How to Bet on Horse Racing 101: A Beginner’s Guide

Updated March 16, 2022
group of friends reactions to the horse racing

Have you ever considered getting in on the action of horse betting? From your local racetrack to the Kentucky Derby, there are numerous opportunities to place a bet. And here's the great news: you don't have to be an expert to participate or even win some money. Once you learn the basics of how to bet on horses and the language involved, even beginners can have fun betting on horse racing. Make sure you're in the know before placing a wager so you have the best chances of winning big.

Where to Bet on Horse Racing

If you live near a race track, you can bet on races there. However, you don't have to be near a track to enjoy the sport thanks to advances in modern technology. There are several places near and far where you can get involved in horse betting.

Racetrack

Look for the words "Park," "Downs," "Racetrack," "Raceway," or "Race Course" to find a track nearby with live racing where you bet and watch in the same location. This is a great option if you have the opportunity because you'll be able to chat with other bettors and race enthusiasts, ask questions of employees, and see the horses in person before races.

Online

Websites like TVG, NYRA Bets, and Bet America require you to create an account linked to your PayPal or bank account to easily transfer funds for betting. If you have an account, you can bet on and watch races around the country from your computer or mobile phone.

Off-track Betting (OTB)

Look for casinos, bar and grills, or other OTB locations where you can bet on regional races or simulcast races while you eat or gamble. Some -- but not all -- states and provinces offer off-track betting.

Common Terms in Horse Racing

When you're ready to place a bet, you'll often need to quickly state or choose the racetrack, specific race, horse, and wager. Knowing exactly what to say can make you feel more confident and keep the lines moving.

Types of Races

For each type of race, there are specific kinds of horses who have better chances of winning. In general, the betting terms and wagers are the same, but different horses have an advantage in some races.

  • Flat races: Flat races are the most common type of horse race and involve horses ridden by a jockey racing on flat dirt, turf, or synthetic tracks. Choose horses who are experienced on the track material and at the distance of the race.
  • Harness racing: Harness racing involves a horse pulling a two-wheeled cart that carries a jockey. Horses are required to stay at a trot pace, so look for those who are specialists in this type of racing.
  • Steeple chasing: Steeple chasing is a horse race with hurdles and obstacles. Fillies have the advantage here, as it's easier for them to clear the obstacles.

Betting Terms

The number of horses participating in a race will determine which types of bets are allowed.

  • Win: Your one horse will take first place in the race, finishing in first position
  • Place: Your one horse will finish the race in second position
  • Show: Your one horse will finish the race in the third position
  • Exacta: Your two horses will come in first and second place, in the order you choose
  • Quinella: Your two horses will come in first and second, in any order
  • Trifecta: Your three horses will come in first, second, and third place, in the order you choose
  • Superfecta: Choose four horses and the exact order they will place, first through fourth
  • Box: For Exacta, Trifecta, and Superfecta bets, to "box" the wager means you have selected to play all combinations of possible finishes for your horses. In other words, your selected horses can come in any order -- at an increased cost to place the bet.

Additional Terms to Know

You'll also want to familiarize yourself with these terms before placing your bet:

  • Scratch: When a horse pulls out of a scheduled race
  • MTP: "Minutes to Post" means the time left until bets are no longer accepted and the race starts
  • OTB: "Off-track betting" signals a place where you can bet on horse races remotely at a location away from the actual track
  • Jockey: Person who rides the horse during the race.
  • Daily Racing Form: Paper that shows statistics about each race, including its length, the horses in the race, and their owners, jockeys, and trainers.

How to Pick a Winning Horse

Studying the form

Now that you know the basic language involved with horse betting, it's time to make your pick. Trying to figure out which horse will win any given race is known as handicapping, and it is more art than science. Myriad theories and systems exist that are designed to help gamblers pick winners, but remember that no method is foolproof. Consider these factors:

  • Ranking: The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) ranks horses based on their previous performances. Review these stats to see how each horse in the race ranks.
  • Race History: Using the race form, you can see how a horse fared in previous races. Look for a "C," "D," or "CD" by their name, which means they've previously won either that course, that distance, or both. It's also a good idea to find out when your horse of choice last raced. A horse who recently competed (within the last month) is still recovering and may not perform at their best. Alternatively, if this is the horse's first race back after one to two years, they may be rusty and also not perform well.
  • Position: Seasoned betters and equestrians often recommend looking at the horse's stall or gate location. Pick a horse in an outside stall for short races and an inside stall for longer distances.
  • Horse Condition: Take a look at the horses during their warmup. Make sure they look alert and their movements are smooth and intentional. All horses must pass a pre-race examination by a veterinarian, but if you notice anything off about the horse's appearance or demeanor, that could be a sign they're not feeling their best.
  • Name: This isn't a strategy you should use if you sincerely want to choose a winning horse, but many people who engage in horse betting for fun like to make their pick based on the horse's name. As you'll see, many racehorse names are odd or outrageous.

How to Bet on Horse Racing

After selecting the horse you think will win, you're ready to place your bet. For professionals, betting on horses is an individualized art form that takes tons of preparation. If you're a beginner or looking for a fun leisure activity, there are a few simple steps you can follow to place bets.

How to Fill Out a Paper Betting Slip

If you are betting at an OTB location, paper betting slips are typically available for you to fill out. Most slips include three columns: the Stake, Selections, and Time and Meeting. Under Stake, write down your stake, meaning the amount you are wagering, say $2, along with the type of bet you are placing, such as win, place, or show, (or other exotic bet). Under Selections, write down the horse's name. Under Time and Meeting, note the time of the race listed on your racing form and the name of the track where the race is going to be run.

In some cases, you may need to denote your specific type of wager and odds, the horse's number in the race, the race number -- rather than or in addition to the time -- or other information. Slip layouts sometimes differ between tracks, and between legal jurisdictions. Many locations offer paper betting slips that allow you to fill in your selections by checking them off a list, rather than writing them out by hand. If in doubt, ask the clerk at the counter for help between races.

After you submit your betting slip, you'll receive a ticket listing your bet. Check your slip against this ticket to make sure your bet was accepted correctly. Save both your slip and ticket until after the race results become available. If you won, take your ticket back to the clerk for payout.

Betting In-person or Online

  1. If you're attending a race, purchase the race day program or Daily Racing Form to see how many races are scheduled and how many horses are in each race. If you're betting online, you can usually find this info by clicking on the race you want to bet on.
  2. Look at the program to see which horses are running in each race and evaluate their statistics.
  3. Listen or look for scratches to make sure you don't bet on a horse that isn't racing.
  4. Choose the horse or horses you think will win the race.
  5. Pick a type of bet.
  6. Decide on an amount of money to bet. Typically, there is a minimum bet of $2.
  7. Place your wager at the ticket counter or by submitting it online before post time or the start of the race. There is often a "minutes-to-post" (MTP) clock showing a countdown of when bets need to be placed by.
  8. For in-person betting, if you aren't using a paper betting slip, you'll need to say something like "Race six, $2 on number two to win" to the teller at the counter. When betting online, make sure you click the correct race track followed by the race number, then your chosen horse, type of bet, and betting amount.
  9. If you win, take your ticket back up to the teller to cash in. If you lose, you can tear up the slip and toss it in the trash.

Get In On The Action

Horse racing is an exciting gambling activity that provides opportunities to make money and be entertained at the same time. Get in the know so you can get in on the action. Even if your horse doesn't win, you can still enjoy the thrill of horse betting!

Was this page useful?
Related & Popular
How to Bet on Horse Racing 101: A Beginner’s Guide