A Beginner’s Guide to Horse Racing Betting in the U.S.


A typical dirt racetrack at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts. (Photo credit creativecommons.org Anthony 92931).

The United States has a very active horse racing industry. It is home to some of the most prestigious events on the global horse racing calendar. Undoubtedly the most fascinating aspect of U.S. horse racing is the “Triple Crown”. Many of the best thoroughbreds in North America and beyond venture over to the U.S. to compete and try to join an elite band of horses to have achieved the “Triple Crown”, which is a hat-trick of wins at the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.

The Kentucky Derby is the first of the three races in the Triple Crown. Dating back to 1875, it’s one of the most historic in the U.S., and it is the culmination of a fortnight-long racing festival held at Louisville’s Churchill Downs racetrack. The Preakness Stakes, held at Baltimore’s Pimlico racetrack, is the middle feature race within the Triple Crown and is always hosted on the third Saturday in May. The third and final race in the Triple Crown is the Belmont Stakes. This pre-dates even the Kentucky Derby, with the 1.5-mile race having been established in 1867. The Belmont Stakes attracts worldwide television audiences—particularly when the Triple Crown is “on”.

Of course, the Triple Crown represents only three in a long line of popular horse races throughout the American racing season. Although betting on horse racing is not legalized in every U.S. state, there is a growing contingent of states that have permitted wagering on horse racing, both online via mobile devices and at racetracks. Unlike the online poker industry, which has been hugely affected by the Unlawful Internet [Gaming] Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA), this legislation has always included a loophole for U.S. horse racing, devolving powers to individual states as to whether they wish to legalize online horse racing betting.

There are several states that now permit horse racing punters to place their wagers before they go to the racetrack. You can always find sportsbooks that offer pre-race betting markets. Most of these online sportsbooks will also give you bonus funds to play with, providing that you are a new customer. The current states that allow online horse race betting in the U.S. are, in alphabetical order:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Pari-mutuel wagering at U.S. racetracks

Of course, some people prefer to place their bets at the racetrack, which is still entirely possible at U.S. racetracks. However, it’s important to be aware that all wagers placed on races at U.S. racetracks are made through a pari-mutuel wagering system. This means that punters effectively bet against other bettors. Although the racetrack itself will take a cut of the combined pool of bets (usually no more than 15%), the remaining pool is then shared among all winning bettors of a race.

The British horse racing industry has a similar betting system called the “Tote”, which also adopts the same policy of removing a “house” percentage for each racetrack and then dividing the remaining pool among the winning bet slips.

The types of bets you can place on a U.S. horse race

The betting details for live U.S. horse races can be seen on-screen by the racetrack. (Photo credit: Jeff Kubina creativecommons.org)

There are around ten common ways to bet on a horse race in America. The three most popular are the “win”, “place” and “show” betting markets, about which we’ll go into more detail right now:

  • Win
    This is still the easiest wager for newcomers to horse racing to grasp. Win bets are placed on a horse to win an upcoming race.
  • Place
    Place bets are placed on horses that you think can finish either first or second. You’ll receive an identical payout, regardless of whether your chosen horse finishes first or second. Of course, you’ll receive lower odds in the Place market than the Win market for covering an additional race outcome.
  • Show
    Show bets are placed on horses to finish in the top three places. Do bear in mind that you’ll receive even lower odds in the Show market than even the Place market, given that you’re giving yourself even more margin for error with your horse’s performance.
  • Exacta
    Exacta wagers require punters to choose the horses that will finish first and second, respectively. You can also place Exacta Box bets that cover both horses to finish in either order, which is ideal if it looks like it might be a two-horse race.
  • Trifecta
    Trifecta wagers require bettors to select the horses that will finish first, second and third. This can be a real challenge, but it can also be a hugely-lucrative earner, as there are more attractive payouts up for grabs here. Trifecta Box bets can also cover all three horses to finish in any order in the top three.
  • Superfecta
    If you think you have what it takes to pick the first four horses to finish in the right order (and you’re brave enough), try out a Superfecta bet. The payouts are even more astronomical than successful Trifecta wagers, but they are tough nuts to crack!
  • Daily Double
    A Daily Double bet normally spans the first two races of a day’s meeting. You’ll be required to choose the winner of the opening two races. In some cases, Daily Doubles will also roll over into the third and fourth races or fifth and sixth races, and so forth.
  • Pick 3 Bet
    Select the first three winners of the day at any U.S. horse race meeting. As with the Daily Doubles, some racetracks will also offer Pick 3 Bet options for the final three races.
  • Pick 4 Bet
    Unsurprisingly, Pick 4 Bets require you to select winners in the first four races of a U.S. horse race meeting.
  • Pick 6 Bet
    Arguably the toughest of all the bets permitted at a U.S. racetrack, Pick 6 Bets require you to choose six winning horses on the same race meeting. Some racetracks and sportsbooks will also offer consolation payouts for those who get five out of six selections correct.

A trip to a U.S. racetrack is a hugely-enjoyable experience. Whether it’s the atmosphere on the track, the hubbub of the betting ring or the pre and post-race celebrations in the paddock, there’s nothing quite like a day of betting at the races.

NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll

No. Horse Points
1 Flightline 351
2 Life Is Good 306
3 Olympiad 292
4 Jackie's Warrior 282
5 Clairiere 142
5 Country Grammer 142
7 Epicenter 121
8 Regal Glory 89
9 Nest 87
10 Hot Rod Charlie 48
As of August 1, 2022

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