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How to Bet on Horse Races

Scott Morris | May 16, 2023
Horse race betting

The 2023 Kentucky Derby has come and gone and, if you’re like many sports bettors, you probably got in on the action. It’s a huge event and, as a sports bettor, you felt the need to place a bet. The problem, as many bettors have, is that you really don’t know how to bet on horse races.

That’s okay. Sports bettors have their niches and, for many, it’s not the horses. If you’re a Big 4 (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) bettor but want to win more at the track, read on as we explain the basics of betting on horses.


Parimutuel Betting

The first thing bettors should understand is that horse racing uses a parimutuel, or pool, system of betting. Unlike fixed-odds betting, the final payout on a horse race is not determined until the pool is closed. When you bet on an NBA game, the payout is agreed upon at the time the bet is placed.

To understand how this system works, we’ll look at an example. Remember, the payout is based upon all of the bets that have been placed. In the example, a total of $1,028 has been wagered on eight horses.

  • Horse 1: $60
  • Horse 2: $140
  • Horse 3: $24
  • Horse 4: $110
  • Horse 5: $220
  • Horse 6: $94
  • Horse 7: $300
  • Horse 8: $80

From the pool of $1,028, the track will take a commission. We’ll say it’s 14.25 percent, which equals $146.49. That leaves $881.51 in the pool. Horse 4 is the winner of the race. To calculate the payout on Horse 4, we take $881.51 divided by $110 and get $8.01. 

That means that for every dollar wagered on Horse 4, a bettor receives $8.01. Of the $8.01, $1 is the wager. In addition to giving us the payout, this calculation also reveals the odds – 7-to-1 or +700. These odds cannot be finalized until all bets are in, since they are based on the pool.

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Types of Bets

The most common horse racing bets are the Win, Place, and Show bets. The Win bet is easy to understand. Bettors wager on a horse to win a race. A Place bet is a wager on a horse to finish in the top two. A Show bet is one on a horse to finish in the top three. 

Let’s say you place a Win bet on a horse given 2/1 or +200 odds. The basic $2 bet would pay out $4, $2 in winnings and the $2 stake. It works the same with Place and Show bets. Payouts are determined by the odds, though the odds on Place and Show bets are less attractive as it is easier to finish in the top-2 or top-3 than it is to win a race.

When betting on horses, the traditional bet is a combination Win-Place-Show bet. A bettor stakes $2 on each – a total bet of $6 – and can win all three bets when a horse wins the race. When a race is complete, you will see the payout listed for the winning horse as follows: $132.40, $56.60, and $24.60. 



There are numerous ways to parlay horse racing bets. The most common come in the form of the Daily Double and Pick-N, where N is a certain number of races. In the Daily Double, the bettor picks the winners of two consecutive races. Pick-3 and Pick-4 are common horse racing parlays where bettors must pick the winners of three or four races in a row. At most tracks, bettors can jump in anywhere on a daily card and wager on a certain number of consecutive races.

In betting a Pick-3, for example, it’s best to spread your wagers over a few horses. You might bet on three horses per race, which would cost you $27. Now, you could do some handicapping and narrow down the first race to a certain horse. Then, you could pick four horses in Race 2 and five in Race 3. That ticket only costs you $20.

Pick-3s, like any parlay, are hard to win. However, if you do the research, you can find some favorites that are vulnerable. That’s where these bets really pay off. Trying to win a Pick-3 betting on all favorites isn’t usually worth the investment.


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