Letter to a New Horseplayer

An Introduction to Exotic Bets
By Steven Crist, Daily Racing Form Publisher and Columnist

There’s a lot more fun and variety to betting on horses than trying to pick the winner of a race.

Fifty years ago, the only bets you could make on a horse race were win, place and show and a “Daily Double” on who would win the first two races of the day. That has all changed in recent years, as an explosion of new bets has taken over American racing. Today only 35 percent of all bets made are on those older bet types, with 65 percent of the national betting handle now on the new bets that once seemed so strange and radical that they were commonly called “exotics,” a monicker that has stuck even as they have become the majority choice.

Newcomers are sometimes scared or warned off these bets and told to cut their teeth on nice, safe bets like place and show, and I think that’s too bad. I couldn’t argue with anyone who finds it less than thrilling to make a $2 bet every half hour on one horse to finish first or second in the hopes of getting back $2.80.

Betting on races can and should be more fun, more daring and more creative than that and exotic betting – betting on the first two, three or four finishers in a race, or on the winners of three to six different races in a row – is the ticket to that kind of fun. And it’s really not as complicated as it might first sound.

It might be helpful to think of the two main different types of exotic bets as either “vertical” or “horizontal.” The vertical (up and down) bets, also known as intra-race bets, ask you to pick the top finishers in a single race; the horizontals, or multi-race bets, ask you to predict the winners of several straight races. The most common vertical bets have names ending in “-cta”: the exacta (first two finishers), trifecta (first three) and superfecta (first four). The horizontals are known as “Pick x” bets with x standing for the number of races, such as the Pick 3, Pick 4 and Pick 6.

This may sound daunting at first – it’s tough enough to pick one winner, how are you going to pick three or four races or top finishers? Don’t despair – no one’s asking you to be that clairvoyant.

In exotic betting, you almost always buy more than one combination. If you’re playing a Pick 3, for example, you might take two horses in each of the first two races and three horses in the third. If you liked numbers 1 and 3 in the first race, numbers 1 and 4 in the second race, and numbers 5, 6 and 7 in the third race, you would buy a ticket of “1 and 3 WITH 1 and 4 WITH 5, 6 and 7.” Your ticket would read “1,3/1,4/5,6,7” and you would effectively be buying 12 combinations, each at a $1 minimum, for a total investment of $12. You would have the following 12 combinations: 1/1/5, 3/1/5, 1/1/6, 3/1/6, 1/1/7, 3/1/7, 1/4/5, 3/4/5, 1/4/6, 3/4/6, 1/4/7, 3/4/7.

If either one of your picks in the first two legs wins, you’d go into the third race with three “live” horses and if one of them wins, you win the Pick Three. Depending on how popular these winners were, you might get back anywhere from $20 to $1,000 for your $12.

There’s usually higher risk with the exotics to go along with those higher rewards, but sometimes it’s actually easier. If you really think two horses tower over a field and it’s very likely one or the other will win, you could use both of them in the first leg of a Pick Three instead of agonizing over which one to choose for a traditional win-place-show bet. Sometimes you may be more confident that some two of your three top horses are going to run first and second than picking one of them to win. In that case you might make an exacta bet on the six possible 1-2 finishes involving your three horses. In this case, what’s called an exacta “box” of numbers 2,4 and 6 would cost you $6, $1 for each combination: 2-4, 2-6, 4-2, 4-6, 6-2 and 6-4.

A few pointers if you’re just starting out:

1. The best-known exotic bet (and my personal favorite) is the Pick 6, which requires you to pick the winners of six races in advance. The bet gets a lot of attention from high rollers, but it’s a terrible bet for players of limited means because it is so expensive to buy even a small number of combinations. Using two horses in each race in a Pick Six, where the minimum bet is usually $2, costs $128. Using just three horses a race costs $1,458!

2. Always check to see what the minimum bet is at the track you’re playing. Some progressive tracks have lowered the minimum on bets like trifectas and Pick 4s to as little as 50 cents, which can cut your cost or allow you to buy more combinations. Superfectas are generally available for only 10 cents.

3. Consider opening an online betting account. Using the betting pad, you can experiment with building tickets and figuring out what they cost before pushing the “Bet” button. It’s a fun way to familiarize yourself with the bets without inconveniencing anyone standing behind you on an offline betting line!

Steven Crist
Publisher and columnist for the Daily Racing Form
Author of “Exotic Betting

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