse across the board, you’ll pay $6 because you’re essentially placing three different bets. If your horse wins, you get win, place, and show payouts. If your horse places, you get place and show; if your horse shows, you get show.
  • Win/place or place/show. Across the board is a three-part wager, and win/place and place/show are two-part wagers. If you bet win/place, you bet twice as much, but you can potentially get a higher payout. For example, if your horse wins, you get both the win and place money, and if your horse places, you still get the place money.
When you’re at the track, you can place bets using machines or using human tellers. If you decide to go to the window and talk to the teller, here’s what you say:


  • Track and race number
  • How much you’re betting
  • The type of bet
  • Your horse’s number from the program

Picking Your Horse

Reading a race program at the track can be one of the scariest things for newbies. Check out this guide from Equibase, the company that prints race day programs for all of the horse tracks. You can point your cursor to each part of the program, and you’ll see a popup with an explanation for what each part means.
Handicapping races is complicated, and you’re not going to know the horses in-depth on your first trip. During your first few races, use these basic stats to help you pick your ponies:

  • Odds. The horse with the lowest odds in the program is favored to win. If you bet on the favorite, you’ll get a payoff 33 percent of the time if you bet to win, 53 percent if you bet to place, and 67 percent if you bet to show. To get a good chance of a payout on each race, pick the favorite to show.
  • Check the race class. Horses race in different classes based on how well they perform. The classes, from easiest to most competitive, are maiden, claiming, allowance, and stakes. If you’re betting on a stakes race, and the horse has a good historical performance but he’s only participated in maiden class races, horses who’ve raced in tougher classes will have a competitive edge.
  • Past performance on the surface. The program will tell you what kind of success the horses have had on a surface similar to the current track. For example, if the horse in the program performs well at dirt tracks but poorly on artificial surfaces, and you’re at an artificial track, try choosing another horse.
  • Jockey history. Check out the jockey’s performance history in your program. If a consistent jockey is riding an average horse, the jockey’s skill and experience may boost the horse’s performance. If you’re having trouble picking between two horses, let jockey history be the deciding factor.

Have Fun

It’s easy to get carried away with the race day atmosphere, so make sure you set a budget and stick to it. While you’re there, take in what the more experienced bettors around you are saying. If you watch closely and listen, you’ll do an even better job the next time you’re at the track.

Horse race image by LWPhotography from Shutterstock
Race day program and beer image by apium from Flickr Creative Commons
Horse No. 2 image by Christopher Boswell from Shutterstock

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