Playing Favorites
There are plenty of instances where it pays to play the favorite
Level: Intermediate

So, the question at hand is, “How to Play a Favorite?” My knee-jerk reaction is to say, “Play against it!” However, this doesn’t take into account that roughly 30% of favorites win races, and that some great betting opportunities can be had in races where favorites cross the wire first. As with all things in racing, how one approaches betting favorites is a matter of opinion. Where some might see value in a favorite, others might see reasons to play against. The beauty of it all is that someone is going cash to a winner and, if you play your cards right, it could be you.

The first thing to consider is that there are different degrees of favorites. A 1-9 favorite and a 5-2 favorite, obviously, are not the same. A 2-1 favorite may in fact be worth a win bet, but horses going off at less than that, and especially those going to post at less than even money, are rarely worth betting, in my opinion. Far too many things can go wrong in a horse race to take such short odds. Some might disagree but for a player with a modest bankroll, a $10 win bet to get back $15 doesn’t inspire many thrills.

In most cases, the horses that go off as a favorites are the likeliest winners. If you sat out every race where the favorite looked best when evaluating the past performances, you’d leave behind some excellent wagering opportunities. While the value might not be found in the win pools, there are many ways to find value in races where favorites win.

One way to find value in playing favorites is with exotic wagering. Keying a favorite in the win position — or “on top” — can sometimes be a great play. This wager is especially useful in races where you like one or more horses at high odds. For example, in a race where you like a horse in the 5-1 or higher range, playing that horse to win and also keying him in second in an exacta underneath the favorite(s) is a common way to use favorites in your betting.

I use exactas as the example here as they have some advantages over the other exotic pools. First, and most importantly, tracks post “will-pays” for exacta wagers. “Will-pays” give you an approximate payout on all combinations of exacta wagers prior to the race. With exactas, unlike with trifecta and superfectas, you can make your bets knowing the potential pay-out.

example of will-pays

The will-pays are highlighted above in yellow. They show the odds of an exacta with the 1 horse both on top and in the second position. For example, an exacta of 1/2 is 224-1 and 2/1 is 271-1.

A good example of this occurred in the Robert Dick Memorial at Delaware Park on Delaware Handicap day in 2010. In the 1 3/8 miles race over the turf, a big field of fillies and mares lined up against two solid favorites in Treat Gently and Gozzip Girl, graded stakes winners shipping into Delaware. The rest of the field looked rather ordinary with the exception of A She’s Adorable, a filly who had won the prep race for the Robert Dick a few weeks prior and who had a number of solid efforts against high class company at three different tracks. With about five minutes to post, a check of the win odds found Treat Gently and Gozzip Girl both less than 2-1 and A She’s Adorable around 6-1. The will-pays had the exacta combination with either of the favorites beating A She’s Adorable around $25 and $40 (like the win odds, the will-pays change as bets are made). With a $20 investment, here was one way to play the race:

$10 to win on A She’s Adorable
$5 exactas with Treat Gently and Gozzip Girl over A She’s Adorable

The result of the Robert Dick had A She’s Adorable finishing second to Treat Gently. The exacta paid $33 for a $2 bet. A $5 exacta returned $82.50 — not bad for a race where a short-priced favorite hit the wire first.

This same principle of keying a favorite in the win position can be used for trifectas and superfectas. Of course, these bets can get expensive and you do not have the added advantage of knowing the payouts before the race. In the race above, the trifecta paid nearly $400 with a 37-1 shot finishing third.

In addition to vertical exotics (exacta, trifecta, superfecta), horizontal exotic plays (double, Pick 3, Pick 4) are another way to generate value from a short-priced favorite. As I discussed in a previous post, using heavy favorites as a “free square” or “single” in a multi-race exotic can lead to solid payouts. The potential value in these types of wagers is found when you bet the heavy favorite in a race sequence in which opportunities exist for longshots or beaten favorites in the other legs.

A great example of this can be found on Florida Derby Day at Gulfstream Park in 2010. The Pick 3 sequence that day, covering the three graded stakes ending with the Florida Derby, paid $365 for $1. The sequence included D’Funnybone – an odds-on favorite – who looked like a sure winner in the second leg of the sequence. The winners surrounding D’Funnybone were the 20-1 Ice Box in the Florida Derby and the 6-1 Society’s Chairman. These big odds winners were the reason for the large payout — this is a great example where you can find value with a heavy favorite. Similar scenarios play out around racetracks on a daily basis — it’s just a matter of finding them.

Needless to say, there are many angles, opinions, and methods for including favorites in your wagering. The above are just a few ideas to get you started. The most satisfying method will be the one you discover on your own — good luck!

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