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Racetrack Betting


The purpose of this section will be to explain the basic bets available to the racetrack bettor, how the payoffs are determined, and cut the track takes from the betting pool. This section will not give advice on how to choose which specific horse to bet on. There are plenty of books on that subject and it is something I know almost nothing about. So if you need to bone up on the basics of racetrack betting you are in the right place.

Pari-Mutuel Betting

The racetrack operates on the same principle as an insurance company. A group of bettors pool their money together through an agent (either the track or the insurance company), the agent takes out a cut for themselves to cover expenses and profit, and the rest is given back the winning players.

At the track there are various types of bets available. All money bet on a specific kind of wager is pooled together. Once the betting is closed the track will deduct their share to cover taxes, dues to the Racing Association, overhead expenses, purse money, and the Breeders’ Fund. For example at the Pimlico track in Baltimore (home of the Preakness stakes) the track will deduct 17% to 25% depending on the type of wager. The remainder of the pool will be divided among the winning bettors.

Betting Options

Win: This is that most basic bet that a bet that the chosen horse will finish in first place.

Place: This is a bet that the chosen horse will finish first or second.

Show: This is a bet that the chosen horse will finish first, second, or third.

Daily Double: This is a bet on the first place position in two consecutive races, generally the first two of the day. Bettor must correctly pick both races to win.

Daily Triple/Pick Three: This is a bet on the first place position in three consecutive races.

Pick Six: This is a bet on the first place position of six consecutive races, generally the last six. If the event nobody wins the winning pool is split between those correctly picking five (or less if nobody picked five) and a carryover to the next pick six pool.

Exacta: This bet is on the first and second place horses in a given race in the correct order.

Quinella: This is bet is on the first and second place horse in a given race in any order.

Trifecta: This bet is on the first, second, and third places in a given race in the correct order.

Twin Trifecta: This is a pair of trifecta bets on two races. The winning pool is split between winners of the first trifecta and winners of both of them. After the first race winners of that trifecta should redeem their tickets for winnings from first half of the pool and a ticket for the second half.

Superfecta: This bet is on the first, second, third, and fourth places in a given race in the correct order.

Odd/Even: This is an uncommon bet based on the number of the winning horse.

The minimum bet is generally $2 on win, place, and show bets, and $1 on all others.

Placing a Bet

The tote board and the television monitors at the track will display the odds on a win bet for each horse on the next race, as well as each exacta combination. The odds will be refreshed every ten seconds or so to reflect the changes in betting activity. The odds are reported on a "to" basis. For example if horse 4 is paying 8:5 then a $2 wager would win $3.20, for a total return of $5.20. Unlike sports betting the bettor is not locked into the current odds when he makes a wager. Rather the odds keep changing until post time, at which moment all bets are locked out.

There is a specific way to make a wager at the betting window. You should state in order the track (if you don't specifiy it will be assumed you mean the home track), the race number, wager amount, type of wager, and horse number. There is little tolerance for chit chat or indecision at the betting window. Nobody standing behind you in line wants to risk getting locked out so make your bet as efficiently as possible.

About a minute after the end of the race the tote board will display the value of winning tickets relative to a $2 wager. For example, the board may look like this:

2011 Preakness

Number Name Win Place Show
5 Shackleford $27.20 $10.20 $6.80
11 Animal Kingdom $4.20 $3.60
1 Astrology $8.00

This shows what winning $2 win, place, and show tickets pay. These amounts include the original $2 wager. For example, a $2 place bet on Shackleford would have paid $10.20 ($8.20 in winnings and $2.00 for the original wager).

The tote board will also display what winning exotic bets pay. Sometimes in inquiry occurs after the end of a race resulting in a horse being disqualified. So wait a few minutes after a race is over before discarding a losing ticket because a disqualification of another horse may cause yours to move up. The one and only time I took my wife to the track she won a trifecta as the result of a horse being disqualified.

Payoff Calculation

On bets with only one way to win the remaining pool after the track's cut is divided among the winners in proportion to the amount bet. The payoff per $2 bet is always rounded down to the next increment of 10 or 20 cents. This is called the "breakage", which is not an insignificant amount of extra money for the track.

For example if $1000 is bet in total on win bets, and $200 is bet on the winning horse, then the payoff for the winning tickets will be determined as follows. First the track collects it's cut, we'll say 17%, that leaves $830. Then the bets on the winner are deducted, that leaves $630 for paying winnings. The ratio of winnings to winning bets is $630/$200=3.15. This ratio is then applied to the minimum $2 bet: 3.15 * $2 = $6.30. The $6.30 is rounded down to $6.20, which is the final payoff per $2 bet. All winning bettors will be paid at this ratio, for example a $100 bet will win $100*(6.20/2.00) = $310. When collecting a winning wager the bettor will also receive their original wager back. In the above example a $2 winning ticket would get back $8.20 ($6.20 in winnings plus original $2.00 bet).

If the case of the place and show bets the math winning pool is divided equally into one pool for each winning horse. For example assume $1000 is bet on place bets and the first and second places horses are x and y. Further assume $100 is bet on x and $200 is bet on y. First the house takes their 17% cut leaving $830. Then winning bets of $300 are deducted leaving $530 to pay the winners. Half of the $530, $265, will be paid to the winners of each horse. In this case the ratio of winnings to winning bets on horse x will be $265/$100=2.65 and on horse y will be $265/$200=1.325. The unrounded winnings for $2 on horse x are 2.65 * $2 = $5.30, and on horse y are 1.325 * $2 = $2.65. These amounts are rounded down for winnings of $5.20 on x and $2.60 on y. Including the original wager winning $2 tickets on x receive $7.20 and on y receive $4.60.

Sometimes when a strong favorite wins, especially on a show bet, the winnings may round down to nothing. In this event the track must pay back a minimum of $2.10 per $2.00 bet, even if it results in a net loss for the track. Sometimes the minimum win is $2.20 on a $2 bet. To cover the minimum $2.10 payout on a show bet, the track may take funds from the shares of the other two horses that showed if necessary. Should a huge favorite in a race with a small field show, it is not unlikely that winning show bets on all three horses pay $2.10.

The Track Cut

As stated in the introduction the track cut varies depending on the type of wager. The following table shows the house cut for various tracks according to the type of wager.

House Edge in Horse Racing

Track State Win/place/show 2 horse picks1 3+ horse picks2
Prescott Downs Arizona 18.5% 22.5% 22.5%
Oak Lawn Arkansas 17% 21% 21%
Hollywood Park California 15.43% 20.18% 20.18%
Arapahoe Park Colorado 18.5% 25% 25%
Delaware Park Delaware 17% 19% 25%
Tampa Bay Downs Florida 18.9% 25.9% 25.9%
Les Bois Park Idaho 18% 22.75% 24.75%
Arlington Park Illinois 17% 20.5% 25%
Prairie Meadows Iowa 18% 24% 25%
Churchill Downs Kentucky 16% 19% 19%3
Delta Downs Louisiana 17% 20.5% 25%
Laurel Maryland 17% 19% 25%
Great Lakes Downs Michigan 17% 20.5% 20.5%4
Fonner Park Nebraska 15% 23% 23%
Meadowlands New Jersey 17% 19% 25%
The Downs New Mexico 22% 22% 25%
Aqueduct New York 15% 20% 25%
River Downs Ohio 18% 22% 22%
Remington Park Oklahoma 18% 20% 20%
Portland Meadows Oregon 18% 22% 22%
Philadelphia Park Pennsylvania 17% 20% 30%5
Lone Star Texas 18% 21% 25%
Colonial Downs Virginia 18% 22% 22%
Emerald Downs Washington 15.1% 22.1% 22.1%
Charles Town West Virginia 17.3% 19% 25%
  1. 2 horse picks refers to daily doubles, quinellas, and exactas.
  2. 3+ horse picks refers to trifectas, pick 6, and other longshots.
  3. Takeout for odd/even bet is 5% at Churchill Downs.
  4. Takeout for pick 3 is 25% at Great Lakes Downs.
  5. Takeout for pick 3 is 26% at Philadelphia Park.

Taxation of Winnings

If a single ticket pays odds of 300 to 1 or more and totals more than $600, then the track will issue a W2G form, which will be reported to the IRS as gambling winnings. If a single ticket pays 300 to 1 or more and totals more than $5000 then automatic 28% withholding will take place.


Information on the track cut is from DRF.com, the site of the Daily Racing Form. The Complete Guide to Racetrack Betting by David K. Rosenthal helped me to bone up on the basics. The Washington State Racing Commission rules of racing is a good source for the specific rules of each wager. Barry Meadow was very helpful for information on taxation of winnings and pick-six carry overs. Finally I am very grateful to Kevin Hill for answering my many questions on horse betting.