Wagering > Betting 101 > How to pick a winner

How to Pick a Winner

Read the Program

The daily racing program is packed with information that can help you choose your favorite horse and can help you to make smarter bets. For each race, the program outlines each horse contender, and provides very detailed information about that horse, including its odds of winning the race, its race history, its work-outs, its jockey and other connections and their statistical records, its saddle towel color, and even its birthdate. At first glance, the numbers and language can be intimidating, but with a little guidance and a little practice, you'll find your own rhythm for reading through the program and selecting a winner. Explore our "How to Read a Program" guide for detailed explanations of each program statistic. You can start at a beginner level, and move up to intermediate and advanced readings.

Listen to What the Experts are Saying
Watch the Horses

As with any athlete, physical appearances are an important factor in sizing up competition. Horse racing is no different, and what your eyes tell you about the horse can be a helpful tool in betting. Here's just a few tips on what to look for as the horses come into the Paddock, but remember that, like your mom always said, "Don't judge a book by its cover." It's difficult to make judgments based solely on appearance.

  1. Ears – If the horse's ears are pricked, meaning they are large and pointed up, and its head is high and confident, you can assume that the horse is alert, aware of their surroundings, and ready to race. You don't want to bet on a horse that's ears are flattened back, or hanging its head low and inattentive.
  2. Hair – Like humans, a good hair day goes a long way! While the horses are in the Paddock, take a good look at their hair. A nice shiny coat is an indication that the horse is in good condition; it's a general sign of the horse's health and well-being.
  3. Muscle Definition – Most super-star athlete have prominent muscles and horses are no different. Be sure to look for nice, toned muscles around the horse's chest and rib cage area. You want to bet on a horse that has defined muscles near their rib cage, and isn't overweight or carrying too much fat.
  4. Nerves – It's natural to have some nerves before competition, but over anxious horses aren't necessarily a good bet. Look at the horse's behavior in the paddock, and look closely at the sweat on his/her coat. If the horse is too fidgety or sweating too much, then the horse may be wasting too much energy before it has even hit the racetrack.
Have Fun

Not every wager has to be a brain teaser! Plenty of Kentucky Derby fans win big by randomly picking a horse. Some people choose their lucky number, others draw a number out of a hat, and some select their favorite color jockey silk or favorite horse name. There are lots of fun ways to handicap a horse race, so choose the best method that works for you! If you would like learn more about handicapping, check out the TwinSpires betting guides library. Ready to make your bet? Let us help you start the process.

Tips for using your favorite horse to construct a bet

Let’s say you’ve been diligent in your Kentucky Derby handicapping. Let’s say you know a thing or two about analyzing horse races. You’ve poured over the past performances. You’ve watched workouts. You’ve read countless quotes from owners, trainers, jockeys. You’ve studied the history of the Derby, gone over all the stats, and found a horse you feel certain will reach the winner’s circle.
How do you capitalize on your opinion?

The simplest approach is to place a large win bet, but unless you’re playing a longshot, your return on investment is going to be modest—perhaps 3-1 if you’re betting the favorite. If you want to chase a potentially life-changing payoff, you need use your preferred horse as the key to unlocking exotic wagers like the trifecta, superfecta, or Pick 4.

Need some advice on the best strategies to employ? We’ve got you covered:

  • Single your horse in a multi-race wager

    Exotic bets like the Pick 3, Pick 4, and Pick 6 require you to select the winners of consecutive races—three straight winners for the Pick 3, four straight winners for the Pick 4, etc. You can bet on more than one horse per race, increasing your chance of winning, but every extra horse you include increases the cost of the ticket, cutting into your return on investment.

    “Singling” a horse means using only one horse in any given race. It’s a potentially risky strategy—if your single doesn’t win, your whole ticket is dead—but it can cut your investment significantly and allow you to spread deeper in other races.

    If you’re confident you’ve identified the Kentucky Derby winner, why not single him in a Pick 3 or Pick 4? By leaving the other 19 Derby horses off your ticket, you’ll be taking a strong stand on your opinion and saving money compared to less confident bettors using four, six, or even eight horses in the Derby.

    Let’s say you plan on singling your Derby selection in the final leg of a Pick 4. For the first three races, you intend to use three horses apiece. The cost of a $1 Pick 4 would be 3x3x3x1, or $27. This is a lot more affordable than using four horses in the Derby, which would quadruple the cost of the ticket to $108.



  • Key your horse in the single-race exotics

    The same basic strategies outlined above can be applied to single-race exotic wagers like the Kentucky Derby trifecta or superfecta, which require you to pick the top three or four finishers in the correct order.

    As with multi-race wagers, you can bet on more than one horse in each finishing slot—for example, you could pick four horses for a trifecta and “box” them (play each horse in every finishing position) so that you’ll cash a winning ticket if any three of your four horses run 1-2-3 in any order.

    But covering so many outcomes will quickly increase the cost of your wager, so if you’re confident your Derby selection is going to win, you can save money by keying him on top of your ticket. For example, if you favor the chances of #7 and believe #4, #8, #9, and #17 will battle for second and third place, you could play a $1 trifecta using 7 with 4,8,9,17 with 4,8,9,17 for a cost of just $12—a fraction of the $60 required to place a 4,7,8,9,17 trifecta box.

    But suppose you’re not 100% sure #7 will win—maybe you’re just certain he’ll finish in the top three. In that case, you could play two additional tickets, one using #7 for second place and the other using #7 for third place:

    $1 Trifecta: 7 with 4,8,9,17 with 4,8,9,17 ($12)
    $1 Trifecta: 4,8,9,17 with 7 with 4,8,9,17 ($12)
    $1 Trifecta: 4,8,9,17 with 4,8,9,17 with 7 ($12)

    The total cost of these tickets is $36, still a lot less than the $60 required to box all five horses in the trifecta. It’s also a more accurate reflection of your opinion; the trifecta box would allow you to cash if #4, #8, #9, and #17 swept the trifecta in any order, but why would you spend $24 on tickets excluding #7, which goes completely contrary to your analysis of the race?



    A scattershot approach can be profitable in some cases, particularly when you’re still keying your preferred runner. Consider the exacta, which requires you to select the top two finishers in the correct order. If you’re confident #7 is going to win, but can’t decide which horse(s) to use underneath, why not bet #7 on top of an exacta while using “ALL” underneath?

    Yes, if #7 is the favorite and a short-priced runner finishes second, there’s a chance the exacta will pay less than the cost of your ticket. But if a significant longshot gains the runner-up spot, you could be rewarded with a hefty payoff. When 5-2 favorite California Chrome prevailed in the 2014 Kentucky Derby, 37-1 longshot Commanding Curve crossed the finish line in second place. Betting California Chrome with “ALL” in a $1 exacta would have cost $18 for a return of $170.

    Armed with these wagering strategies, you’ll have every chance to make a substantial profit betting your preferred runner in the Kentucky Derby… assuming, of course, your analysis is sound and your chosen horse wins as hoped. Good luck!

    Test your new found knowledge by placing a bet, learn how to begin here.
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