Laying Down at the Downs: Horse-betting for Dummies

By Staff

They say you should never look a gift horse in the mouth but if you're betting on him you might want to.

There are a few “D” words we might use to describe the socio-normative behavior at the Churchill Downs on Derby Day, but decency and decorum are not among them. Decadence and depravity, however, are. That’s about right. It is a day for the desperate, the drunk and the doomed. Something about driving hordes of Southern belles, governors, gamblers, and every cheap-shot hustler, horse, and con artist in sight into a single fun-filled locale and fueling them all with booze and odds and straight Kentucky shine has an ill-advised air about it. It’s the perfect coming together of high-speed indulgence that drives good people to do bad things and it precludes Darwinian decency; horse racing from a human perspective has nothing to do with survival of the fittest. Here in Kentucky on Derby Day it’s only the luckiest who last.

Horse Betting For Dummies

First some terms.

To Win: Betting to win means you are betting a horse will finish first.

To Place: Betting to place is betting a horse will finish either first or second.

To Show: Betting to show is betting a horse will finish first, second or third.

Each horse also has odds attached, odds that are passed down from the Great Gelding Gods and given out based on breed, past performance, conditions, and other intangible factors you’ll never be able to understand, so it’s best just to accept them for what they are.

These odds determine your payout. For instance, laying (placing a bet) ten dollars at 30 to 1 “to win” will net you somewhere in the neighborhood of $290; every dollar you bet turns into thirty if the horse finishes first, minus the original ten-dollar bet and whatever the house takes as commission. Betting on a horse to place or show reduces the payout, as the probability a horse will finish first or second is better than if it must finish first.

Odds will also change based on betting tendencies; if a lot of people are betting on a horse, the odds will go down based on the belief that the horse is more likely to win as evidenced by the quantity of bets.

Types of Bets

The type of bet you make drastically changes your payout. Put simply, the more precise you are, the more your payout will be.

The Straight Bet: You bet on a horse to win at given odds. If the horse wins, you win.

Quinella: Betting on two horses to finish first or second in any order.

Exacta: Betting on two horses to finish first and second in that order.

Trifecta: Betting on three horses to finish first, second, and third in that order.

Superfecta: Betting on four horses to finish first, second, third, and fourth in that order.

Box: Said after any of the above bets, a “box” bet allows for the horses to finish in any order (the payout obviously being reduced as the probabilities change).

Daily Double: Betting on two horses to win in two consecutive races.

Pick 3, 4, or 6: Betting on the corresponding number of horses to win over the corresponding number of races (i.e., a Pick 3 requires you to pick the winner of three consecutive races to win your bet).

In The Know

Throwing caution to the wind and betting on a horse because it has the same name as your girlfriend’s first dog is one way to go about this, but there is a slightly more scientific method most prefer.

There is a wealth of information available to you at the track on every horse: past performance; preferred conditions; and how the horse runs out of the gate, down the stretch, and in between. All these things come together along with the odds to give you some sense of how a race will be run. For instance, a horse that breaks well out of the gate and has won his past three races on a dry, fast track might not fare so well on a long, muddy track.

Here are some more terms for the track.

Fast: A dry, hard, and firm track, ideal for a horse’s fastest times.

Cuppy: A dry, loose track that has some give, leading to slightly slower times.

Muddy: A track that is wet, but without standing water.

Sloppy: A wet track with standing water.

Slow: A drying dirt track likely to produce slower times.

Heavy: A track that is wet, waterlogged and soggy. Likely to produce very slow times.

Be sure to check a horse’s history before laying a bet; a horse that is notorious for running well in the mud isn’t likely to change over the course of its career.

Placing a Bet

With all the details hammered out, the only thing left to do is to place a bet, which can be the most daunting part of the whole process. The window is no place for the wishy-washy; hesitation here will bring hate down upon you from everyone else trying to make their bets before the start of the race.

Order on ticket: Track Name, Race Number, Wager, Type of Bet, Number of Horse(s).

The track name is important as tracks tend to take bets on races going on elsewhere. Be sure to confirm your selection once you have the ticket; there is nothing more disappointing than having a horse win when you accidentally bet him to show.  

So go forth, great gambler; may the (correct) horse be with you. 


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