Picking the winner in a race can be difficult enough when the field is large and evenly matched, but selecting the winner across multiple consecutive races is a whole other challenge.

However, a horizontal wager — or a bet made across more than one race — can be a lucrative and rewarding endeavor. Payouts are often higher than if you were to place and hit an individual win wager on a horse in each of three races, and the risk can be minimal, if you’re smart about ticket structure.

Below we provide three tips for wagering your first Pick 3, a bet type in which you attempt to select the winner of three consecutive horse races.

Know when to single

When betting a Pick 3, you can choose more than one horse to win a particular “leg” of the sequence.

For example: You may think three horses have a chance to win among a nine-horse field in the first leg of your Pick 3, but you feel confident only one horse in the next race (leg two) will reach the winner’s circle.

Let’s say the third race in the sequence (leg 3) also features three runners who appear capable of crossing the finish line first.

You could place a Pick 3 wager with three horses in the first leg, one in the second, and three in the third for a cost of $9 on a Pick 3 with a $1 betting unit.

The simple formula for calculating the cost of a Pick 3 wager is: 

The cost of your bet multiplied by the number of horses in the first leg multiplied by the number of horses in the second leg multiplied by the number of horses in the third leg.

Thus, a Pick 3 ticket with a $1 unit would cost 3 x 1 x 3 x $1 = $9, based on the example above.

If you were to play a second horse in the second leg to increase your chances of making it through to the final leg, the cost of your ticket would jump to $18 (3 x 2 x 3 x $1 = $18). That’s why many horseplayers look to “single” in a sequence when they can — or back just one horse in a particular leg that they believe will beat the rest of the field.

You could technically single all three legs of a Pick 3 and pay the minimum stake of the wager, whether 50 cents or $1, but the more horses you include in your ticket, the better your odds of walking away a winner.

Look for value when playing a Pick 3

The downside to playing more horses in your Pick 3 is the increase in ticket cost.

I’ve seen horseplayers overspend on horizontal wagers in order to cover multiple outcomes, but then a couple of heavy favorites win, resulting in a payout on the Pick 3 which is less than the amount the player wagered in the first place.

If you find a sequence of three races in which the favorite is likely to triumph each time, there’s not much point in playing the Pick 3. You’re better off finding a different sequence where you have a strong opinion on a longer shot or think the favorite is vulnerable in two of the three legs.

If you can pinpoint a horse with an opportunity to pull off an upset, your payout is going to be much higher than if horses at 3-1, 5-2, and 8-5 odds win each of the three races in question.

Since horse racing wagering is pari-mutuel in nature, you’re betting against all other horseplayers in the Pick 3 pool. Many of your fellow horseplayers are likely to play the favorites, and if all of you hit your Pick 3 wager with heavy favorites winning the sequence, your share of the prize pool is going to be small.

Bet a sequence you feel confident in or at a track you normally follow

Ticket sequence and structure are highly important in Pick 3 wagering, and the best way to build a winning ticket is to bet with confidence.

If a maiden special weight comes up in a Pick 3 sequence and you have no idea which maiden is most likely to win the race, it may be best to skip it and find a different sequence somewhere else on the card.

Likewise, you may be playing a track you don’t normally follow, so horizontal wagers may not be your best bet on that particular day.

Let’s say you are visiting Gulfstream Park on a Saturday and want in on the action but haven’t paid attention to the meet leading up to your visit. You may be better off playing a straight win bet or an exacta on one race in which you have a strong opinion rather than playing a horizontal wager across multiple races with horses you know little about.

As mentioned earlier, it can be difficult enough just to hit a win bet, so picking three consecutive winners will be all the more challenging.

Set yourself up for success by finding the right sequence of races in which you feel good about the outcome and build your ticket wisely, singling when possible and searching for value that other horseplayers may not see.