Betting 101

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Welcome to Betting 101 where our resident handicapping expert, Matthew DeSantis, provides you with the basic tools with the best ways to start making money on your opinions playing the ponies.


A good friend of mine who is a business professor gives her freshman students the advice of never investing in a company if they do not understand what the company does. It's sound financial advice and something you can apply to betting on horse racing. There are dozens of different bet types to make and it can be overwhelming for new players. Rather than jumping into the deepest end of the pool and making wagers with huge payout possibilities, but low percentage chances of success, new players should focus on introductory bets that give them the best chance of winning and helping them build confidence.

To provide you with the most information possible so that you can make educated bets, make sure to use the various resources available on NYRA Bets:


Win Bet – The easiest bet to make for beginners is a straight win bet. It is where every player should start because no matter how advanced you may become in your betting; it comes back to being able to select winners. People can use a variety of methods to select their best win candidate and we cover several of those in the Handicapping 101 tutorial. Whether you use speed figures, pace scenarios, the look of a horse, or trusting certain jockeys and trainers, once you commit to your top selection, place a win bet on them.

One thing to avoid with win bets is placing them on multiple horses in the same race, which is affectionately referred to as the “Noah’s Ark” approach. Yes, theoretically you are increasing your chances of getting a winning ticket by betting multiple horses, but you are hindering your chances of turning a profit on the race. If you were to bet $2 to win on both a 10/1 longshot and a 1/1 favorite, but the favorite wins you would win $4.00, which puts you right back at square one. If you really like the favorite, then just bet that horse to win and perhaps use your longshot in an exacta.

Exacta Bet – Exactas are one of the easiest bets to make in horse racing as you are trying to predict who will win and finish second in a race. If you find a race where you think the favorite will win but you like a longshot to outrun their odds and finish second, then you can use those two horses in an exacta to make the bet more profitable than simply doing a win bet on the favorite. When placing an exacta bet you can use more than just two horses, but obviously the more horses you use, the more money the ticket will cost, which could lead to you spending more on the ticket than you get back in winnings. However, unlike not betting multiple horses to win the same race, using three or four horses to complete an exacta is not a bad betting practice as your ticket will only cost $3-4 dollars and should return significantly more than that if you pick the right top two.

Unlike a win bet, there are a few different variations of an exacta, which are fun ways to improve your chances. You could “box” an exacta meaning the horses you use could finish EITHER first OR second. Boxing an exacta will increase the cost of your ticket as you are doubling your bets since you are placing a bet on each horse you use to finish first AND second. An exacta box can be a great bet if you really like two horses in a race and are having a hard time differentiating between them. Make sure to keep track of how many horses you are using in an exacta box as the cost of the ticket starts to significantly increase the more horses you add to the ticket.

Number of horsesBase of exacta box bet

My favorite variation of an exacta is an exacta key box. When you “key” a horse in an exacta box, it means that you are predicting that horse will definitely finish in the top two while also using several other horses to complete the exacta. It is a nice way of keeping the ticket costs a little lower since you are centering the bet around one horse, while still providing the flexibility of boxing the ticket. For instance, if you want to use four horses in an exacta box ticket, it will cost $12.00. However, if you key one of those horses that you feel confident in finishing in the top two, then the exacta key box of those same four horses will be $6.00.

Daily Double – The final beginner bet is the Daily Double, which gets you to dip your toe into multi-race betting. A Daily Double is when you try to pick the winner in back-to-back races. Like an exacta you can use multiple horses to get a winner in each race but be aware of how the cost of the ticket increases each time you add a horse. Since there is a $1 base bet on a Daily Double, the easiest way to calculate the cost of the ticket is to multiple the number of horses you are using in each race. For instance, if you used three horses in the first race and four horses in the second race that would be 3 x 4 = $12.00. Be mindful that if the favorite wins both races, then the payout could be less than the cost of the ticket.

One of the terms bettors will use when discussing multi-race bets is “singles.” A single refers to only using one horse to get the winner in one of the races. Singling a horse means that you are extremely confident in their ability to win the race and it also gives you added flexibility when using horses in the other race of the Daily Double. If you single a horse in the first race of the Daily Double, then you could use four or five horses in the next race while keeping the ticket very inexpensive.


  1. Pay Attention to the Odds

Betting odds refer to the chances the public (you and your fellow bettors) is giving horses to win. The more money the public bets on a horse to win, the lower their odds get. Lower odds equate to lower payouts and higher odds lead to higher payouts. Below is a chart giving you a sense of expected payouts on a $2 win bet for horses at different odds.

OddsPayout on $2 win bet

When you get to the track and pick up a racing form or program you will see odds next to each horse’s name. Those are referred to as morning line odds and have been set by the track’s morning oddsmaker. Morning line odds are NOT a reflection of who the oddsmaker thinks is most likely to win the race, but rather how they believe the public is most likely to bet on the race.

What is important to note is that odds fluctuate once betting opens on a race. The morning line odds are simply a prediction, but once the public starts betting on the race then the odds adjust to how the public is betting. When you are betting, it is very important to be attention as odds can change right up to the last second. A horse that might seem like good value on the morning line at 8/1 could end up getting bet down to 2/1, which might not make it as appealing to place a bet on that horse, as the potential payout has dramatically decreased. However, the opposite can take place too, where a horse could be 5/1 on the morning line and suddenly float up to 10/1 and become a more appealing option.

2. Trust Your Opinions

Everyone has a buddy, uncle, friend they know from the neighborhood, or a random person they run into at the track who has a tip on a horse. It’s great to accumulate information whether it is from others or from doing your own homework looking over the past performance, watching replays, or physically handicapping the horses in the paddock. However, at the end of the day, you should always rely on your own opinion. If you think a favorite is vulnerable, then trust your instincts and find an alternative that can be a higher price. If you feel like a huge longshot is going to outrun their odds, do not be afraid to put some money on that horse despite nobody picking them. The only way you can improve as a horse player is by trusting your opinions and seeing how they play out. Discovering where you were right and where you were wrong is going to help you improve your play. If you find yourself relying on the opinions of others, then you never will never be able to test your instincts.

3. Focus on Quality over Quantity

One of the temptations for beginning players is the desire to cash a ticket in every race. Everyone wants to cash a ticket or see some more money in their account when they refresh it after a race. However, you must be smart about betting and realize that frequently cashing tickets does NOT necessarily equate to winning money. Let me explain.

Often beginning players find themselves betting on favorites since it appears like that is the horse most likely to win. However, betting on favorites is not typically a profitable enterprise. In horse racing we referring to betting on favorites as “betting chalk.” Betting chalk might give you the thrill of winning more races than your friends, but walking home with less money in your pocket at the end of the card. How is that possible? Favorites win races about 30-35% of the time, but they often get bet down by the public to the point where they might only return a dollar or two on a $2 win bet.

Let’s use the 2023 Saratoga meet as an example where there were 410 total races and 144 of them were won by favorites, which equates to 35.12%. If someone had done a flat $2 win bet on every race of the meet, they would have had an average return of $1.72. In other words, they would be down 14% for the meet. However, let’s just focus on three imaginary bettors on a particular day at Saratoga (Thursday, August 24, 2023) as an example.

RaceWinnerOddsPayout on $2 win betFavorite
Race 1Alterina9/2$10.60
Race 2Detective Tom8/1$17.60
Race 3Grand Sonata11/1$24.60
Race 4Classic Mark9/5$5.60YES
Race 5Lady Arwen3/5$3.30YES
Race 6Sosua Summer7/2$8.70
Race 7Sweet Mystery3/2$5.00
Race 8To a T5/2$7.00
Race 9Evvie Jets30/1$60.50
Race 10Toofareastiswest3/1$7.90YES

Player A: Decides to play a $2 win bet on all the favorites that day. They won three races (30%), but only won $16.80 despite spending $20 ($2/race x 10 races). So, despite cashing three tickets they would be DOWN 16% or $3.20 for the day.

Player B: Decides to bet $2 on every race but plays against favorites while managing to get the winner in Race 1 and Race 6. They would have only won 20% of the time but would have won $19.30 and gotten close to breaking even for the day.

Player C: They love going for big prices in every race while betting $2 in each contest and managed to get the winner in Race 3. They would have only won once all day but would have been the only person to walk away from the track with a profit, winning $24.60.

Playing favorites is not necessarily a bad thing as sometimes they are the obvious selection, but do not fall into the trap of playing only favorites to catch the highest percentage of winners. Trust your opinions and do not be afraid to go after a price. You only need to catch one big price or two moderately priced horses to turn a profit for the day.


A lot of new players will come to the track and use random factors to make a bet. They will bet their favorite number, a horse that has the same name as a relative or pet, or just bet all the gray horses (something my great-grandfather taught my mother). While those are fun methods, they are also not long-term winning methods. The best way to have fun at the track is to actually win and take home more than you came with, which is how I got hooked on the sport. In 1990 my dad took me to the races at Penn National and I turned $20 of my allowance money into $28 that night. It was not a lot of profit, but it made me excited to go back and play some more. All of us here at NYRA Bets want you to win and will put you in touch with as many resources as possible to ensure you become a winning player whether you are just starting out or are a more advanced bettor.

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