Beginner's Guide to Horse Racing

I've always been wary to post a guide to horse racing because there's so many ins and outs and even I don't know everything and we've owned thoroughbreds (aka race horses) my entire life.  A guide from me will never be perfect.  But, I have taught so many of my friends the basics that I at least feel confident telling you about the same.  With the Kentucky Derby coming up this weekend, I think now is the best time so at the very least, you know how to get your bets in!

The Horses

Racehorses are called thoroughbreds.  And they need to have the lineage to prove this in order to qualify, which is why the males, the stud horses, are closely guarded and there's an actual viewing when he's bred with a female.  It's gross.  But it proves lineage.  When male race horses are retired, they're offered for breeding for a 'stud fee.'  The owner of a female retired race horse, called a mare, will pay the stud fee (tens of thousands up to $200,000 which is the current fee for the last triple crown winner, American Pharaoh.)  The owner of the mare then owns the baby that is born and the owner of the male has no rights to it.  The baby (foal) must be born healthy though, in order to collect the fee, otherwise she gets to try again for free the next mating season.

Horses are pregnant 11 months to a year, and we just had a 2nd baby born to our current mare, Great Red Beauty (you can google her), in April, in Versailles, Kentucky.  Babies are generally born April and then the mare can get pregnant again right away.  Some foals are born earlier than this but April and May are considered to be good times to be born for a healthy baby rather than in the cold winter with no grass.  Florida born horses don't really give a damn about that rule, clearly.

January 1 is considered the birth date of all the horses, so our horse would be considered 1, a yearling, on January 1, 2018, and eligible for the yearling sale.  This is when they parade around and people place bids to buy them and it's why it generally pays to have a horse born earlier in the year - he'll be bigger and more developed, likely to fetch a better price, than a horse also considered 1 but is actually only 7 months.  We generally keep our babies and race them ourselves, but some people choose to sell them right away and make a profit.  The new owner gives them their official name, usually a combination of it's ancestor's names like our horse who was bred from a horse called Greatness, and training starts after that.  The horses are ready to race as 2 year olds.

The Races

Most races on a day to day basis are categorized by age and sex of the horse.  Usually, males and females don't race together, and 2 year olds cannot race with any older ages.  So you will see a race labelled as '2 year old fillies' or 'fillies and mares, 3 and up.'  If it just says 3 and up or 4 and up, without the fillies and mares part, it's just the males racing.  Males are faster and stronger than females so they don't race together.  And if you watch the Derby, you're now going to say 'but remember Eight Belles! She was 2nd!'  Yeah, and she died right after that Derby, right there on the track because she broke her front ankles trying to race her heart out and they euthanized her.  So don't race girls with boys, even when it's technically allowed in the Derby and other high stakes (we'll get to that term in a minute) races.  I feel strongly about that.

Races are all of various lengths, which is why the start line is never in the same spot but the finish line is.  Some horses are better at short distances, some are better long, just like humans in the Olympics.  A racing form will specify how long each race is, and it'll also give you a list of each horses last races, so you can see how well they do at various distances and also whether they're better on the dirt or turf.  Buying this $2 racing form and studying the horse history and making all the knowledgeable bets is called handicapping.  Me, sometimes I just bet a horse because she's pretty.  Handicappers probably win more often but I have more fun, so there.

Horses who come in usually top 4 but it's sometimes top 5, share the 'purse,' which obviously the winner takes most of.  The winnings are split with the jockey, owner, and trainer.  All throughout the racing season, at various tracks across the country, they hold 'graded stakes races.'  The stake is the entry fee that owners pay to race (you pay to enter every race) and it forms part of that purse that the winner gets.  The various 'grades' are determined by a board based on a number of factors but it mostly means that more money is on the line and there are stricter rules for qualifying to get in there.  The horses that win these graded stakes races are far more valuable when they retire, because they're likely to produce champion babies.

The Kentucky Derby is one of these graded stakes races and has one of the highest purses.  It's held every year at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, on the first Saturday in May.  And every year it rains all day until the actual Derby race and then the sun comes out.  Seriously, watch.  Pick a horse that runs well on slop (wet dirt), that's my advice.  It's a race strictly for three year olds (which is why a horse only gets one shot at it!) and it's 1 and a quarter miles.  The purse is $2,000,000 and the first 5 horses get a part of that.  The winner gets $1,425,000 so yeah it's a big deal!

The Betting

Betting can be all over the board - basic betting is super easy, but you can make it very difficult once you know what you're doing, which is how you'll really win the money.  But let's talk basics first.  Your potential winnings are all based on odds, like any sports betting.  The more likely a horse is favored, based on his past racing history, the more his odds go down.  They also go down the more people keep on betting him, so the final odds your potential winnings are based off of are the odds it says on the board when the race actually begins.  I don't like to bet favorites, because if you bet $2 on a '2 to 1 favorite', you win $6.  That's what the odds mean - the first number is how much you win if you bet the second number, plus you get the amount back you bet in the first place.  If you bet $1 (you can't, a single bet like that is $2 minimum.  There are more complicated bets you can make for $1 but that is not this post), you would win $2, plus your $1 back.  So when you bet $2, you win twice that first number, which is $4, plus your $2 bet back, which makes it $6.  That's why long shots are fun bets, because they could be 60 to 1!  Meaning if you bet $2, you'd win $120 plus your $2 back, and if you bet $5 you'd win 5 x 60, plus $5, and who doesn't enjoy that?  But they rarely win.  The favorite comes in the top 3 like almost 70% of the time.  So it's all up to how lucky you're feeling and how much of a risk taker you are.

The most basic bet is betting $2 on a single horse to win (1st), place (2nd), or show (3rd).  If you bet a horse to show, you're betting $2 that the horse will come in 1st, 2nd, OR 3rd, so you win if your horse makes the top 3.  However, your personal odds get worse as you go down the line.  You win the most money if you bet a horse just to win and he comes in 1st, you win less if you bet him to 'place' and he comes 1st or 2nd, and you win the least if you bet him to show and he comes in the top 3.  Your odds will be shown on the TV screens all around the track before the race, for every horse, so you can see exactly what you would win if you made that particular bet.

As far as making it more complicated, you can bet things like exactas and trifectas, where you pick the horses that come in, in the order you predict, 1st, 2nd (exacta) and 3rd (trifecta).  You win a lot more if you can pick those, obviously.  You can also 'box' those bets, which means that you don't have to get the order right, you just have to get the horses right.  That pays a little less but still a lot if you win.  For example, my dad likes to bet the numbers 7, 3, and 6, for his office area code and box that, so he wins if those 3 come in first, in any order.  That's a boxed trifecta bet.  There are even more ways to complicate it like superfectas and even picking the winners across multiple races in the same track on the same day.  That's not really 'beginner's guide' material, so I'm not covering it today.

So, knowing all that, how do you actually place a bet?  This step seems to make people nervous but the cashiers will help you as the Derby always draws newbies - they're ready.  Walk up to the counter and say to the cashier 'in race number 5, I'd like $2 to win on #7.'  That's the simplest way!  You could also say '$2 to show on #7,' which you know now means that you're betting on them to come in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd.  But that is what the cashiers need to know - the race number, the amount of your bet, your type of bet (win, place, show), and the number of the horse (not it's name.)

If you don't have a track in your area, just google your city plus 'OTB' which stands for off track betting.  Remember, if you're in an OTB (or even a track), they have many screens going at once for different tracks across the country.  On Derby day, they will likely know that you mean Churchill Downs, but on other days, you should also specify the track when you talk to the cashier.  You give them the money, then they give you a ticket, and if you win you bring the ticket back and they give you cash.

Dear lord.  That was so long.  Over 2,000 words, I checked.  I hope that was helpful!  If nothing else, just look at all the knowledge you can now impress your friends with while at your Derby party this weekend.  If you have any other questions about betting or terminology or horse racing and our horses in general, ask me in the comments and I'll do my best to answer.  Check back here Thursday for my personal Derby pick.

P.S. Horses live to about 25-30, I know you're going to ask, and we retire ours to the farm in Kentucky and check on them regularly.  While some of the horses pictured have since died (I'm 32 guys, come on, do the math), rest assured they had long and happy lives out on Moss Hill Farm in Versailles, Kentucky.  Yes, Lexington dwellers, what the golf course is named after.  The Sextons are our breeders and caretakers.  You're also going to ask if I ride them.  Racehorses are not pets and they don't have the temperament for being ridden around for fun.  They're trained that when that saddle goes on, it's time to go hard.  That said, boys are feistier than girls and we did have a retired female that we had here in the northern suburbs for awhile and I and all my cousins learned to ride on her.  She loved being a pet.  Like when we put bunny ears on her and made her an Easter basket.  She's an exception to the rule.

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