The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Horse Racing

Most people have some familiarity with the sport of horse racing. Once a year they put on their big hats and watch 20 horses run for the roses in the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps they tuned in as American Pharaoh or Justify won the Triple Crown or watched the motion pictures chronicling the famous horses of yesteryear like Seabiscuit or Secretariat. However, horse racing is so much more than all of that. It gives horse players a daily chance to watch and wager on the puzzle that is each and every race at various tracks around the country. 

Horse racing is one of the most unique sports wagering propositions offered in the American gambling landscape. It involves different surfaces, distances, and class levels that can significantly impact the outcome of any given race. While the challenge can be daunting, it can be one of the most exciting betting opportunities around.

In order to identify any of these factors a player will need data that provides insights into how the horses stack up. Past performances are like stat books for each individual horse in the race and are frequently provided through many online betting sites. Past performances are a wonderful resource because they provide a plethora of information about the horses. However, for the new player they can be overwhelming. For the beginner a website like can be a great starting point as it provides a lot of very valuable information in a digestible format.

The first key factor is speed. Simply put this is the horse that runs the fastest final time for the race. While this may seem simple, there is a lot of nuance in determining which horse is the fastest. For example, times can vary dramatically depending on surface, track condition, competition level, and distance. If one horse is clearly faster than the rest, he may be an automatic play. If a couple of horses are faster than the field, this may help you eliminate the horses that have no chance. If every horse seems to be pretty close, it may suggest that the race is wide open and you can make a big score by finding an undervalued horse.

Handicapping Class

Once you have dissected how the horses overall speed stacks up, you will want to determine the class of each horse. Class is a judgement about the level of competition faced by each horse in the race. One would expect that a major league pitcher with a 1-14 record would out-pitch a 20 game winner at the high school level. Horses are no different.

A horse who easily handles maidens (horses that have not won a race) may struggle when it steps up against winners. Horses can also move down the class ladder. An allowance horse may drop in for a claiming tag, meaning the horse is for sale during the race. This horse may not be running speed figures fast enough to beat the claiming field, but like the baseball example above, sometimes this class drop allows the horse to perform significantly better. This is due to the fact that the horse doesn’t have to exert as much energy to stay involved early in the race. When they turn for home it may finish better than it did against tougher foes because there is more in the tank.

If a horse in the race shows competitive speed numbers and has the most class this is a very good prospect to win.

Handicapping Form

Form and pace are the factors that take the most figuring out from horse players. Form is an understanding of how the horse has been running in his previous starts. This gives the handicapper an idea if the horse is likely to improve or take a step backward. Much like speed and class there are no set rules about form. Every horse and trainer has patterns and idiosyncrasies. Some trainers do well off a layoff while some use the first race back to get the horse into shape. A general rule that can be helpful for new horse players is to find horses that show improving speed and/or improving final position in each of the last 3 starts.

Handicapping Pace

The final pillar of handicapping is pace. Pace refers to the dynamics that will play out during the race. There are resources that can help horse players identify how a horse likes to run. For example, DHP lists the preferred running style for each horse in the race. When determining the pace scenario there are a number of things to consider.

  • One of the most important things is to understand the dynamics of the surface.
  • With this understanding you can start envisioning the pace setup.
If you can find lone speed, especially on dirt, you may have a winner even at a long price. This is because horses who are leading without pressure can slow down and save energy leaving them enough to hang on late. If you perceive that the race will have three horses challenging for the lead, it might suggest that a closer has a better chance of winning as the three speeds will grind each other into the ground and make easy pickings for the horse who has been watching it all unfold in front of him. 
With these four crucial aspects of handicapping you now have a basic understanding of how to pick winners. Already you have a significant edge on the casual bettor who is picking based on horse names and jockey silk colors.

Picking Winners in Horse Racing

Dirt racing is predicated on running as fast as the horse can for the first part of the race and then decelerating at a slower rate than the competitors in the stretch.

Inversely, on turf jockeys often cruise their horses through the opening phase of the race, trying to get into perfect position before relying on the best acceleration at the end.

Betting Basics of Horse Racing

You know the horse, or horses, that have a good shot at winning. What comes next? Generally new players are best served by playing wagers that are focused on picking winners. This includes the win, place, and show pools.

Win, place, and show are single horse bets and usually have a $2 minimum wager.
  • Win bets require your horse to win the race and almost always offers the highest return on your investment
  • Place bets require a top two finish from your horse
  • Show bets require your horse to be in the top three

It is important to know that these pools get split among winning tickets, driving down the value of the place and show payouts. For example, three horses show in every race so the money gets divided between anyone who had show bets on any of those top 3.

Vertical wagers such as exactas, trifectas, and superfectas can be attractive wagers because of their payouts and low minimums, but they require you to pick multiple placings in a single race. In order to hit the exacta you need to pick the first and second place horses. Since the first and second best horses don’t often finish 1-2 these vertical wagers require a finely tuned analysis of pace and understanding of overlaid combinations. This is a lot of complexity that the new bettor is best to stay away from initially as they learn the game.

The final type of wager is a horizontal wager which requires you to pick multiple winners in a row, much like a parlay bet. These types of wagers can reward players with a keen eye for upset winners, but they can be extremely difficult to hit without adequate bankroll coverage. It is advised that players not dive too deep into these pools until they are confident about their ability to pick winners on a variety of surfaces and distances.

Horse racing is one of gambling’s greatest puzzles. With every race a player can learn something new about how to find a winner or how to make their wagering more efficient. Despite the challenge there is no greater feeling than watching the horse you picked get to the wire first and cashing on that opinion. Welcome to the sport of kings!