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Horseplaying 101: How To Bet On Horses At Saratoga Race Course

There's definitely a right way to wager on the ponies, and we've got it all mapped out for you.

Horse Betting
We’d suggest steering clear of exotic bets—but they can be incredibly lucrative. (Billy Francis LeRoux)

I wouldn’t consider myself an expert horseplayer by any stretch of the imagination, but I had the bug bad on August 24, 1996, when I hit the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course for a whopping $40 payout. OK, so I chose the horse for its name—Will’s Way—but it won, didn’t it? Years later, shortly after accepting a job at the Daily Racing Form (DRF), I bested that purse with a $300 score in Las Vegas on a series of horse bets at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino’s Sports Book. My friends were flabbergasted. It must’ve been the job, I remember thinking. My boss said it was beginner’s luck. He was right; I haven’t won a single race since.

But I’d like you to. Because there’s nothing quite like hearing the crowd come to life at Saratoga’s historic racetrack, all that cheering somehow willing one of those horses to cross the finish line first. Below, you’ll find a handy betting key for your next trip to the races.

How To Bet When I was 16 and hit the Travers, my mom or dad had to go up to the teller to place the bet for me (you have to be 18 years or older to bet on horses in New York State). Luckily, technology (and my age!) has advanced quite a bit since the late ’90s. You can now bet using digital self-service terminals or even via smartphone apps at Saratoga Race Course to get the job done. But if you enjoy laying down some crumpled C-notes the old-fashioned way, you’ll want to say your bet to the teller in this exact manner: “In the 4th race, I’d like to wager $4 to win on the No.6 horse.” If you’re making multiple bets at multiple tracks, include the track name before the race number.

Types Of Bets Speaking of that win bet you just placed, here are all the traditional betting types: win (the horse must come in first, of course); place (second) or show (third). You can also bet an exacta (choose the first two horses in order); a quinella (first two horses in any order); trifecta (first three horses in order); or superfecta (first four horses in order). If you wanted to “box” that exacta, trifecta or superfecta, it would be a little bit pricier, but the horses could then come in any order.

Exotic Bets One of my jobs at DRF was to digitize exotic bets for the in-house handicappers. These included Pick 3’s (choose the winners of three consecutive races); Pick 4’s (four consecutive races); Pick 5’s and Pick 6’s (you get the picture). Look, unless you’re James Holzhauer on Jeopardy!, I’d suggest steering clear of these types of bets. But they’re a ton more lucrative and scoring a Pick 6 could potentially put your kid through college. (If you bet too many of them, though, it could also drain his or her college fund.) 

At the end of the day, because you’re engaging in what’s known as pari-mutuel betting at Saratoga, you’re actually betting against everyone who placed the same bet you did in the same race. (That’s what sets it apart from casino gambling, where it’s you against the house.) So if my wife and I were to bet on the same race, and I were to win, I’d actually win. No need to pick that battle.

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Will Levith

Will Levith is the Director of Content for saratogaliving.com and the Executive Editor for saratoga living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others.

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