One of my favorite memories at the Kentucky Derby was back in 2012, when I watched I’ll Have Another collect the garland of roses, while I collected a cool $32.60 on my $2 win bet at the track.
Admittedly, back then, I had no sound handicapping strategy with horse racing other than picking a runner based on name. Occasionally, that worked out just fine for me — like at the 2012 Derby — but more often than not, it was no better than closing my eyes and blindly pointing at a number on the racing program to choose a horse ahead of a race.
While I was lucky with I’ll Have Another, a lot has changed for me as a handicapper since then. I eventually began working in horse racing and learned how to dissect a racing program, examine past performances, analyze race shapes, and make far more informed wagering decisions.
I pay much more attention to numbers than names these days, and it has certainly made a huge difference in my “luck” at the track.
If you’re planning to visit your first racetrack or watch the races on TV and want to employ more advanced strategies than wagering based off name or coat color, here are five tips for your first time betting on horse racing.
Before you step foot inside the racetrack or turn on the TV to watch a race, make a plan of attack, including how much you will wager for the day, whether it’s $100 total across several races or $20 on a specific race.
When I first started out in horse racing, I would bet small by wagering the $2 minimum on a win, place, or show bet, or $2 on an exacta box. That way, if my bet missed, I didn’t lose too much and could still have fun at the races.
By figuring out your bankroll, you not only avoid betting more money than you intended to on a given day, but you can also make smarter choices about how to spread your money across races and bet types.
Once you arrive at the track, you can pick up a daily racing program filled with valuable information on each horse, including their name, program number, and morning line odds, past performances, as well as each horse’s recent speed figures, season and lifetime records, trainer and jockey stats, and more.
A significant piece of information to examine is the horse’s race record, which can be found in the upper-right-hand corner of each runner’s section of the racing program.
There you will find the horse’s record for the current year (i.e. 2023: 3-1-0-1), followed by their record in the previous year, then their lifetime record, and finally their record at the current track.
By looking at this specific piece of data, you can determine whether a horse has been hot during the current season, has a history of winning or losing at the current track where they are running, and whether they have a tendency to settle for the minor awards as opposed to visiting the winner’s circle.
For example: If you find a horse who is 0-for-2 this season, but is making their first start of the year at, say, Churchill Downs, where they are 2-for-2 lifetime, you may be looking at a horse ready to rebound with a win while returning to a familiar track.
You can also find stats on a horse’s lifetime record at today’s distance, their record when running on turf and when running on wet surfaces.
For example: If rain is in the forecast, and you notice a horse in an upcoming turf race has cracked the trifecta in all four races it ran on wet grass, you’ll want to keep them in mind when crafting your wagers.
While all of the numbers found on the racing program may be intimidating at first glance, there are a few key figures you can focus in on when you’re first getting started with horse racing.
Let’s focus on a horse’s speed figures.
RELATED: What are speed figures?
When looking at the program, you will see a list of recent races run by each horse, with the date, track, distance, type of race, and final speed figure for each start.
Let’s say you’re handicapping a one-mile allowance race with eight horses in the field.
You can start by comparing the most recent speed figures of each horse and rank each runner based on those speed figures while also examining the distance at which those races were run.
For example: If a horse named Sprocket clocked a 90 speed figure in a one-mile stakes event in their last outing, and no other horse in the field has recorded a speed figure that high, you may want to focus on Sprocket for a win bet in the next race!
The horse’s recent performances and lifetime record are not the only thing worth noting on a racing program. The trainer and jockey stats are oftentimes crucial to handicapping as well.
RELATED: Jockey and trainer stats
For Example: If Brad Cox has recorded a 5-3-2-0 record during the current meet, and his horse in a particular race will be guided by jockey Florent Geroux, who is winning at a 26% rate at the current track, that pairing may just be the winning formula for the horse in question, making them a viable pick.
On the flip side, you may notice a trainer or jockey has failed to win any races at the current meet.
If you’re handicapping a premier race, like the Derby, you can also research a trainer or jockey’s previous record in that particular race and decide whether they’re worth backing when the stakes are highest.
RELATED: 4 jockey stats to know for Kentucky Derby week
When looking at a racing program, you’ll find the morning line odds — a prediction from the linemaker as to how the public will bet each horse — but prior to the race, those odds will change based on the amount of money coming in on each horse due to the pari-mutuel effect (a single pool of money we all bet into).
The live odds on the tote board can tell you a lot about how the public perceives each runner.
For Example: A horse that was listed as the 6-1 fourth choice on the morning line may suddenly get bet down to become the favorite minutes before the race. The change in odds could indicate a sharp bettor — or a professional bettor — recently placed a large bet on that horse, and maybe he or she has a reason to believe that runner is capable of winning.
Likewise, a horse that started off at 3-1 odds, and the morning line favorite to win the race, could end up with 7-1 odds at post time because the public has learned some sort of information that gives them reason to believe that horse will lose.
The public is not always right — just look at the 2022 Kentucky Derby, when 80-1 Rich Strike crossed the wire first — but significant changes to the odds just before post time can be a noteworthy indication that a horse you like is either a smart or risky choice.