How to Bet at the Breeder’s Cup

With the application of a little good sense, you can have plenty of affordable fun even if you fail to win.
Photo by Scott Serio

Betting the ponies can be an intimidating endeavor for the uninitiated. It involves not only an extensive and arcane vocabulary, but the possibility of losing your hard-earned lucre looms large. Fortunately, with the application of a little good sense, you can have plenty of affordable fun even if you fail to win. And, trust us, a horse race is a whole lot more fun when you have a horse in the race. Before you head over to the track for the first time, we offer some vocabulary and a little advice.

Begin with a budget! If you’re disinclined to follow the simple admonition to allot no more than you can afford to lose, and to never lose more than you’ve allotted, then do yourself a favor and enjoy the races far away from the betting windows! But, sufficiently disciplined (a straight bet in any race to win, place, or show costs as little as $2), human nature, and a little bit of skin in the game will have you rooting like you trained the horse yourself.

ARCADIA, CA – NOV 04: The paddock at Santa Anita Park on November 4, 2016 in Arcadia, California. (Photo by Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire/Breeders Cup)


Everybody who bets the horses has one—even if it’s just based on the colors the jockey wears. To learn information that successful “punters” typically find more useful, like “past performance,” refer to the “racing form.” Available at the track, the racing form contains a wealth of data on the past performance and current status of all the horses that will be racing. Of course, if you’ve never read a racing form it will likely appear as inscrutable as ancient hieroglyphics. However, among a wealth of arcane data there are some key facts that are more or less easily interpreted.

  • Jersey Colors – The jockey’s jersey colors don’t actually affect the outcome, but if your system depends on them, the racing form will clue you in.
  • Prior Record – A series of numbers to the left of the horse’s name indicating past finish position, with the oldest races first. For example, 3022 indicates that the horse finished second in its two most recent races, out of the money in the third, and third in the fourth most recent race.
  • Specific Codes – Letters alongside the horse’s name are used to more specifically define past performance. C = previous win on this track; D = previous win at this distance; CD = previous win on this track at this distance; BF = beaten favorite in last race.
  • Trainer and Jockey names

Of course, there are people who have studied racing forms their whole lives, and some who make a living doing so, employing systems that rely on Caltech-worthy mathematics. The form contains additional info of course, but simply taking the above factors into account can greatly improve your chances of success. Along with the individual odds, this information can lead you to the bets with the best value. While no guarantee, past success of the horse—overall, and particularly at the track and distance being run—along with the trainer and jockey records, are good indicators of probable future success.


A straight $2 bet on a horse to win pays the stated odds if that horse wins. It also pays place (second) and show (third) bets. If the horse places second, it pays place and show, and if it finishes third, only show bets are paid. A simple system is to pick your favorite for all three spots and bet “across the board.” If your horse wins, you win three ways; you cash place and show if he finishes second; and you win something even for a third-place finish.

While a seasoned handicapper will generally avoid straight place and show bets, for the novice they may better serve to keep you in the game. If you don’t want to place a straight bet to win, an across-the-board wager may be a novice handicapper’s best bet. Otherwise, keep your finger in the wind and your ear to the ground. Maybe you’ll get some “late mail” on a “long shot.” Probably still not a good idea to “bet the farm.”

Photo by Kate Jones


Bet TypeExplanation
ShowYour horse must finish 1st, 2nd, or 3rd; modest payoffs
PlaceYour horse must finish 1st or 2nd; payoffs better than to
WinYour horse must finish 1st; payoff determined by the win
QuinellaYour horses must finish 1st and 2nd in either order.
ExactaYour horses must finish 1st and 2nd in exact order; riskier than a quinella.
Odds determine payout, but can be lucrative.
TrifectaYour horses must finish 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in exact order; riskier than an exacta, and can be expensive to “box” (see below). Big payoff possible.
SuperfectaYour horses must finish 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th; expensive to bet. Payout commensurate with big risk.
Daily DoubleYour horses must win the two consecutive races; often the first and second race of the day.
Pick 3Your horses must win three consecutive races.
Pick 4Your horses must win four consecutive races; chance for a big
payout, but $1 bet increments make it affordable.
Pick 6Your horses must win six consecutive races; very expensive to
play. This is the home run of bets. Payout can be huge.


Boxing a bet means to cover all possible combinations of finish for multiple horses. For a boxed two-horse exacta, you would bet that Horse A wins and Horse B places, and also that Horse B wins and Horse A places.

In that way you cover either possible finish order for your chosen horses. As this is in effect two bets, boxing an exacta will cost you $4. Should you wish to box a trifecta, which requires precisely picking the three-horse finish—you can do so for $1 per bet, i.e., $6 to cover the six possible finish orders of your three chosen horses. (Visit for a description of “trifecta keys,” which can increase your odds when placing such “exotic” wagers.)

Facebook Comments