Horse Racing Betting Strategy

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Developing a sound horse racing betting strategy can make the difference between you winning consistently and suffering substantial losses wagering on the sport. There are many different ways to go about making your horse racing bets. We’re here to help you find the best betting horse betting strategy for your wagering profile.

We think that these tips and race horse betting strategies will give you a sound foundation from which to make your picks. You can pick and choose the ones that make the most sense for you so that you can become a big winner in the long run “betting the ponies.”

Understanding Horse Racing Betting

We firmly believe the first step to developing a winning horse racing betting strategy is learning about how everything works. If you’ve never bet on horses at the top legitimate betting sites you can find it all a bit confusing the first time. The terminology might seem foreign to you and that can make getting started a bit difficult.

But once you take the time to learn how it works, you’ll find that it all will become second nature after a little practice. Read on to find out the ins and outs of how horse racing betting works, from the systems of betting used to the types of bets you can make. Once you have that down, you should be ready to move on to learning horse betting strategies that will help you to long-term profits.

Systems of Horse Racing Betting

There are two systems of horse racing betting you might encounter when betting on horses for real money: pari-mutuel wagering and fixed odds. Pari-mutuel betting is the dominant form of horse racing betting in the world. It’s the system used by horse racing tracks all over the world and has also been adopted by most horse racing betting sites.

But you should also know how fixed odds betting works since you might find a situation where you might want to take advantage of it. This is especially true if you plan on betting on the horses online. Take a look at how these two systems break down and how they affect horse racing betting strategy.

Pari-Mutuel Wagering

Pari-mutuel betting is a system of wagering that you’ll generally only find attached to horse racing. The idea is that the odds are determined not by oddsmakers, but by bettors. As such, the final odds aren’t complete until all bets are made on a particular race.

As each particular bet on each horse (or combination of horses), it goes into a pool with all other bets like it. Those pools determine the odds. For example, if in a 10-horse race the #7 horse gets the most money bet on it to win, that horse will end up as the favorite.

The other thing you need to realize about pari-mutuel odds is that they are never set until the race begins and all wagering is finished. What that means is that the odds for your bet can change even after you’ve wagered depending on what other bettors do. If you want to bet knowing what your odds will be, you should wait to wager until as near as possible to the beginning of the race before wagering.

Reading Pari-Mutuel Odds:

Pari-mutuel odds to win are represented by two numbers separated by a hyphen. The first number is how much you will win based on the second number, which is the amount bet. For example, if a horse has win odds of 7-2, it means that you will win $7 in profit for every $2 that you wager.

Fixed Odds Betting

As we said, fixed odds betting, which is the predominant system in most sports wagering situations, doesn’t show up all that often in horse racing betting. But when it comes to big races, such as the Kentucky Derby, you’ll find futures betting available at top horse racing betting sites. And these futures bets will use fixed odds.

The term fixed odds pretty much tells you what they’re all about. Once you make a bet in this system, those odds are locked in for you. Nothing that happens from then to race time, including what others bet, will change them.

For example, let’s say that you make a bet on a horse to win the Kentucky Derby months in advance because you like the long-shot odds as they are. Once you make that bet, those odds are yours, even if the horse wins its next three races and becomes one of the favorites. That’s why timing is everything when developing a horse racing betting strategy for fixed odds.

Reading Fixed Odds:

Fixed odds will be represented by a number of at least 100 preceded by either a plus or a minus sign. A minus sign means that you must bet the number listed to win $100 profit. And a plus sign means that you must bet $100 to win the number listed in profit.

Different Types of Horse Racing Bets

Many people gravitate to horse racing betting because there are so many different ways that you can wager on a race. You can go for broke with potentially high-paying bets (which are often high-risk as well.) Or you can play it a bit safer by making bets with less volatility that can still earn you a decent profit.

The two main types of wagers that you can make on horse races are straight and exotic. To shorthand the distinction between the two, it’s simple to remember that straight bets generally involve one horse in one race. Exotic bets involve more than one horse and can be attached to a single race or can play out over multiple races.

Straight Bets

  • Win: Bet on a horse to finish first in the official order of finish
  • Place: Bet on a horse to finish first or second in the official order of finish
  • Show: Bet on a horse to finish first, second, or third in the official order of finish

For ExampleKeep in mind that you only get paid for the straight bets that you make. If you bet on a horse to show and it wins the race, you still only get the show price (which will usually be much lower than the win price.)

You can also make a wager “across the board,” which is a bet on a horse to win, place, and show. In that case, you would get all three payouts if the horse should win the race. But it is a more expensive wager because it is essentially three bets crammed into one.

Exotic Bets

The lure of exotic wagers is that you can often win a lot of money with even a small wager when you manage to get them right. But that’s only because the degree of difficulty is so high. After all, you need to be right about more than one horse in either a single race or multiple races to win one of these bets.

Here are the most common exotic wagers available:

  • Exacta:You need to pick the first and second-place finishers in the official order of finish in a single race
  • Trifecta (or Triple):You need to pick the first, second, and third-place finishers in the official order of finish in a single race
  • Superfecta:You need to pick the first, second, third, and fourth-place finishers in the official order of finish
  • Daily Double:You need to pick the winners of two consecutive races
  • Pick 3, Pick 4, etc.:You need to pick the winners of several races in a row

One way you can narrow your odds with exotic bets is to utilize a practice known as “boxing.” If you box an exotic in a single race, it doesn’t matter the order that your horses finish provided they’re in the top two or three or whatever. For example, if you were to box a 1-3-5 trifecta, you would win if the order were 1-3-5, or 5-1-3, or 3-1-5, and so on.

But you need to remember that you have to pay extra to make a boxed bet and still get the full payout price. Many tracks and betting sites offer a modified version of their exotics that allow you to carve up a full-priced bet into many different combinations. You would then win only a portion of the payout price if one of your combinations is correct.

Devising a Horse Racing Betting Strategy

Although you’ll hear many people claim that they’ve developed a strategy for betting on horses that is impeccable, there is no such thing. You’re still gambling, and gambling will also involve the risk of loss. If that weren’t the case, every horse racing track would go out of business because bettors would fleece them of all their money.

But you can indeed improve your chances of winning at the track by coming up with horse racing betting systems that weed out the horse with no chance and focus on the ones that can win or at least finish close to the top. Before we get into different horse racing betting strategies, let’s talk about the two general ways you can follow along so that you can make informed selections.

Watch the Races

It’s a simple concept. If you want to do better at wagering on horse races, you should watch them as much as possible. You’ll start to get a feel for horse racing in general, what it takes to succeed, and how the odds reflect which horses are most likely to perform well.

More than anything else, you’ll start to notice certain horses after seeing them perform on several occasions. You’ll see if they perhaps underperformed because of bad racing luck in certain races. Or you might notice if they don’t look sound, perhaps discouraging you from betting on them.

We’d suggest that you try just one track (maybe the one closest to you if you want to visit in person) or a couple when you first begin to watch. You can watch the races online in most cases (sometimes on a replay, sometimes live), or seek out a broadcast that you can check out every day. Use the information that you glean from watching as the foundation for your horse racing betting strategy.

Use a Program

Even if you don’t get to watch the past performances of the horses in a race that you want to bet, you can still wager intelligently by using a program. Sometimes called a racing form, a program is a collection of all the information of the horses competing at a track on a given day. Once you know how to read it, you can size up a race in a few minutes with just a quick look.]

Futher Info:Reading the program is something that might take some time to master if you’ve never done it before. We’re going to talk about some of the important information that you can find in a program when we get to specific horse betting strategies. Most racing forms include instructions on a page at the beginning that explains all the information included.

Not only will you get information on horses from the program, but you’ll also discover key statistical data on jockeys, trainers, owners, and sires. The best horse racing betting strategy is to combine the statistics from the program with the evidence that you amass watching the races. But, in a pinch, you can use the program to give yourself a solid chance of making a winning wager.

Key Factors in Race Horse Betting Strategies

When handicapping horse races, you should look to certain key elements that will help determine the winner (and/or the horses that will come very close to winning.) As you develop your horse racing betting strategy, you’ll likely lean on some factors more than most. Try to develop a consistent strategy in terms of how you’ll use these different pieces of information when deciding upon which bets you’ll be making.


The first thing that jumps out to most people is a horse’s overall record in terms of how many times it has won, placed, or shown. You can’t look at that in a vacuum, because, as you’ll see as we go through this section, there are many other parts of a horse’s past performances and overall profile that can affect how it will do in a particular race. But it’s a good sign if a horse is consistently outperforming its competition.


This factor is the main reason why you can’t simply go with results as a determining factor as to who you’re going to pick. If a horse is beating all inferior opponents and then steps up to face much better ones, it might not have the same kind of opportunity to keep winning. By contrast, a horse that has been struggling can suddenly come to life when it drops down in class to face others that aren’t as strong.

If you’re looking for a shorthand way to determine class, look at the purses of the races that the horse has been running. Compare them to the current race and see if they’re higher or lower. In addition, be aware of the different types of thoroughbred races:


  • Maiden races: These races are for horses who have never won before. Once a horse wins and steps up out of the maiden races, it can often take them a while to get acquainted with the tougher foes.
  • Claimers: In claiming races, every horse is for sale. You can judge class by whether or not the claiming price is rising or falling from race to race because horses of similar claiming prices are gathered together for races.
  • Allowances: In an allowance, a condition is set by the track for a race that every horse in the race must meet. For example, an allowance race might be set for something like “non-winners of $45,000 in their last 5 starts.” Just as is the case with claimers, horses can move up and down the allowance ladder to try out different classes.
  • Stake: These races feature the best caliber of talent in the sport. They’re called stakes races because owners must pay a fee, or a “stake”, for horses to compete for what are the biggest purses in the sport. The best stakes races are graded stakes races, with the elite races, like the Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup Classic, being ranked as Grade 1 events.


In thoroughbred racing, there are many different race distances for races. They can be broken down into these three general categories:


  • Sprints: These are the shortest races, which usually only go feature one turn and are less than a mile. The classic sprint distance in the sport is 6 furlongs (3/4 of a mile), but you can find them much shorter.
  • Middle distance: Middle distance races generally go somewhere in the neighborhood of a mile, with some deviations higher or lower possible. Depending on the size of the track, these races can be either one or two turns.
  • Long distance (sometimes called just “distance races”); Once you get past 1 1/16 miles, you’re talking about a distance race. These races go two turns. Modern horse racing usually limits these races to 1 ½ miles, at least for thoroughbreds.

What you’ll find is that horses generally stay at their specific distances from race to race. But you have to be aware when a horse tries to switch it up. Use the past performance lines to judge if the new distance will fit them.

For ExampleIf a horse is preparing to go a longer distance, see how it was doing at the finish of previous, shorter races to see if it might have the stamina to make that switch. On the other hand, horses that are “shortening up” should ideally have shown initial bursts of speed in their longer races, as they’ll need that at the shorter distances.

Speed Ratings

If you’re looking for a catch-all statistic to rank horses in a hurry, speed figures can work. These numbers are ratings given by horse racing experts for every horse in every race. They take into account factors like the pace of the race, the condition of the track, the trip that a horse has received, and anything else that can affect performance.

Futher Info:The idea is that you can take a horse’s speed figure, compare it to those of others in a race, and see if it stands above or below the competition. It’s an excellent shorthand tool. You’d be hard-pressed to find a sound horse racing betting strategy that doesn’t include speed figures.

But you also have to remember that ranking horses in this way is an imperfect science. If the sped figures were always accurate, everybody would use only them and win every race they bet. You can use them, but use them in conjunction with everything else you’re learning here.

Racing Style

The style of a horse refers to how it prefers to race. Does it like to hustle out of the gate quickly and dare every other horse in the field to try and catch it? Or does it prefer to wait back in the middle of the pack and then come charging up late?

You can determine styles by using the racing form. Look to see where a horse has been positioned in each race, or use speed figures that are included for each point in the race. Or you can watch a horse’s past performances to see how it likes to race.

Once you know the style of each horse in the races, you can use that knowledge in your race horse betting strategies.

For ExampleIf a race only features one horse that flashes early speed, that horse can have a distinct advantage. Or, if there are a bunch of horses who like to try to get the early lead in a race, the “closers” in the race might be the best picks.

The Human Element and Pedigree

We’re including these factors together because they’re both based on factors somewhat outside of the horse’s control. Pedigree refers to the bloodlines of the horses in a race. The idea behind them is that a horse with a good pedigree will often perform better than those with less distinguished predecessors.

As for the human element, that refers to the men and women in charge of the horses in a race. That includes:

  • Jockeys, who ride the horses in a race
  • Trainers, who are in charge of preparing the horse for a race
  • Owners, who purchase the horses and pick the others who will be in charge
  • Breeders, who are in charge of putting together the pedigree combinations for new thoroughbreds

The program will usually include statistics for the top jockeys and trainers to let you know which ones are hot and which aren’t. And they’ll include pedigree stats as well so you’ll know which sires have been producing a lot of winners. It all adds up to more information that you can use to develop horse betting strategies.

Final Tips on Horse Racing Betting Strategy

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You now know most of the key factors that will come into play when you’re handicapping a horse race. How do you put it all together into a coherent strategy? Here are some tips that we think will help you to do just that.

  • Bet based on your specific wagering needs and wants. In other words, try to make the wagers that will take into account your tolerance for risk and your desired winning potential. For example, conservative bettors might want to stick to betting favorites to win, while more adventurous bettors might want to try exotic bets that can win them a lot in a hurry.
  • Always bet with a budget in mind. Determine beforehand how much money you’re comfortable with losing over a given time span. You should also consider banking some of your winnings before luck turns on you and ends up costing you all that you’ve won.
  • Try to be consistent with your horse betting strategy once you’ve decided on one. Remember that you’re in it for the long haul, and you shouldn’t be too swayed by a few negative results. If you’re confident in what you’ve put together, the results will eventually start to show.
  • Always keep value in mind. If you’re looking to bet on a race and there are two horses you like that stand out but you only have the budget to bet on one, check out the odds. It makes more sense to bet the one with longer odds, since that will bring you the best possible payback at horse racing betting sites.


Jim Beviglia
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About Jim Beviglia
Jim Beviglia has been a gambling writer at since 2018. During that time, he’s written just about every type of article related to gambling, including reviews of betting sites, guides to popular casino games, betting tips on both casino and sports betting, sports and casino blog posts, and game picks. In addition to online gambling, one of Jim’s other major interests is music. He has been doing freelance work for various music sites and magazines for two decades. Among his outlets past and present are American Songwriter, VinylMePlease, Treble, and The Bluegrass Situation. Jim has also written five books on music that were published by Rowman & Littlefield.