Basics of Horse Racing 101
Apr 2020

Horse Racing 101: What You Need To Know To Start Enjoying The Sport Of Kings

by Jen Perkins in Features category

If you are looking for an alternative to traditional professional and collegiate sports, you’re in luck: every day offers opportunities to watch and wager on some of the country’s most talented athletes.

Live horse racing is contested almost every day of the year at tracks across the country, and in most states, it is legal to bet on horse racing from the comfort and safety of your own home.

But if you’re new to horse racing, there may appear to be a lot to understand about the sport. Here are the basic things you need to know to understand horse racing and start watching and wagering like a true fan.

Betting on racing

Pari-mutuel wagering

Horse racing is unique in that it utilizes pari-mutuel wagering; pari-mutuel is a French term that translates to among ourselves. In the pari-mutuel wagering model, the payouts and odds are determined by the amount wagered by other bettors in the same race.

For each race and each bet type, there is a pool of money available to be won. This pool comprises only the money that other people have bet on the race. The odds of each horse are a function of how much money has been wagered on them. If your horse wins, your payout is based on how much money was bet on that horse relative to the other horses.

Because the odds depend on the amount wagered on each horse, the odds are live and constantly changing, as opposed to fixed-odds wagering in other sports betting. A track will set a morning-line for each horse in every race; however, the morning line is used as a prediction of how they think the public will bet.

There are pros and cons to this method of wagering, but the most important concept to be aware of is how this differs from other forms of gambling. The racetrack hosting the event takes out a set percentage of all the money wagered to pay the horsemen who participate and pay its own operating bills and taxes.

The amount varies by track and even within different wager types, but on average, a track will take between 18-22% of the total amount wagered. This amount does not change based on what horse wins or what his odds are. The track makes the same percentage regardless of who wins the race. Unlike the casino, the house would like to see you win.

Wagering basics

Each track and each race offer a variety of wager types, from the simple win, place or show bets to exactas and trifectas, to complicated Pick 6 wagers. We have discussed the different wager types and strategies so you can start with simple win or show bets and work your way up from there.

It is important to note that all wager types have a minimum bet amount, and the payoffs that are given are usually in that bet amount. For example, most tracks have a $2 minimum win wager, so the payoffs for a winning horse are based on a $2 bet. If a horse wins at 2-1 odds, its payout will be listed as $6.00: 2 times the original $2 bet plus your original $2 bet back. But if you bet $10 to win on the same horse, your payout would be 2 times the original $10 bet plus the original $10 back: $30.

Each race offers single-race wagers and multi-race wagers. Multi-race bets, similar to a parlay, must be placed before the start of the first race in the sequence.

Betting online

Not only has wagering on horse racing been legal in many states for many years, online wagering on horse racing is also legal in many locations. Betting on horse races online has been legal for 20 years, thanks to the Interstate Horse Racing Act. It is up to states to decide if it is legal in their jurisdiction, but luckily most states have adopted rules that allow for online horse race betting.

There are many options to choose from if you want to bet online. All betting sites offer safe and secure payment processing with a variety of deposit options, free live streaming video, and races from all major racetracks in the United States and around the world.

Visit,, or, the three top-rated sites for betting on online horse races. Remember to check out each site’s offer for new players – from a risk free $500 bet to a $100 betting bonus, you can play with free money on their websites or mobile apps.

Surfaces, distance and conditions: Why is a horse in this race?

When we think of horse racing, we often think of the Kentucky Derby, the Breeders’ Cup, or maybe the Dubai World Cup or Pegasus Invitational. These are top stakes races worth several million in purse money. Though everyone in the game aspires to run in these events, the majority of races are not stakes races.

Horses have different levels of talent, ability and development. To ensure that each race is competitive, racing secretaries and trainers place horses into specific races in which they think they will have the best chance to compete. Each race is a combination of surface, distance and conditions.


Most racetracks have two racing surfaces: a dirt track and a turf track. Some, like Oaklawn, only have a dirt track; conversely, Kentucky Downs only has a turf course. A half dozen tracks, including Golden Gate in the San Francisco Bay Area and Arlington near Chicago, Illinois, have a synthetic surface instead of dirt.

Many horses specialize in racing on one surface over the other, and some are even intentionally bred to compete on that surface.


Thoroughbred racing in the United States takes place at a variety of distances. While some races will be shorter or longer, the majority fall between five furlongs and a mile and a half.

A furlong is one-eighth of a mile; therefore, a 4-furlong race is a half-mile, a 6-furlong race is ¾ mile, and so on. Beyond a distance of a mile, fractions are used, such a 1 ¼ miles or 1 3/16 miles.

Like surfaces, some horses are better when they sprint (races under a mile), while others are better in route races (races over a mile). Often, a horse will start racing in shorter races and work up to longer races.


Conditions are more complicated but can provide good insight into the horses competing in a race. Understanding conditions takes some of the mystery and confusion out of the sport if you are new to the game.

Each race is one of the following (or a variation): maiden, claiming, allowance or stakes.

A maiden race is one in which all horses competing have never won a race before. Despite what the name suggests, it is open to horses of either sex. The only qualification is that the horse must be in search of his first career win.

After a horse wins his first race, referred to as “breaking his maiden”, he moves to an allowance, claiming or stakes race.

Stakes races are the highest level of competition. There are ungraded stakes (sometimes called overnights), Grade 3, Grade 2 and the top category, Grade 1. The Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby, for example, are Grade 1 races.

Many horses compete in allowance races instead of stakes or between stakes races. Allowance races separate horses by condition. For example, the condition for the race may restrict it to “Non-winners of two races”, meaning that only horses with one career win may enter, or “Non-winners in 2020,” meaning that only horses who have not won a race in 2020 are eligible to enter.

Most horses compete in claiming races. In a claiming race, horses are for sale for the listed price, and another owner can claim (buy) that horse before the race begins. Claiming amounts vary from several thousand dollars to as high $100,000 and are used to sort horses by ability.

Who’s who on the track

It takes a lot of people to pull off a single horse race. At the racing facility, dozens work behind the scenes to schedule races, facilitate betting, and ensure the safety and integrity of the sport.

On the backside and in the barns, every horse is under the care of a trainer, who may also have assistant trainers and staff. Each horse has a jockey for race day, an exercise rider for morning gallops and workouts, and a groom to take care of its daily needs. Each jockey has a valet to help keep their tack and silks organized between each race and an agent to help them find horses to ride in races.

Owners pay trainers a daily fee to take care of and feed their horse. When a horse runs in a race, the horse receives a share of the money offered in that race depending on their finish. The owner keeps a majority of their share of the purse money but percentages are also paid out to the trainers, who pay and tip their staff, and jockeys, who pay their agents and tip their valets.

For every horse in each race, it is safe to assume that as many as ten people played a role in preparing that horse and jockey to compete. When you wager on race, know that a small percentage of your bet goes toward the purse fund that helps keep all of the horse’s team employed.

Post Time!

The traditional bugle call to the post announces that the jockeys are getting a leg up on their horses and heading to the track – and that should be your cue to start making your bets. Download your favorite app from, or and let horse racing be your new favorite betting sport this spring.