A Crash Course in Horse Racing

The appeal of horse betting is easy to explain. Horse races are gorgeous things to behold – the graceful animals, the flashy colors of the jockeys, and all the pomp and circumstance that goes along with it. Throw in real-money betting and the promise of a big payout, and it's no wonder that betting on the outcome of horse races has been popular for centuries all over the world.

However, all the things that make horse betting so entertaining can also make it intimidating for first-time bettors. Horse racing tracks are noisy, they're often dirty and cramped, and if you don't understand what's happening on the track or at the betting windows, you're liable to wander off, confused. This crash course was written with people like you in mind. First-time bettors don't need to know every detail about horse race betting in order to gain the confidence to place a bet. They just need to know a few crucial facts.

This page will turn even the greenest horse racing novice into a seasoned veteran over the course of just a few thousand words. Our goal is to produce confident horse race bettors in about a half hour of study. We start with an FAQ to define some critical terms and clear up some common misconceptions. Then we provide a section full of horse race betting terms. The bulk of your hardcore horse race learning will take place in the Horse Racing Basics section, where we cover things like how to make a bet and how to read the tote board. Towards the bottom of the page, a section on strategy is designed to give horse racing newcomers a final boost of confidence, so you can step up to the clerk and confidently place a bet.

An FAQ for Horse Betting Newcomers

What is horse race betting?

In America, horse race betting takes place on a variety of types of horse racing events. We'll sometimes call it "thoroughbred racing," though not all races that you can wager on involve thoroughbreds. Harness racing is another popular event in America, and you can wager on this form of racing just as easily as traditional thoroughbred racing. Basically, any organized event in which a group of horses race one another for a series of regulated wagers is considered horse race betting.

Is thoroughbred race betting legal?

In thirty US states, horse race betting is legal. In the other twenty states, it is either illegal, or legal but not available due to public pressure from animal rights' groups. If you have legitimate questions about the legality of a form of betting in the state where you live, please contact an area lawyer familiar with gaming law.

Aren't the animals mistreated?

While it's possible that some animals at some tracks are abused, the fact is that this industry is closely monitored and controlled by a number of racing authorities, at the local, state, and federal level. If you have doubts about the way animals are handled at these tracks, please visit one for yourself. We think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the facilities and the beauty and health of the animals participating.

A Crash Course in Horse Betting Terms


A term for a novice jokey; any who has been riding for less than a year. Apprentice jockeys get weight allowances, usually in the neighborhood of ten pounds, meaning they tend to be heavier and slower.

Beyer Speed Rating

A statistic that measures horse performance, mainly through speed ratings. The name comes from the stat's inventor, Andrew Beyer.


A type of garment worn by a horse to keep his head focused straight ahead. Also called "blinders."


Slang for a poor performance by a horse who won his previous showing.


Slang for the fastest practice run of the day at a given distance.

Call to Post

A (usually pre-recorded) bugle call that a track plays to signal the horses to enter the track to begin the race.


Slang for a betting-favorite for a given race.


Slang for a horse that performs better in the later stages of a race.


A term for the entire group of horses in a given race.


A horse's split time compared to the distance they've run. Most races clock fractions at quarter-mile intervals.


A measurement of distance equal to 1/8 of a mile.


A measurement of height equal to four inches. Horse height is measured in hands and inches from the top of the animal's shoulder to the ground.


The act of analyzing details about a race or an animal in order to strategize bets. Comparing two or more animals in a given race.


A unit of measurement equal to the length of a horse from nose to tail, or about 8 feet. This unit is used to describe the distance between horses while racing.

Morning Line

A set of odds calculated for each horse, set by the track's handicapper before betting opens.

Mutuel Window

The technical term for the location at the track where you place bets.

Post Position

A horse's starting position in the gate.


The total amount of money paid to the race's top-five finishers.


The removal of an animal from a race before it begins.


Slang for a horse that tends to run immediately behind race leaders.


An exercise or practice run, conducted early in the morning. Stats from the workout are often used to handicap horse races.

A Crash Course in Horse Betting Basics

Types of Bets

Two basic types of bets are available to horse race bettors – straight bets and exotic bets. When you place straight bets, you're wagering on a specific horse to do a specific thing. These bets are called Win, Place, and Show.

  • A Win bet pays off if the horse you pick finishes 1st.
  • A Place bet pays off if the horse you pick finishes 1st or 2nd.
  • A Show bet pays off if the horse you pick finishes 1st, 2nd, or 3rd.

Obviously, Win bets pay off at a higher rate than Place or Show bets, since the outcome is much less likely to occur. Straight bets on a horse require a minimum bet of $2, though some online horse race betting operators allow wagers as low as $1.

For players who like to take bigger risks (in exchange for bigger potential rewards), there are the exotic bets. These are long-shot wagers with much-larger payoffs than the straight bets. Here's a list of some popular exotic horse race betting wagers:

  • An Exacta bet wins if you pick the 1st and 2nd place finishers in their exact order.
  • A Trifecta bet wins if you pick the 1st, 2nd, AND 3rd place finishers in their exact order.
  • A Superfecta bet wins if you pick the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, AND 4th place finishers in their exact order.
  • A Daily Double asks you to pick the winner of two consecutive races. Most tracks only offer a Daily Double on the first and last two races of each day.
  • A Pick 3 bet wins if you pick the winner of three consecutive races.
  • A Pick 4 bet wins if you pick the winner of four consecutive races.
  • A Head-to-Head bet asks you to pick two horses and then rank them. The bet pays off if the one you picked to win beats the other horse, regardless of what position they finished in.

Types of Races

  • Allowance - A normal race with at least one special entry condition.
  • Claiming - A race in which all the participating horses are for sale at a set price. The new owner of the horse doesn't claim the animal until after the running of the Claiming race it appears in.
  • Derby - A special kind of tournament featuring high-level three-year old horses only.
  • Distaff – Any race featuring female horses.
  • Handicap – Any high-level race featuring high-quality horses which are assigned to wear different amounts of weight based on the race and track conditions.
  • Maiden - A race in which all the participants have yet to win their first race
  • Marathon – Any horse race that goes for a distance longer than 1.25 miles.
  • Oaks - A special type of high-level race featuring high-quality three-year old fillies only.
  • Route – A race at a distance of one mile or longer, but shorter than 1.25 miles.
  • Sprint – Any horse race on a course that's a total distance of less than one mile is a sprint.
  • Stakes - A form of high-level race in which only the horses of the highest quality participate.

Track Conditions

  • Fast – A term for a clean dirt track that is dry, evenly-texture, resilient, and which allows the animals to run fast.
  • Wet-Fast - A term for a dirt track that's maintained a firm base, but shows a wet surface, usually due to a recent rain.
  • Good – A term for an average track, somewhere between fast and slow. A track labeled "good" can still have a significant amount of standing water on it, and still be labeled that way.
  • Muddy – When a track goes beyond good, this term is used to describe a condition of being wet all the way to the base, but without significant standing water.
  • Off Track – A generic term for any track that isn't fast; could mean any amount of water or mud.
  • Sloppy - A term for a track that has a wet surface, and may even show standing water, but that still has a firm base.
  • Slow - A slow track is wet on both the surface and base, and is saddled with the worst possible rating a track can get before being shut down.

Reading the Tote Board

The tote board (short for Totalisator) is the giant board at your local race track that is full of flashing lights. This board lists the current win odds for every horse in the race, as well as the total dollar amount bet on each animal for each straight bet, and a ton more interesting information. On the tote board, you can find:

  • Race numbers
  • Minutes to post
  • The time and date
  • Race post times
  • Track conditions
  • Results
  • Fractional times for the previous race

How to Place a Bet

There is a basic protocol to follow when you go to the betting window to place a bet. Here is what to say at the betting window:

  • Tell the clerk what track you are betting on. Example: "Hollywood Park, race 3."
  • Tell the clerk the amount that you are betting. Example: "Ten bucks."
  • Tell the clerk the type of bet you are making. "Win."
  • Tell the clerk the number(s) of the horse you are betting. "Number 4."

Now, let's put it all together. "Hollywood Park, race 4, ten bucks to win on number 4." You've just placed your first horse racing bet.

You can bet on any race being run at the track at any time before it is run. Tracks also simulcast races from other tracks. That is why it is important to specify the track where you wish to place your bet.

Teller windows aren't the only places where you can make bets while at the track. Self-Automated Mutuels (SAM) are touch-screen machines that allow bettors to bypass long lines at the windows. SAM machines accept all types of wagers and are funded by inserting a winning ticket, a cash voucher, or a twenty-dollar bill. Cash vouchers are obtained at any teller window and are also given by the SAM machine as change when you are done betting.

A Crash Course in Horse Betting Strategy

1. Manage Your Money

You can't win consistently without some plan for managing your bankroll. You can do research on your own once you've got some real-world experience, to pick your own money management method. But for now, learn the simple financial management plan called "optimal betting." Optimal betting recommends that you bet something like 3-4% of your bankroll on each wager. This is a very conservative way to mind your money. You can alter this flat betting strategy by betting multiple units on lower-priced horses to maximize those smaller profits, and stick to single-unit bets on any longshots you take to minimize potential losses.

Another tactic we recommend is to set both a win limit and a loss limit. Let's say you bring $100 to the track – it's imperative that you don't lose more than that $100. But to protect any winnings you manage to acquire, you should also set a win limit, an amount of winning that will send you packing. The idea here is to avoid gambling away the rent or the grocery money.

2. Be Selective

Being selective means being willing to pass on races. It means being patient. It also means being honest with yourself – if you don't have a good feeling or a good handicap on a race, you don't have to bet on it. In fact, betting on every race that comes across your lap is a recipe for failure.

The slowest racing days in the world offers plenty of awful opportunities for bets. Hundreds of races are run across America on the busiest racing days. Since each race is an opportunity for a bet or two, you might think it prudent to research as much as you can and be constantly placing bets. The truth is, not every horse race betting opportunity is created equal. We'd say that the majority of available horse races on a given day are poor opportunities for all but the most experienced bettors. Good horse race bettors wait patiently for the best opportunity, then put all their money down on their version of a sure-thing. Bettors who just have to drop a dime one very running are the ones who end up destitute.

How do you know what races to pick? You want to wager when you find the right price and the right value. That means finding the right animal at the cheapest price and best odds, on a track where they're likely to win. The next piece of strategic advice will help you get to a place where you know when those two things are in place.

3. Create a Unique Handicapping Method

Handicapping is the art (some would say the science) of comparing horses who are competing against each other in a race. Horse racing is a beautiful game because it provides so many ways to win. Some bettors handicap based entirely on speed, while others concentrate on pace, or the time between hoof beats. Spend enough time at the track and you'll come across all sorts of interesting, esoteric rating and handicapping systems created by bettors. All of these methodologies have their ups and downs. No one has yet "figured out" horse racing, the way they've figured out blackjack and chess. There's no right or wrong way – so long as you're using some sort of method.

The easy answer is to buy a piece of software to help you handicap horses, or to read a few books and then use the method you just read all about. The problem with this method is that it often leads to frustration. So many people read these things and use these tools thinking it will lead to instant wins, and that's just impossible. The reason we recommend handicapping, even though it isn't really a science? Handicapping forces you to read, it forces you to enter the world of horse race betting and spend a little time there, and that will always make you a better gambler. The art of handicapping is a combination of data-gathering, data-sorting, and application. It takes repetition and a boatload of patience, neither of which newcomers to horse race betting have in any quantity. So don't expect to get it right on your very first betting trip.

Start your new handicapping habit by simply taking note ahead of time of the speed ratings of various horses. Then take note of how those horses finished, and compare it to the speed ratings. Do this for a few more statistics, keeping track of your work the whole time. You may find a trend that you can exploit, either for a particular animal, a particular track style, or a particular event.

4. Keep Records

Record keeping is just as important to success betting on horses as handicapping, knowing the lingo, or any other single feature. If you plan on betting as anything more than a passing hobby, you'll want to keep track of wins, losses, expenses, and a few other features. If you don't keep these records, you'll never be able to evaluate your handicapping or your past betting performance, and you'll never know if you're making progress or regressing. That will make it difficult for you to know when you're having a problem, and difficult to diagnose and treat that problem. By keeping records, you may discover a hidden strength, finding out that you're great at picking juvenile winners but weak in maiden races or graded stakes. This will help you focus on your positives, avoid the things you're bad at, and raise your winning percentage.


Horse race betting isn't as popular today as it has been in decades past. Though massively-popular in places like Australia and the UK, the sport has been all but overtaken by things like electronic gaming and online poker. In fact, twenty US states have passed laws against the operation of horse race betting facilities. To say that horse betting is going through tough times is an understatement.

But there's a light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of simulcast and online horse race bets. Many states now allow simulcast wagering, bets on races in other states and other countries. A smaller (but still significant) number of states allow legal horse race bets in an online format, some of which also allow online simulcast wagers. We may be entering a new era of thoroughbred racing bets in America, thanks to the continued expansion of Web-based betting.