The beginner’s guide to betting the pony races

You may have missed it, but the Kentucky Derby is this weekend! It’s the ultimate weekend of dressing like an SEC frat bro, drinking drinks that don’t actually taste good, and pretending you’re rich, all while PETA yells at you for enjoying a sport. It’s a lot of fun!

And while the clothes, drinks, and moral outrage are fun, the real reason anyone heads to the pony track or their local bookie is money. Yes sir, you can even gamble on these races! But for many, and because horse racing is a dying sport, they don’t know the first thing about wagering on a race, and we are here to help with that. I grew up with a horse track in my home town, and the first legal gambling I ever did was at said track (RIP Great Lakes Downs).

Now, to be clear this is not a guide to betting the Kentucky Derby, I don’t follow horse racing all that closely, so I couldn’t tell you anything about any of the horses that are in this year’s field.

But if you are heading to the track or a party and don’t want to look and sound like an idiot, this should be more than enough to help you.

Please note that in horse race betting, all results are based on a $2 wager. Why $2, I have no idea, but that’s what they do and I’m not going to argue it.

Win – Simple enough, if the horse you bet on to win, wins, you win money. If your horse had 4 to 1 odds, you win $8.

Place – If the horse you bet on finishes first or second,  you win!

Show – If your horse finishes first, second, or third, you win money!

Those are pretty easy, let’s get into more complex bets.

Across The Board – Three different but equal bets on a horse to win, place, and show. If the horse wins, you win all three bets, if the horse takes second, you win the place and show bets, if your pony takes third, you win the show bet. A $2 Across the Board bet will cost you $6 total.

Exacta – Pick two horses to finish first and second. If they finish first and second, in the exact order you bet them, you win! So for example: A 6-9 exacta would require Horse 6 to win, and Horse 9 to place.

Exacta Box – Pick two horses to finish first and second. If they finish first and second, in any order, you win! A $2 Exacta Box will cost  you $4 total, because you are making two bets. An example is betting horses 6-9, you are betting to finish both 6-9 and 9-6. Some also call this a Quinella. This is also my favorite bet to make, because there’s a chance to win a little more money, while also still having decent odds.

Trifecta – Pick three horses to finish first, second, and third, in exact order. So If you pick horses 9-6-3, they would need to finish 9-6-3 for you to win. These are much harder to hit than Exacta and Win, Place, Show bets. There is also a Trifecta Box, that is like the Exacta Box, but with three horses. A $2 Trifecta Box will cost you $12 total, since you are actually making six bets. This is a fun bet to make and if you hit it, it usually pays out really well.

Superfecta – Pick the horses you think will finish first thru fourth, in exact order. This is VERY hard to hit and the odds reflect that.

Now, let’s say you are going to the actual race track to make these bets and there is a real person at the window, and not a machine where you can just punch everything in.

You’ll walk up to the window and say some version of: “Churchill Downs, Kentucky Derby, $2 exacta box, 14-6.” And that will vary if you’re betting a different track, or a different race, and different horse numbers.

But that’s it! Now, I’ll be completely honest with you, horse betting is hard and you probably aren’t going to get rich from it. But it’s a fun way to wager, and it really is a thrill to see the horses run live and in-person.

My advice would be to wager $25 to $50, and to make various bets on numerous horses. Pick a longshot to win for $2, make some exacta box bets, and maybe even a trifecta. It’s a bit like roulette. Yes, you might win by putting your money on one bet and one horse, but you need to cover bases and leave yourself other ways to win rather than just one horse.

Have fun, and good luck!



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