Horse Racing
How to bet on Horse Racing: The beginner's guide to wagering on the ponies
Horse Racing

How to bet on Horse Racing: The beginner's guide to wagering on the ponies

Updated Jun. 4, 2024 3:15 p.m. ET

The Belmont Stakes is finally here!

These races bring text messages, emails and phone calls from people I haven’t communicated with in quite some time. And I love that they reach out for betting advice. 

Betting on horses is supposed to be fun. Some may choose a horse based on a name. Others may choose their winner based on the silk colors. Some may even just choose their lucky number. Whatever works, right?

Nearly everyone wants to wager on the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown. So for those who want to learn about how it works and get a little more involved than just a win bet, let's talk about the several ways to bet on this race. 


Here is a quick beginner's guide on how to bet on ponies.


This is the simplest way to bet on horse races.

Pick a horse and bet him to win (finish first), place (finish second) or show (finish third). This is a $2 base bet, and you can certainly bet more if you’d like. You can also bet the horse "across the board," meaning you have him to win, place and show — which is a $6 bet on a $2 base bet. And if your horse finishes third or better, you’ll collect. You can also do a "win-place" wager, which means you have the horse to finish first and second. That’s a $4 bet on a $2 base. 

If you want to keep it simple, give these a try.

Exacta and Exacta Box

Think you can peg the first two runners to get across the line? That’s called an exacta. The beauty of exacta betting is you can bet it "straight." Here's an example: "I’ll take a $2 exacta on [horses] 1-2." That means the runners need to finish in that exact order; the one horse has to win, and the two has to finish second. 

Or you can bet a box. In that case, you might say, "I’ll take a $2 exacta box 1-2". That means as long as the one and two horses finish in the top two positions, you win. The box will cost you double the amount, as you have two combinations instead of one. The other beautiful thing with exacta boxes is that you can put as many horses in there as you would like, and the math is pretty simple. 

To determine the different combinations for your horse selection, just multiply the number of horses to be boxed by the next lowest number. For example, with a five-horse exacta box, you just multiply 5 x 4 to get 20 different combinations. With a $2 base, this would cost $40. 

A six-horse box contains 30 combinations (6x5) and with a $2 base, would run you $60, and so on. 

The five-horse exacta box is actually one of my favorite bets. It allows a nice mix of long shots, favorites and mid-priced horses, and the payoff can be great if the right two get there. 

RELATED: Betting odds for the Belmont Stakes

Trifecta and Trifecta Box

If you’re looking for the biggest payout — the toughest bet to hit — then the trifecta or trifecta box might be your cup of tea.

It calls for picking the three horses to finish first, second and third. Just like the exacta, you can bet it as a straight trifecta 1-2-3. This means the horses have to finish 1-2-3 in that order. Or you can bet a trifecta box 1-2-3, which means if they finish 3-2-1, you still win. Keep in mind, the box costs more than a straight bet because there are more combinations.

To calculate the combination on a trifecta, just multiply the number of horses to be boxed by the next lowest number multiplied by the next lowest number. For example, a six-horse trifecta box will contain 120 combinations (6x5x4). With a $2 base, a six-horse trifecta will run you $240. 

One variation of this is a trifecta key/wheel. Say you really like a horse in the race and want to try and make some big bucks. You can key the horse in a couple of spots in the trifecta and fill the other two spots of the trifecta with as many different horses as you want. 

What I like to do is pick the horse I want to key — usually, a mid-price type horse I think will run well — and key that horse first and second in the trifecta. Example: $1 trifecta 1 with 2-3-4 with 2-3-4-5-6-7-8. That means the 1 horse has to win, the 2, 3 or 4 has to finish second and any of the two through eight have to finish third.

For a $1 bet, this costs $18 ($1 for the one horse in the win spot times three for the three horses in second times six for the six horses in third outside the one which would have to finish second).

Superfecta/Superfecta Box

I rarely play superfectas, which is picking the horses that finish first, second, third and fourth. I find it about as big of a dart throw as there is. Now if you get lucky, you will be handsomely rewarded. But I prefer to focus on the exacta and trifecta and bet a little bit more there. Like the trifecta, you can bet on a superfecta straight or in a box. 

Want more? 

There are also multi-race bets called pick threes, pick fours and pick fives, where you pick the winner of three, four or five consecutive races — prior to the start of the first leg of the wager, of course. 

I love betting pick fives as if you can isolate a race where you feel very strongly about a horse winning, and you then go deeper on other legs, opening yourself up for some big payouts. The good thing about the pick three, four and five is that the wager is a 50 cent base.

You can get some good coverage if you put in a ticket with two horses in one race, three horses in three races and four horses in the other leg. That exact 2x3x3x3x4 ticket costs $108. You can put as many horses in each leg as you want. To get the ticket cost, just multiply it out and divide that number in half, and that is your cost for a .50 base wager. 

The great thing about betting on the ponies is that there is a wager for everyone. Whether you’re betting $2, $20 or $200, there is always more adrenaline and excitement when watching horse racing with a little action on it.

Lastly, if you are looking for my best bets for this race, you can find them here. The primer above should help. Let's make some money!

Chris "The Bear" Fallica has covered sports for nearly three decades. While college football has been his focus, he also enjoys the NFL, Soccer, Golf, Tennis, MLB, NHL and Horse Racing, with an "occasional" wager on such events. Chris recently won the inaugural Circa Football Invitational and finished in the Top 10 of the Golden Nugget Football Contest. He’s a multiple-time qualifier for the NHC Handicapping Championship. Remember, "The less you bet, the more you lose when you win!" Follow him on Twitter @chrisfallica.

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