A simple guide to placing wagers on Horse Races

You may think the Brits have the monopoly on horse racing, what with prestigious meetings like the Grand National, the Epsom Derby, the Cheltenham Festival, and Royal Ascot to name but a few, but we actually have a long and rich history with the Sport of Kings here in the US. 

The first professionally-organized horse races to run in the country took place centuries ago, and since then US residents have enjoyed the thrill of watching these spectacles as much as they do placing real money wagers on the top runners to win. 

If you’re curious about betting on horse races in US states, read on to find out more. 

The legal landscape 

The real money gaming and wagering industry in the US has changed a lot in the past couple of years. New legislation has made online sports betting legal again in a number of states, as well as the introduction of online platforms specializing in card and casino games in states like Pennsylvania. Although these activities are limited to just a handful of states at the moment, placing bets on horse races online is actually legal in a total of 30 states, including Alabama, California, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and West Virginia. 

The reason why online horse betting is legal in so many more states than, say, betting on the Super Bowl is that it happens via pari-mutuel pools (more on that later). On-track betting, betting at retail locations, and simulcast wagering are all left to the jurisdiction of individual states, but if the state has the provision for these activities within its laws, residents over the age of 21 are able to participate.

Different races and major events

As you would expect from such a popular equine sport, the racing landscape is pretty vast with hundreds of races taking place a day, particularly in the summer season. Races are carried out on turf, dirt, or artificial tracks, and they are typically categorized as flat races (for thoroughbreds and quarter horses) or harness races (for standardbreds). 

With so many races taking place, ranging from amateur to graded meetings, it can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to placing wagers. Due to the numerous betting markets that will be opened for them, it makes sense to start with big meetings such as the Breeder’s Cup, or any of the components of the Triple Crown. 

Breeders Cup

This is a series of flat races taking place at different tracks across the States. The biggest race is the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which happens in late October or early November. This multi-million prize pool attracts the greatest racehorses in the US and from around the globe, so you’ll definitely have plenty of talent to choose from. Unlike other big graded races, the Classic is held at different venues each year, with the 2020 edition taking place at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky.

Triple Crown

Three prestigious races make up the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. 

The Kentucky Derby is contested at the famous Churchill Downs racetrack and takes place on the first Saturday in May. Known as the “Run for the Roses”, it’s a 10-furlong race open to horses aged 3 and over. 

Two weeks later, the Preakness Stakes is run at the Pimlico Race Course, Maryland. Although slightly shorter in length to the Kentucky Derby, at 9 ½ furlongs, it nevertheless attracts a similarly huge attendance. 

The final leg of the crown happens three weeks after the Preakness, with the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park, New York. Aka the “Test of the Champion”. If a horse has won the first two legs, you can expect the pressure to be on in this 12-furlong race. 


How to place bets 

Thanks to digital innovation, the simplest way to place bets on horse races is via online betting websites and platforms, especially the ones that offer money-saving promotions like free bet offers, or multiple bet discounts. Depending on the individual laws of the state, and the betting markets opened by the site itself, it’s also possible to bet on international horse races like the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, or the major UK Grade One meetings like the Grand National and Epsom Derby. 

Rather than offering lines like they do for other sports, betting platforms offer bets on horse races under the pari-mutuel betting system, which pools all the bets together. All the different bets on the meeting are collected, then the pool is divided out between winning bettors. The system itself sets the price of each bet, not the betting site, so last minute bets will divide the prize pool even further. 

There are a number of different types of bets available in the pari-mutuel system. These vary depending on whether you choose to bet on a single horse, multiple horses in a single race, or the outcomes of multiple races: 

Bets on single horses – betting on a horse to Win is the most straightforward and does exactly what you think it does. Betting on a horse to Place means that it needs to either win or come in second, while betting on a horse to Show will deliver winnings if your chosen horse wins, or finishes second or third. 

Bets on multiple horses – Exacta bets require you to pick two horses, which need to win and finish second (in the exact order you specified). Trifecta bets involve picking three horses, which will pay out if they come in in the order you specified. Superfecta bets give you a further option of choosing a fourth horse, but again they have to finish in the correct order. 

Bets on multiple races – Due to their complexity, multiple race bets are best left to more experienced horseplayers, but they include Pick 5/6 bets (picking the winner of several races at a single track), and Futures bets, which are combined bets for important race meetings like the Triple Crown.