Horse Racing 101 - Beginner's Guide to Horse Racing

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If you're a beginner to horse racing there is much you will need to learn. In Horse racing 101, we provide all the basic betting information that a newcomer will need to enjoy a day at the races; including definitions, explanations of basic horseracing wagers, and much, much more. Take the time to study the basics of horseracing before heading to the track, and who knows, you just might find a new favorite pasttime!

If you're a beginner to horse racing there is much you will need to learn. In Horse racing 101, we provide all the basic betting information that a beginner will need to enjoy a day at the races like Kentucky Derby 2015; including definitions, explanations of basic horseracing bets and wagers, and much, much more. Take the time to study the basics of horse racing before heading to the track, and who knows, you just might find a new favorite pasttime!

The sport of Thoroughbred racing like online Kentucky Derby betting 2015 is like no other. Horseracing has a rhythm, intensity and language like no other sport. We hope this guide will help you navigate through the sometimes confusing world of horseracing and become confident enough to bet and win at the races.

If you are heading to the track for the first time you will need a program and a racing form. These are available for purchase at the track. If you plan to play the races from home, you will want to purchase an online racing form from one of the excellent data providers like Thorougbred Sports Network (TSN) or BRIS. The Official Daily Program contains important information about the day's races including the horses, their morning line odds, the jockey that will ride the horse, race distances and much, much more. Programs are usually available near the track's entrance.

Once you have arrived at the racetrack, you will need to find seating. At most, if not all, tracks you will have to pay extra for entry into the clubhouse or for reserved seating. Some tracks also have box seats available. After you have settled on your seating, and have taken the time to review the track program and/or racing form, you will want to check out the horses.

The Paddock

The best place to look at horses is the Paddock. The paddock is where the horses get saddled prior to the race. After the horses are saddled, they are walked around a ring. This is where you can observe how "your" horse looks. Examine the horse to verify that it is alert yet relaxed, loose and light on its feet, not sweating excessively, has a shiny coat and generally looks ready to run.


If you have studied the racing form and looked at the horse, it is time to place a bet. One note about betting: Unlike other forms of gambling, you are not playing against the house when you bet on the horse races. Horse betting is actually a competition with the people around you. This is why it is possible to win at the races! When you are competing against other people - the public - it is wise to invest the time necessary to beat them.

Playing against the other horse betting gamblers as with horse racing is referred to as pari-mutuel wagering. The money that is wagered is pooled, with a separate pool being kept for each type of wager. If you win your bet you get part of the pool. How much depends on how many other people win with you. The good thing is that somebody always wins.

What to Say at the Window

There is a basic protocol to follow when you go to the betting window to place a bet. Here is what to say at the betting window:

     Track: Tell the clerk what track you are betting on. "Hollywood Park, race 3."

     Amount: Tell the clerk the amount that you are betting. "Five dollars."

     Type: Tell the clerk the type of bet you are making. "Win."

     Number: Tell the clerk the number(s) of the horse you are betting. "Number 5."

Now put it all together. "Hollywood Park, race 3, five dollars to win on number 5." That's all there is to it!

You can bet on any race being run at the track at any time before it is run. Tracks also simulcast races from other tracks. That is why it is important to specify the track where you wish to place your bet.

Teller windows aren't the only places where you can make bets while at the track. Self-Automated Mutuels (SAM) are touch-screen machines that allow bettors to bypass long lines at the windows. SAM machines accept all types of wagers and are funded by inserting a winning ticket, a cash voucher, or a twenty-dollar bill. Cash vouchers are obtained at any teller window and are also given by the SAM machine as change when you are done betting.

Straight Bets

With straight bets, you are betting on one horse to do a specific thing - Win, Place, or Show. Straight bets require a minimum risk of $2 on track, or you can bet as little as $1 through a betting outlet such as Pinnacle. Below are the types of straight bets as well as a brief description of each. Go to our betting strategy page for a more complete description of each type of bet.

     Win - You win if your horse finishes 1st.

     Place - You win if your horse finishes 1st or 2nd.

     Show - You win if your horse finishes 1st, 2nd, or 3rd.

Exotic Wagering

Some people like to be a little more daring in their betting. Exotic bets offer a chance to turn a small amount of money into a much larger amount of money.

Exacta - You win if you select the 1st and 2nd place horses in a race in the "exact" order.

Trifecta - You win if you select the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place horses in a race in the correct order of finish.

Superfecta - You win if you select the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place horses in a race in the correct order of finish.

Daily Double - Daily Doubles require that you pick the winner of two consecutive races before the running of the first race in the sequence of races. Daily Doubles are usually offered on the first and last two races of each racing card.

Pick 3 - You win if you select the winner of three consecutive races. The bet must be placed prior to the running of the first race in the sequence.

Pick 4 - You win if you select the winner of four consecutive races. The bets must be placed prior to the running of the first race of the Pick 4 sequence.

Head-to-Head - Some tracks offer a head-to-head (H2H) wager. The H2H wager is a race within a race. You pick one of the two designated horses in the race. If your horse finishes in front of the other horse, you win. Please note that your horse does not have to win, place, or show. It just needs to beat the other horse.

The Tote Board

When you are at the track you will notice a large board with flashing lights located in the infield. This is the Totalisator, or Tote Board. The tote board lists the current win odds for each horse, the total dollars bet on each horse to win, place and show, and a wealth of other information. Some of the other information displayed on the tote board includes:

  • Race number
  • Minutes to post
  • Time of day
  • Post time
  • Track condition
  • Pool totals
  • Results
  • Will pays for exotic bets
  • Fractional times of the race just run

Basic Terminology

We mentioned at the beginning of this page that horse racing has its own language. This language covers all aspects of racing. Here is some the basic horse racing lingo. We also offer a very comprehensive list of both general horseracing terms and racing comments like those found in the racing form.


Across the Board - A win, place and show bet on the same horse.

Box - An exotic bet where all possible combinations are covered for a group of two or more horses.

Exotic Wagers - Any wager other than straight win, place and show bets.

Key Horse - The primary horse used in exotic bets. Horses may be keyed to win, place, or show.

Pool - The total of all money bet on a specific wager type.

Probable Payoffs - The current exotic wager payoffs, from all possible winning horse combinations, from active betting pools.

Wheel - The selection of one horse in conjunction with betting every possible combination with that horse in an exotic wager.

Will Pays - The actual payoffs of exotic multiple race wagers (Daily Double, Pick 3, and Pick 4), shown before the final race, of all possible winning horse number combinations.

Types of Horse Races

Allowance - A non-claiming race with special entry conditions.

Claiming - A race in which the horses are for sale at a predetermined price. Horses are claimed prior to the running of the race, but the new owner does not assume control of the horse until after the race has been run.

Derby - A stakes for three-year old horses.

Distaff - A race for female horses.

Handicap - A race, usually a stakes race, where horses are assigned weights to be carried based on the conditions of the race.

Maiden - A race for non-winners.

Marathon - A race at a distance of 1-1/4 mile or longer.

Oaks - A stakes race for three-year old fillies.

Route - A race at a distance of one mile or longer.

Sprint - A race at a distance less than one mile.

Stakes - A high-level race contested by horses of high quality.

Thoroughbred Classifications

Broodmare - Female horses used for breeding.

Broodmare Sire - A sire whose female offspring became producers of racehorses.

Colt - A non-gelded male horse less than five years of age.

Dam - The mother of a horse.

Filly - A female horse less than five years of age.

Foal - A baby horse. A horse is a foal from the time it is born until January 1 of the next calendar year.

Gelding - A castrated male horse.

Horse - A non-gelded male horse five years of age or older.

Juvenile - a two-year old horse.

Maiden - A horse that is yet to win a race.

Mare - A female horse five years of age or older.

Sire - The father of a horse.

Stallion - Any non-gelded male horse.

Stud - A male horse used for breeding.

Yearling - A one-year old horse.

Track Conditions

Fast - A dirt track that is dry, even, resilient and fast.

Wet Fast - A track with a firm base, but a wet surface, due to recent rain.

Good - A track condition between fast and slow. There is generally a significant amount of water in a good track.

Muddy - A racetrack that is wet to the base, but does not have standing water.

Off Track - Any track that is not fast.

Sloppy - A track that is wet on the surface, with standing water, but that has a firm base.

Slow - A slow track is wet on both the surface and base.

Miscellaneous Horse Racing Terms

Apprentice Jockey - A jockey who has ridden for less than a year and who receives weight allowances.

Beyer Speed Figure (Beyer Speed Rating) - A measure of performance popularized by horseracing author Andrew Beyer.

Blinkers - Hood worn by a horse to help maintain focus straight ahead.

Bounce - A poor performance by a horse following an exceptionally good performance.

Bug - A weight allowance given to an apprentice rider.

Bullet - The fastest workout of the day at a particular distance.

Call to Post - The bugle call used to signal the horses onto the racetrack.

Chalk - Betting favorite in the race.

Checked - The act of a horse being pulled up briefly by its jockey to avoid trouble.

Closer - A horse that does its best running in the later stage of a race.

Dead Heat - The act of two horses having a tie. Dead heats can occur for any placing in a race.

Entry - Two or more horses representing one betting interest.

Field - The horses in a race.

Fraction - The split time and distance of a race. Fractions are normally clocked in ¼ mile intervals.

Furlong - 220 yards, or 1/8 of a mile.

Hand - Four inches. A horse's height is measured in hands and inches from the top of the shoulder to the ground.

Handicapping - The art/science of analyzing information found in the past performances for the purpose of determining the relative ability of horses in a race.

Handle - Total money wagered.

Lasix - The brand name of the drug Furosemide, which is used to prevent pulmonary bleeding.

Length - A measurement approximating the length of a horse from nose to tail, about 8 feet, used to denote distance between horses in a race.

Morning Line - A prediction of the odds for each horse set by the track handicapper prior to the opening of wagering.

Mutuel Window - The place, on track, where bettors place their wagers.

Odds On - Odds of less than even money.

Pacesetter - The horse that is running in front during a race.

Paddock - The structure or area where horses are saddled and kept prior to entering the track.

Pari-mutuel - A system of wagering where all of the money is pooled and then returned to the bettors after a deduction (takeout).

Post Position - The position in the starting gate where a horse begins the race.

Purse - Money paid to the top 5 finishers in a race.

Scratch - The removal of a horse from a race at any point prior to the start.

Silks - The jacket and cap worn by the jockey.

Simulcast - A simultaneous live television transmission of a race to other tracks, off-track betting offices, or other betting outlets.

Stalker - A horse that runs just behind the leaders.

Stewards - The officials responsible for overseeing the racing at a track, ensuring fairness, enforcing the rules of racing, and dispensing punishment for rules infractions.

Valet - An assistant who helps keep a jockeys wardrobe (silks) and equipment in order.

Weight - The impost that a horse is required to carry in a race. The assigned weight includes the jockey, equipment and supplemental weighting as required.

Winners Circle - An enclosure near the track where the winning horse and jockey go to have their picture taken with the horse's owner and trainer.

Wire - The finish line.

Workout - An exercise run, usually conducted in the morning.

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