How to Bet on a Horse Race

Don't just pick the horse with the coolest name.

How to bet on a horse race
(Image credit: Kanwarjit Singh Boparai)

There's more to betting at the track than simply picking the horse with the coolest name. If you're looking to actually win money, there are some basic steps to take before laying down your wager.

Decide what kind of bet you want to make. There are tons of different options, in a variety of combinations. The most common — and simplest — wager is a straight bet: You choose one horse to come in first place. But the easiest bet to win is the show bet: If the horse you pick comes in at least third place, you win. If you're feeling daring — or you've got cash to burn — branch out to the Pick 3, in which you pick the winners of three consecutive races or the Superfecta, where you pick the horses that will place first through fourth of a given race.

Understand the odds. If the odds on a horse are 4/1, that means you will make $4 profit on every dollar you bet. At most racetracks, there is a minimum bet of $2, so you will make double the odds on your bet (if you bet the minimum on a horse with 4/1 odds, you will walk away with $10 if you win — the original $2 plus $8 profit). You may also see odds listed as a dollar amount. This stands for how much you will make on a $2 bet on a given horse. (If the listed price is $8, that's how much you will profit from a minimum bet. If you bet $10 on a horse, multiply the payout by five.)

Do your research. The odds on a horse are a good indicator of where the horse is expected to finish (a horse with 2/1 odds has a better chance of winning than a 30/1 horse, but the 30/1 horse is a much better payout — if you want to play it safe, look for a horse with at least 3/1 odds). Other factors to take into consideration: When did the horse run its last race? Experts say you want your horse to have run a race within the last 28 days to be sure it's in good shape. How many horses are competing? Obviously, it's a lot harder to pick a winner when there are a lot of contestants in the race. What does it say on the horses form? If there is a C, the horse has won on that track before. If there is a D, the horse has won on that distance before. These are both good bets.