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A Day at the Races: Sharing Horse Sense about Horse Race Betting

Horse Race and Money
I was almost 30 before I saw my first live horse race. It wasn’t even a planned trip. A friend of mine was a professional wrestler and we went to see his show one Saturday afternoon at a gym in the Six Flags Mall in Arlington, Texas (which is a few minutes away from Globe Life Park, aka the Ball Park at Arlington).

Everything was over by 4 pm and we were discussing things to do. My friend, who lived in the area (and who’d just got paid from his match) suggested we go to Lone Star Park.

Not having anything to do, I agreed. Not only was it a fun night, but it was an education.

Lone Star Park is a racetrack that caters to all levels of gamblers, which was great because as a novice, I needed some help.

Despite the fact that I lost everything I bet that night, the races were exciting. I finally understood why people liked betting on horse racing. It was the trill of backing one of the horses and feel like you’re part of the race itself. By placing the $2 on each race that I did, I could be a winner just like the horse.

Over the next 2 decades, I’ve learned a significant amount about betting on horses, the race types, the betting types, and much more.

The process of learning reminded me of shows I watched growing up that featured characters that bet on horses. Shows like Barney Miller, where Jack Soo’s character Detective Nick Yemana was always looking at race sheets. Or The Odd Couple, where the slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison, played by Jack Klugman would toil over the race sheets as much as his OCD riddled roommate Felix Unger, played by Tony Randall would toil over the monumental messed made by Oscar.

History of Horse Racing

Humans have been racing horses for at least 3 millennia. As far back as 4000 BC, the inhabitants of the area where Europe and Asia meet, the modern countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine started domesticating horses.

These first horses were used as beasts of burden, connected to crude oxcart-like devices. As time when on these carts became more evolved, allowing for the horse to carry passengers.

As technology slowly improved, it spread across Eastern Europe and eventually landed in the hands of the Greeks.

The Greeks would develop these carts into what we now know as the chariot. And while in movies about ancient Greece, we see the Spartans and the Athenians go to war against foes like the Persians using chariots, the reality was that chariots weren’t used in war, at least not in Greece. The reason is that the terrain of Greece was too harsh on the wheels and axles of chariots.

Chariots were developed in Greece for local transport and racing. The Greeks had improved upon the design by creating a dual horse chariot. They were connected by a single pole between the 2 horses. Later, the Greeks developed a 4 horse chariot. This was done by adding a bar on the outer side of the 2 center horses and lashing them together, thus keeping them all in step.

The development of the chariot in Greece was important in horse racing, because for the next 2 ½ centuries (albeit in various forms), chariot racing was very popular. It was so popular that the races were part of the ancient Olympic and Panathenaic Games.

But the chariot wasn’t the only advancement in horse racing tech. The saddle was the next major evolution in the development of not only horse racing, but history itself. The most rudimentary saddles were developed in the Far East as early as 700 BC. By the time of Alexander the Great in mid-4th century BC, these rudimentary saddles had made their way across Asia and into Europe.

But it would still take a while for saddles to look like the ones we see today. And one important invention was still needed.

Saddles were great for the rider, but they weren’t stable. The ancient Chinese came up with a solution in the 3rd century AD: the stirrup. The stirrup allowed for support of the rider and also allowed the horses to aid in battle, as the rider was less easily thrown from a horse while using them. The stirrup made its way into Europe within 200 years of the Chinese inventing them.

By the Middle Ages, racing horses in both chariots or wagons and riding horse became popular. They were used as both entertainment and as a show of strength for knights, soldiers, and royalty. Further advancements in saddle technology made the horses even faster.

Types of Events

When you start betting you’ll realize that not all horse races are the same. While most people expect to see a horse with a jockey riding around a track, that’s not the only type of race and if you expect that on every park you go to, you’re in for a rude awakening.

Harness Racing

The modern-day chariot race is now known as harness racing. In a harness race, the horse is attached to a cart called a sulky (it is also referred to in racing jargon as a bike). The cart is essentially 2 bicycle wheels attached by a bench seat that the rider sits on.

Harness racing can be comprised of either a trotting race or a pacing race. About 90% of the races in North America consist of pacing. Pacing is where the horse moves its legs laterally (the right front and the right hind together, then the left front and the left hind). Trotting, which is mostly found in Europe is where the horse moves its legs forward in diagonal pairs (the right front and the left hind, then the left front and the right hind hitting the ground at the same time).

The driver of the sulky holds a light whip used to guide the horse by tapping and to make noise by hitting the shaft of the sulky. Strict rules in place as to how the whip may be used, some countries have banned the use of it altogether.

Endurance Racing

This type of racing is the least common type of racing. However, it can be quite interesting. For endurance racing, a horse races up to 100 miles in a day. And these races can be done over several days (usually 3, but some are longer).

Endurance races are broken down into one of 2 types:

  • Regular Endurance – The horse races the full amount of the race (with occasional veterinarian check along the way) and the first horse that finishes, wins the event.
  • Competitive Trail Riding – A pace race where the being the fastest horse isn’t necessarily the goal. The goal is to finish the race under a certain amount of time.

One reason that these types of races aren’t more popular is that they are not held in a racing venue, but are held on trails that are hundreds of miles long, thus not equipped to handle spectators. Despite this fact, they can be wagered on.

Steeplechase Racing

If you live in the United States, you can bet on steeplechase racing in person in one of 11 states, they include:

  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Kentucky
  • Maryland
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Virginia

In the US, steeplechase racing (or jump racing as is it also known) is a product of the East coast. This is primarily due to its Irish origins in the 1830s. While the popularity spread over Europe and to places like Australia and New Zealand, the popularity of the sport was limited to Atlantic states as it was perceived to be an aristocratic sport and never gained much popularity outside of that area.

Flat Racing

By far, the most common type of racing is flat racing. Horses ridden by jockeys are pitted against one another in a race that tests both the speed and stamina of a horse in races that are usually 3 miles long or less.

The popularity of this type of race has led to the construction of over 100 racetracks across the US.

The races in the US are usually held on dirt tracks that are designed to accommodate the horses. Outside of the US, the tracks are usually made of grass. In some countries, to accommodate year-round racing, artificial turf is used that’s designed to conform to comfort for the horse while racing.

Types of Races

If you’re a novice bettor at a race track, you’re probably going to look at the odds to determine your bet. And this isn’t a bad way to bet. But odds should be the only factor when you’re wagering.

One factor I like to take into consideration is the type of race that’s running.

Horse racing isn’t a jumble of entrants, pitted against each other to see who wins. In fact, the racetracks classify the horses and pit them against similar horses.

Think of a football game. You wouldn’t want to see a game where a dominant team like the 6-time Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots play a college team like the Eastern Michigan Eagles that has a winning percentage over the last 5 decades of around .300. You’d want to see the Patriots play teams of consequence. Teams that engage you as a fan. Teams that you’re willing to back up with your wallet.

The same is true in horse racing. That’s why the races are broken down into 4 categories:

  • Maiden races – A race for a horse that’s not yet won a race. Maiden races are an entry-level class and represent the start of a racing career for a horse.
  • Claiming races – A race in which every horse participating is for sale. The claiming price establishes the current value of the horse.
  • Allowance races – The highly competitive races where horses entered can’t be purchased. The purses are normally higher than claiming races.
  • Stakes Races – The highest class of race reserved for the best horses. Derived from the word “sweepstakes” and along with handicap races, applies to the highest caliber of race offered.  Handicap and Stakes races offer the largest purses of all the various types of races.

As with any sport, there can be some cross over with events. For example, a flat race horse may also be a jumping horse and thus competes in both types of events. When this happens the categories for each event type are usually exclusive, so a horse who races on a flat track may race in an allowance race, that same horse may have never won a jump race and is considered a maiden in the steeplechase races.

Horse Racing Terminology

In order to make educated bets on the races, you have to know what people are talking about. After all, a person with very little knowledge, but a firm grasp of the jargon can sound authoritative but lead you astray in your goal to win.

Here are some basic terms to know when talking about horse racing:

  • Also Eligible – Horses entered into the field that won’t run unless other horses are scratched
  • Backstretch – The straight part of the track opposite the finish line or the stable area
  • Blanket Finish – A finish where all the horses are packed so closely together that it would possible to cover them all with a single blanket
  • Conditions – The circumstances under which a race will be run, such as – surface, distance, purse, and eligibilities
  • Fast Track – Rating of a dirt track that is dry and hard
  • Furlong – 1/8th of a mile
  • Going – The condition of the racing surface Dirt courses are generally rated Fast, Good, Muddy, or Sloppy Turf courses are generally rated Firm, Good, Yielding, Soft, or Heavy
  • Handicap – A race in which the racing secretary assigns weights designed to equalize the winning chances of the entrants; or to study horses’ records in order to determine the chances of each to win the race
  • Heavy Track – A grass racing surface that has received an extremely large amount of water and is an almost bog-like condition
  • Middle distance – A race longer than 7 furlongs but shorter than 1 1/8 miles
  • Morning line odds – The odds set by the track prior to the opening of the pools
  • Muddy Track – A dirt track that is soft, wet, and holding
  • Odds Board – The tote board, usually found in the infield
  • Odds – The chances of a horse to win a particular race based on the pari-mutuel wagering of the general public
  • Off the pace – A horse that is lagging back in the early stages of the race
  • Off-track – A racing surface that is anything other than Fast (Dirt) or Firm (Turf/Grass)
  • Pace – The speed of the leaders at each stage of the race
  • Post – Starting gate
  • Ranker Outside – A wild card, a horse who isn’t expected to win
  • Scratch – To withdraw a horse from a race
  • Shake up – Urging by the jockey, either with his hands or the whip, to make the horse run faster
  • Sloppy track – A track that is wet, covered with puddles, but not yet “muddy”
  • Sprint – A short race, 7 furlongs or less
  • Turf course – A grass-covered course
  • Wire to wire – In the lead, throughout the race

Betting on the Races

Much like betting on other sports, you can place straight bets or prop bets. In horse racing, the prop bets are known more commonly as exotic bets.

Each type of bets have several options and some can be losing propositions even if you win.

Straight Bets

A straight bet is a bet on a single horse. These bets are the most common type of bets and are the best type of bet to make as a beginner as they don’t require a lot of knowledge to make a relatively informed decision.

The types of straight bets you can place are:

  • Win – A bet on a particular horse to win a particular race. If the horse you bet on wins, you win.
  • Place – This bet is for a particular horse to place either 1st or 2nd in a particular race. Because you’re increasing your odds of winning a bet with a place bet, the payout on a place bet will be less than if you simply bet on the horse to win. Some races have up to 15 horses. Most will be between 5 and 7. So by betting place, you could give yourself a 2 out of 5 chance or a 40% chance of winning.
  • Show – This bet is one of the ones that hits This is because you’re betting on the horse to place in the top 3. The bets of this type have a lower payout than the other 2, but will allow you to walk away with a bit of cash should your horse come in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd.
  • Across the Board – This is also known as a “Combo Straight Wager”. This bet is a bet that a horse will win, place, and show. In essence, this is 3 bets on the same horse. Because of this, it triples the cost of your bet. So a $10 bet “across the board” is a $30 bet. As such, there are 3 different types of winning possibilities:
    • If your horse comes in 1st, you win on all 3 bets.
    • If your horse comes in 2nd, you win the place and show bets.
    • If your horse comes in 3rd, you only win the show bet.

When betting these wagers, you have the possibility of winning a lot, but there’s a possibility of winning less than you bet. For example, it is possible for you to bet across the board and the horse comes in 3rd and may only pay you $25. Of course, you paid $30 to place the full bet, so you come out behind.

  • Place & Show or Win & Place Bets – these bets work like the across the board bets, but eliminate 1 of the options.

Exotic Bets

The option to bet on more than 1 horse at a time is possible. These are known as exotic bets. These are prop bets that have very high payouts but are quite hard to win. These bets take a lot of time to learn how to gauge properly.

  • Exacta – A bet on the 1st and 2nd place horses in exact order. An option exists to “box” the horses which means the 2 horse can come in in any order as long as they’re both 1st and 2nd. Boxing an exacta doubles the bet.
  • Quinella – A bet on 2 horses to place 1st and 2nd in any order. It is different from boxing the exacta in that the bet doesn’t double and pays less than the boxed
  • Trifecta – A bet on horses to place 1st, 2nd, and 3 in exact order. You have the option to box a trifecta, by it increases a bet by 6 times.
  • Superfecta – A bet on 4 horses to take the top 4 spots in exact order. The option to box is available on this betas well.

Conclusion

Betting on horse races is one of the more exhilarating ways to bet on sports. You can bet in person or remotely at most tracks. This is a wonderful option for Triple Crown races: the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.

These races attract hundreds of thousands of fans each year. By allowing remote viewing and betting, race tracks around the world allow fans and gamblers to enjoy the race without the travel (and it is likely less congested than the actual location).

Online betting is also an option in many areas, but you want to be sure of the terminology the website uses. Some countries have different terms for the types of bets or may not take the same types of bets as a race track in the US. So be sure to do your homework when choosing this option to bet.