An Overview of Wagering on Horse and Harness Races

Wagering on the outcome of horse races has been an integral part of the appeal of the sport since prehistory and today is the sole reason horse racing has survived as a major professional sport.
All betting at American tracks today is done under the pari-mutuel wagering system, which was developed by a Frenchman named Pierre Oller in the late 19th century.  

Under this system, a fixed percentage (14 percent-25 percent) of the total amount wagered is taken out for track operating expenses, racing purses, and state and local taxes.  The remaining sum is divided by the number of individual wagers to determine the payoff, or return on each bet.  The projected payoff, or "odds," are continuously calculated by the track's computers and posted on the track odds board during the betting period before each race.  Odds of "2-1," for example, mean that the bettor will receive $2 profit for every $1 wagered if his or her horse wins.


At all tracks, bettors may wager on a horse to win (finish first), place (finish first or second), or show (finish first, second, or third).  Other popular wagers are the daily double (picking the winners of two consecutive races), exactas (picking the first and second horses in order), quinellas (picking the first and second horses in either order), and the pick six (picking the winners of six consecutive races).
wagering on horsesBetting Types:

Win, Place, and Show Bets

  • WIN: Pick the Horse that crosses the finish line first.  Also called a Win Bet.
  • PLACE: Pick the Horse that has Second position at finish.  Also called a Place Bet.
  • SHOW: Pick the Horse that has Third position at the finish.  Also called a Show Bet.
  • PICK SIX (or more): A type of wager in which the winners of all the included races must be selected.

Exotic Bets

  • EXACTA (or PERFECTA): A wager in which the first two finishers in a race, in exact order of finish, must be picked.
  • QUINELLA: Wager in which first two finishers must be picked, but payoff is made no matter which of the two wins and which runs second.
  • TRIFECTA (or TRIPLE): A wager picking the first three finishers in exact order.
  • SUPERFECTA: A wager where you have to pick the first four finishers in exact order.
  • DAILY DOUBLE: Type of wager calling for the selection of winners of two consecutive races, usually the first and second.

Other Bet Types and Terms

  • ACROSS THE BOARD: A bet on a horse to win, place and show. If the horse wins, the player collects three ways; if second, two ways; and if third, one way, losing the win and place bets.
  • BOXED BET: Betting all possible combinations in a multi-horse wager such as exacta or trifecta.
  • STRAIGHT: Betting to win only.

Miscellaneous Racing Terms

  • BREAKAGE: In pari-mutuel payoffs which are rounded out to a nickel or dime, those pennies that are left over. Breakage is generally split between the track and state and, in some cases, breeding or other funds, in varying proportions.
  • BRIDGE JUMPER: A person who bets an unusually large sum on a single horse, like $100,000 to show. Refers to the fact that if they lose they may be jumping off the nearest bridge.
  • DEAD HEAT: A tie between two or more horses at the finish of the race. Usually these can be separated by the photo finish camera, but sometimes they are so close you can't.
  • IN THE MONEY: Finishing first, second or third.
  • INQUIRY: Reviewing the race to check into a possible infraction of the rules. Also, a sign flashed by officials on tote board on such occasions.
  • LOCK: Slang for a "sure thing" winner.
  • MINUS POOL: A mutuel pool caused when one horse is so heavily played that, after deductions of state tax and commission, there is not enough money left to pay the legally prescribed minimum on each winning bet. The racing association has to make up the difference to pay the minimums.
  • OBJECTION: Claim of foul lodged by rider, patrol judge or other official. If lodged by official, it is called an inquiry.
  • ODDS-ON: Odds of less than even money. In England it is simply called "on," thus a horse "5-4 on" is actually at odds of 4-5.
  • OFFICIAL: Sign displayed when result is confirmed.  Also racing official.
  • ON THE NOSE: Betting a horse to win only.
  • OVERLAY: A horse going off at a higher price than he appears to warrant based on his past performances.
  • PARLAY: Using the winnings from one bet to place the next bet.
  • PHOTO FINISH: A result so close it is necessary to use a finish-line camera to determine order of finish.
  • TAKE (or TAKEOUT): Commission deducted from mutuel pools which is shared by the track and local and state governing bodies in the form of tax.
  • UNDERLAY: A horse racing at longer odds than he should.


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