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Horse Play

You don’t have to know a mare from a mule or even how to decipher the data in the racing form to give yourself a decent chance at making some green at the racetrack.

Richard Linihan
April 29, 2017

It was 1985 when my boss at a Tulsa newspaper asked if I could cover horse racing, a new beat on the Oklahoma sports horizon. Well, let’s see, my mom had recurring dreams of being bitten by a horse, so she never took us around them. “Yeah, I can do that,” I told him.

It was five years later that I hit a Pick 6 wager that paid around $17,000 on a $10 bet. Fifteen years later, I was a horse away from winning $1 million, a lesson we are going to pass along to you as part of the top five ways to make money at the racetrack.

The Pick 6

Correctly choosing six winners in a row on designated races is the hardest wager at the racetrack. You can pick one horse in all six races and it only costs $2, kind of like the lottery.

But if you want to really give yourself a chance, find races that you believe one horse is going to win and those are the only races that you use one horse. In the other races, you spread out the bet using multiple horses, any of which can keep you alive moving toward going six for six.

To figure the cost of your ticket, multiply the number of horses used in each race times each other and then multiply that by your $2 wager. For instance, if you use two horses in every race, it would be 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 and then multiply by $2, which would equal $128.

Now for the story about how sad I was to win $3,000 at the racetrack. There was $7 million in the Pick 6 pool in California. I had about $400 to bet on the six races. I studied the Daily Racing Form in hopes of figuring out how best to play the bet.

I had figured out the first five races of my ticket when I came to the final race of the sequence. When I looked at the race, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had lived in Houston for about five years and the Astros were my favorite baseball team. I went to the Astrodome about 20 times a year to watch the games.

Never bet every race at the track. That’s the easiest way to lose money.
Never bet every race at the track. That’s the easiest way to lose money.

But what does that have to do with the price of horse racing and my Pick 6 ticket? Believe it or not, there was a horse in the final race named Houston Astro. Do you believe in divine intervention? I promised myself if there were any way the horse could win the race, I would use him in my wager.

He had been beaten by 22 lengths in his last race. Not only did that look bad, but he had lost that race to a horse that was in this race. How was he going to make up 22 lengths from his previous try against the favorite? I tried and tried and tried to find a way for Houston Astro, who was a 30-1 long shot, to beat the favorite, but just couldn’t reconcile that happening in my mind. The favorite looked like the easy winner. If I singled the favorite, I could also save $200. If I added Houston Astro, my ticket would cost $400.

A waste of money, I surmised, and put in my ticket for $200.

At the top of the stretch, my favorite was in the lead by about five lengths. I could feel the bank account growing by the second. With about a 0.16 of a mile to go, the announcer blared out, “There’s a long shot coming up on the outside!”

The long shot moved up and eased past my favorite by about a half length; I was thinking consolation. Then unbelievably, the long shot pulled up with an injury. I was back on the lead with 70 yards to go and only one horse still chasing. As the two came to the wire, I could see the other horse bob his fat nose past my horse at the wire.

“It’s Houston Astro by a nose,” the announcer screamed. Two winning tickets in the Pick 6 paid $1.5 million each.

My consolation payout was $3,000 for 5-of-6. I’d never been so sick to win $3,000 in my life. If I’d spent the extra $200 on the ticket, my share would have been $1 million.

So the lesson learned is that if you have a horse whose name has any significance in your life, use it. I once bet a horse that had the same name as my girlfriend and she won at 17-1 odds. Sometimes you just have to do it. I won $360 on that $20 bet. She broke up with me, but I got to keep the money.

BONUS TIP: Try to keep your ticket to a $72- $150 wager if you really want to give it a chance to win. If that’s too much, go in with friends or family to split the cost and the winnings.

Show Parlay

If you bet a horse to show, all it has to do is run third or better for you to win. In a show parlay, you’re basically taking what you won to show on the first horse in your parlay and letting it ride on your next horse to show.

For instance, if you bet $20 to show on your first horse and he pays $3.60 to show, you get back $36. You then bet that $36 to show on the next horse you like. I usually do three or four horses in a show parlay.

One day, I started with $20 to show and took home more than $400 in winnings, and all the four horses had to do was run third or better. I usually throw one long shot in the mix to build the winnings. If that long shot runs third or better, you can have a very profitable day.

BONUS TIP: Sometimes you may have more than $100 in winnings coming back with one more horse to go. That’s when the decision gets tough on whether you should risk the $100 on the final horse or pocket it. My advice, follow your heart. Of course my heart always says life is a gamble; go for it.

Progressive Bet

A general rule of thumb at the track is that people like to bet $2 to WPS (win, place and show) on a horse. If the horse wins, you collect the three prices across the toteboard next to your horse’s number. Let’s say the horse pays $10, $5, and $4 across the board. Your $2 WPS returns $19.

I prefer to play the progressive bet of $2 to win, $4 to place and $8 to show. On that type of wager, you get the $10 for the win, $10 for the place and $16 for the show for $36, instead of $19. More importantly, in the first scenario, if your horse only runs third, you lose your $4 to win and place and take home $4 on the show. You broke even. With the progressive method, you lose your $2 to win and $4 to place ($6), but win $16 on your show bet, giving you a $10 profit in the race.

BONUS TIP: Never bet every race at the track. That’s the easiest way to lose money. Pick out four or five races you really like and sit out the others.

The No-Study Method

I had one friend who never bought a program or a Daily Racing Form. She was so familiar with horses and how they looked that she would bet on the ones who had the best body language, regardless of odds. Didn’t matter if the horse was a favorite or a long shot. She would look at the horses in the post parade and pick them out. And she would win big money at times.

BONUS TIP: Good signs include a horse’s neck is arched like a chess piece rook; horse is “on its toes” prancing before the race; jockey has reins pulled up tight as the horse wants to run; the horse is trying to bite the pony horse accompanying him; horse has dappled skin (looks like bright circles on the skin like a pile of leaves); your horse’s coat is shining in the sun (that comes from the horse feeling good); there’s daylight between the horse’s tail and rear end; and the horse is rocking. If your horse in the post parade is rocking back and forth up and down, run to the windows as fast as you can and bet with both hands.

Find a Reliable Tip Sheet

The two I look at most often online (and these are free) are Ribbit Racing and Chief Crazybears Picks. You can’t beat advice from experts and these guys have lined my pockets with green plenty of times.

When big races come along, like the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup, I will usually put my selections up on Facebook. Just a few years ago, I picked 20-1 Animal Kingdom to win the Kentucky Derby and he did. A few years later, I had Orb and My Golden Soul (43-1 odds) to run first and second in the Derby. They did and a $2 exacta wager paid a whopping $981.

April 2020 Cover