Horse Racing Bets Explained

Ever wondered what the differences in horse racing betting are? Say, between a place and a show bet? Do you get confused by vertical and horizontal exotic wagers and other horse betting terms?

If your answer is yes, this resource is an excellent guide for improving your horse racing betting knowledge. Let's examine all the horse racing bets with explanations on how these bets work plus the most likely manner to produce a profit.

Horse Racing Bet Categories

Overall, the easiest way to learn about the various horse racing bet types is to divide them into categories. Of course, even novice horse racing bettors will be familiar with the basic bets like win, place, and show.

Other categories include vertical (single race) and horizontal (multiple races) exotic bets, Prop Bets, and Match Bets. In the table below, find a list of all the different types of horse racing bets. Further down, find an explanation of exactly how each wager works plus each bet type's likelihood to generate a profit.

Bet TypeBet Name
Basic BetsWin
Place
Show
Across the Board
Vertical Exotic BetsExacta
Quinella
Trifecta
Superfecta
Full and Partial Wheel Bet
Box Bet
Horizontal Exotic BetsDaily Double
Pick 3
Pick 4
Pick 5
Pick 6
Parlays/Accumulators
Prop BetsWinning Margin
Winning Starting Gate
Triple Crown Winner
Other Horse Racing BetsMatch Bets
Without the Favorite

While this page holds explanations of all types of horse racing bets, if you're a beginner you should also learn how and when to place each of these bets. This translates to having the know-hows of horse racing betting.

Basic Bets

In the first place, there are only a handful of basic horse racing bet types: 

  • Win
  • Place
  • Show
  • Across The Board

These are all common horse betting terms. For each bet below, a table lists all the information for betting recommendations, the risk involved, and an outline of when each different type of wager should be used.

Also, there is a brief explanation of how each type of horse racing bet works. Bookmark this guide and refer to this resource to make a profit on horse racing betting.

Win Bet

Definitely, win bets are the riskiest of all the ‘basic’ horse racing bets. Win bets are an all or nothing wager. If the horse you bet on wins, you collect. However, if your horse fails to win, you lose your bet.

Choosing this bet type indicates you have a high level of confidence that the horse you are backing will win. Unfortunately, there is no certainty in horse racing or betting in general. Thus, the recommendation for win bets is when the horse is priced at odds of +400 or shorter. For horses with bigger odds, show, and place bets are more suitable.

Win Bet
Recommended:Advanced/Experts
Risk Level:High
Good For: Horse with outstanding odds to win.

Place Bet

If you think a horse has a great chance of being in the shake-up but aren’t 100% sure of winning, place bets are a great option. Remember that a place bet requires your horse to finish either 1st or 2nd.

You won’t get paid anything extra if your horse wins, and the odds won’t be as good as they are for a straight win bet. However, at least you still get paid if your horse gets narrowly beaten into 2nd.

Place Bet
Recommended:Beginners/Casual Bettors
Risk Level:Medium
Good For: Horse with decent odds to win.

Show Bet

The show bet is very similar to the place bet, except that there is an even better chance of receiving a return. A show bet requires your horse to finish in the first 3 places. Of course, the return is the same no matter which of the three positions finishes. Notably, this is one of the best bets that horse racing punters can land an easy return. All in all, show bets are suitable for all levels of bettors.

Show Bet
Recommended:All Bettors
Risk Level:Low
Good For: Horses with bigger odds that can sneak into top three places.

Across The Board Bet

An Across The Board wager is a combination of the three traditional horse racing bets: win, place, and show. Altogether, an Across the Board bet could well be the smartest bet in horse racing. 

If your horse wins, get paid on all three markets for a large return. However, if your horse finishes 2nd, you still get paid on the place and the show bets. Thus, an Across The Board horse racing bet contains three separate wagers, meaning a $2 Across The Board bet on one horse will cost $6.  

Across the Board Bet
Recommended:Beginners
Risk Level:Intermediate
Good For: Horses in big field races where luck is required to win.

Vertical Exotic Bets

As a whole, vertical exotic bets are divided into two distinct categories. Accordingly, a vertical exotic bet is an exotic wager placed on one race only. In contrast, a horizontal exotic bet contains wagers on more than one race. Below is an explanation of how vertical exotic bets work. 

Vertical Exotic Bet Types

  • Exacta
  • Quinella
  • Trifecta
  • Superfecta
  • Wheel Bet
  • Box Bet

Exacta Bet

Without a doubt, exacta bets are one of the easiest vertical exotic bets to understand. An exacta horse racing bet is a bet on the horses you wager will finish first and second in the correct order.

For this reason, exacta bets carry high risk as you lose the stake unless the horses you pick finish in the correct first and second-order predicted. On the plus side, bets with high risk carry a high return rate on your investment, which means a big win.

Exacta Bet
Recommended:Advanced/Experts
Risk Level:High
Good For: Use for a heavy favorite in a race to gain better odds by including the 1st and 2nd place winners.

Quinella Bet

Although almost the same as the exacta bet, the main difference is quinella bets contain two separate wagers, plus that the two horses can finish first and second in any order. Definitely, quinella bets are a much less risky proposition than the exacta.

Therefore, quinellas are always worth considering if you are debating between an exacta bet. Yet, note that quinella bets cost twice as much to place as an exacta. To explain, a $2 quinella bet costs $4 while a $2 exacta costs exactly $2. 

Quinella Bet
Recommended:All Bettors
Risk Level:Low to Medium
Good For: Two horses that are favorites to win, but cannot split the bets.

Trifecta Bet

As can be seen, a trifecta bet is a three selection bet because of the root word -tri. Thus, this difference is marked from the exacta and quinella bets, which are only two selections. 

However, trifectas are more similar to exacta bets since you have to predict the first, second, and third finishers in the exact order. Beware, there is no margin for error with trifecta wagers, which makes them devilishly difficult to hit. Consequently, the odds are massive, which equates to huge returns if you manage to win.

Trifecta Bet
Recommended:Casual
Risk Level:High
Good For: Casual bettors looking for a massive return with a small stake.

Superfecta Bet

Without a doubt, the Superfecta is the most difficult exotic bet to hit. The requirement to win is to correctly predict the first, second, third, and fourth place home in the right order. 

Definitely, the Superfecta is no wager to rely on for a regular profit. Yet, if you manage to place a winning Superfecta horse racing bet, expect a huge return on investment. 

Superfecta Bet
Recommended:Casual
Risk Level:Highest
Good For: Casual bettors dreaming of massive return for modest investment.

Wheel Bet (Full and Partial)

There are two different types of wheel bet – full and partial. An example of a full wheel bet is picking one horse to finish in a certain position and then betting every other horse in the race to finish in the other positions. To explain, a full wheel exacta requires you to pick the most likely winner, and no matter what horse finishes second, you are paid. The returns depend on the odds of the second and third-place finishes. Thus, in a 10 runner race, a $1 full wheel exacta would cost $9 due to 9 combinations.

The partial wheel bet is very similar to the full wheel, except every single horse in the race is omitted. Instead, pick the horses you think will win and pick the horses you think will finish in the places. In detail, think of a partial wheel trifecta with No. 1 and No. 5 as the potential winners plus No. 6, No. 8, No. 10, and No. 12 to finish in second or third. In this example, your bet wins as long as either No. 1 or No. 5 wins plus either No. 6, No. 8, No. 10, or No. 12 finish second or third in any order.

Wheel Bet
Recommended:Casual/Beginners
Risk Level:High
Good For: Best for casual bettors looking for an ‘interest bet' on a race.

Box Bet

Technically speaking, a box bet is not a bet type. A box bet is descriptive of an exacta, trifecta, or superfecta and inclusive of all possible finishing combinations with your selections. For example, a Box Trifecta requires three horses that will finish first, second and third in any order. 

Box Bet
Recommended:Casual/Beginners
Risk Level:High
Good For: Covering all eventualities and unsure of what order horses will finish.

Horizontal Exotic Bets

A horizontal exotic bet relies on results across multiple races. Some bettors like to combine selections from more than one race, and more often than not, these wagers will contain one or more betting favorites.

Proceed with caution, though, because finding the winner of one race is difficult enough. The more selections included in the horizontal exotic bet, the higher the likelihood that you will not win at least one leg.

Horizontal Exotic Bet Types: 

  • Daily Doubles
  • Pick 3/4/6
  • Parlays/Accumulators

Daily Doubles

A daily double bet requires bettors to pick the winner from two consecutive races on the same card. With most horse racing betting sites, the minimum stake for a Daily Double bet is $2, but this can vary depending on the track.

Generally speaking, returns from a daily double bet are calculated by the pari-mutuel system. Thus, the bigger the odds of your selections, the higher the return is. Also, pick multiple horses from each race, but this increases the cost of your wager.

Daily Double
Recommended:Advanced
Risk Level:High
Good For: If you strongly fancy two horses in consecutive races, pair them in a daily double bet.

Pick 3/4/6

Very similar to the Daily Double, except pick the winners of either three, four, or six consecutive races at a meeting. Again, pick more than one horse from each race, but this increases the bet's cost.

Overall, this is an even tougher wager to land than a Daily Double. Stick to modest stakes when playing on this market. The minimum bet at most tracks is $0.50, and the same limits apply to online wagers.

Pick 3/4/6
Recommended:Expert
Risk Level:Very High
Good For: If you want an interest in multiple races for small stakes.

Parlays/Accumulators

Parlays/Accumulators work in the same manner as Daily Doubles and Pick 3/4/6 bets. Pick the winners of multiple races, but there is no need to include horses from consecutive races or the same track, unlike the aforementioned wagers.

Also, combine show and win bets on parlays. For example, if you like the chances of five horses, a good strategy is to include the two with the best chances as win selections and then the other three as the show picks. This strategy allows a better chance of landing a nice return rather than just opting for win only.

Parlays/Accumulators
Recommended:Advanced/Expert
Risk Level:Medium to High
Good For: Multiple horses at different meeting or tracks to combine into parlays/accumulators.

Prop Bets

Recently, prop bets are increasing in popularity. Notably, prop bets are not available for every single race. Typically, racebooks only form prop betting markets for the biggest meetings and most popular horse races like the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park, and the Breeders’ Cup. 

Popular Horse Racing Prop Bets: 

  • Winning Margin
  • Winning Starting Gate
  • Triple Crown Winner

Winning Margin Bet

Typically, one horse stands heads and tails above the rest of the competition, literally and figuratively speaking. If a hot favorite looks to be an absolute lock to win and the only issue becomes by how far, then a winning margin wager is in order. Basically, bet on the distance the horse wins by with a few options.

Looking back, Tiz The Law was sent off a short odds for the Belmont Stakes. A bettor could choose between backing him to win by up to two lengths or win by more than 2 lengths. Yet, he ended up winning by nearly four lengths, so the bettors who chose the bigger winning margin won their bets. 

Winning Margin Bet
Recommended:Casual/Beginners
Risk Level:Medium
Good For: When there is a hot favorite and odds are too short for straight win bet.

Winning Starting Gate

Bettors who do not fancy studying the form and enjoy simplicity should bet on the winning starting gate. This horse racing prop bet is usually only available for the major US horse races like the Arlington Million and Kentucky Derby.

For the Kentucky Derby, a low draw (gate 1-10) is a big advantage because historically speaking, over four times as many winners have resulted from those gates compared to horses drawn in stall eleven or higher. 

Winning Starting Gate
Recommended:Beginners
Risk Level:High
Good For: Newcomers who are unsure of how to read the form of the horses.

Triple Crown Winner

Every trainer and jockey dreams that their horse wins the Triple Crown at the start of each season. The three required races to win are the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.

Only thirteen horses have ever won the Triple Crown, with the last horse being Justify in 2018. Mostly, find a market on whether ANY horse will win the Triple Crown and then bet on either ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Should a horse manage to win all three races, you will collect but otherwise, your bet returns as a loser.

Triple Crown Winner
Recommended:Casual
Risk Level:Medium
Good For: Newcomers who bet on ‘No' as Triple Crown Winners are rare.

Other Horse Racing Bets

In conclusion, a couple of other interesting horse racing betting markets do not fit into any of the previous categories. In detail, match bets allow you to bet on one horse, beating another horse in a race. ‘Without the favorite’  allows you to bet on a race, excluding the favorite from the final result. 

Betting Without The Favorite

This type of bet is for bettors who do not enjoy placing horse racing bets at prohibitively short odds. With a hot favorite in a race, there is often a separate market excluding the favorite. Thus, if you bet on a horse to win and the finish is second behind the favorite, your bet is returned as a winner. Finally, the winner is excluded from the final result for bets placed on the place and show markets.   

Match Betting
Recommended:Beginners to Advanced
Risk Level:Low
Good For: Competitive races and choosing a winner seems impossible.

Match Betting

If the overall result is impossible to call, check out match betting markets. Racebooks will pair horses together, and you back one horse to beat another horse. Typically, the odds are skinny for horse racing match bets. However, these odds give bettors an excellent chance of winning. Overall, how the horse finishes is of no importance as long as your pick beats the paired horse in the match bet market.

Match Betting
Recommended:Beginners to Advanced
Risk Level:Low
Good For: Competitive races and choosing a winner seems impossible.

Horse Racing Bets FAQ

What is the best bet to place in horse racing?

The answer to this question depends completely on the bettor and the amount of risk you are willing to take. The best bet in horse racing is probably a win, place, or show bet for beginners due to lower risk. If you fancy trying a bet that could land you a huge return for modest stakes, then Vertical Exotic Bets and Horizontal Exotic Wagers are worth trying.

What is the safest bet in horse racing?

If you want to give yourself the best chance of landing a return from your horse racing bet, then you should play it safe. Overall, the safest bet or bet with the least amount of risk in horse racing is a single Show Bet. Your horse doesn’t need to win; all it needs to do to generate a return is to finish either 1st, 2nd, or 3rd.

What pays more trifecta or exacta?

It really depends on the odds of the horses you include in your exacta or trifecta, but generally speaking, trifectas pay more than exactas. However, you need to pick the first three horses in a race to land a trifecta, while an exacta only requires you to select the first two. So, while trifectas pay more, exactas are much easier to land.

What is a 4-horse bet called?

Remember that a 4-horse bet in the same race is called a Superfecta. This type of wager requires you to predict the first 4 finishers in the exact order. These are complicated bets to land, but if you do manage to get one right, you’ll be in for an amazing payout on your wager.

How much does a quinella pay?

The amount that a quinella pays out depends on several factors. These returns are determined by pari-mutuel and generally speaking, the bigger the prices of the two horses that finish 1-2, the bigger the payout for your quinella will be. Exactas normally pay more than quinellas, but you need to predict the exact finishing order. With Quinellas, you need to predict the 1-2 in any order.

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