How to pick the winner of a horse race

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Wagering on horse racing is a puzzle. You need to look at each race from several angles, and only when you start to fill in some of the pieces does the entire picture begin to come into focus. It’s not enough to know which horse is the fastest or has the best connections: the owner, trainer and jockey. You have to put all those factors, and more, into context to get a sense of how each horse might run in an upcoming race.

Plus, unlike sports betting, in which the pregame odds are fixed, horse racing employs a pari-mutuel wagering system, which means bettors wagers against each other, not the house. The more money placed on a horse or an exotic bet like an exacta (top two finishers, in order) or trifecta (top three finishers, in order), the lower the potential payout.

A beginner’s guide to betting on horse racing

This is an important point, especially when wagering on a horse to win. If you bet with the public, you are not going to get much value and your bankroll will suffer. Over three consecutive meets at Keeneland in 2021 and 2022, for example, the favorite won 36 percent of the time with an average payout of $4.79 for every $2 wagered. If you bet on every favorite, you’d have lost 13 percent of your bankroll, even with all those wins. The non-favorites that won, meanwhile, returned $17.13 per $2 bet, on average.

So what’s the best way to approach horse betting and finding a winner? Let’s look at a 2022 race at Keeneland to illustrate a step-by-step approach to smart betting. We already know the outcome in this example, yet it is still beneficial to go thorough the process since the ideas of limiting your liability and maximizing value can be used in a variety of races.

  1. Identify the favorite. Is it a deserving of a short price?
  2. Highlight the last win for each horse. What type of competition did it beat and by how much?
  3. Look for horses that consistently run better than their odds and for patterns that indicate improved efforts.
  4. What is the pace of the race going to be like? Which horses does it help or hurt?
  5. Which horses will be fast enough to win?
  6. What should the odds be on those horses? How does that compare to the odds being offered?

All the needed information on this checklist can be found in the past performances. Some outlets, like Brisnet, also include the running styles of each horse, which helps in determining the pace of the race. If you don’t have access to the running styles, a simple exercise explained below can help you figure it out.

Identify the favorite. Is it a deserving of a short price?

The favorite in our chosen race, No. 4 Credit Event, broke his maiden in his debut but that was on an all-weather surface. In this race, he is being asked to switch surfaces (to grass) for his second career race, and after a layoff. That’s a challenge for younger horses. Plus, his trainer, Chad Brown, has just a 20 percent win rate with horses on the grass for the first time. The jockey, Tyler Gaffalione, has a 16 percent win rate on grass, per Brisnet’s data. These aren’t terrible numbers, but they imply odds of 5-1 or 6-1, not the eventual 9-5 odds that Credit Event offered at post time.

Finding a vulnerable favorite like this is key to wagering. Let the rest of the public waste its time on these horses. Now we can dig deeper for actual contenders.

Highlight the last win for each horse. What type of competition did it beat and by how much?

The class of the horse is important. Races can be broken up into two main groups: maiden races (for horses that have never won), and non-maiden races. The non-maiden races are further sorted by claiming and non-claiming events. A claiming race is a race in which every horse running can be claimed or purchased after the race. To keep the fields competitive, horses are matched by value. If the horse is too good for the field then it will be claimed at a cheaper price. If the horse isn’t worth the value of the other entrants then the horse will probably not fare very well. Non-claiming races are typically allowance and stakes races.

Another rule of thumb: The higher the purse or claiming price, the better the competition. This also helps assess the class of the horse. A horse that struggles against $10,000 claiming types is unlikely to excel in an allowance race or stakes race. And if a horse is stakes caliber, it wouldn’t be risked in a cheap claiming race. It is also unlikely a horse that has never won before would beat a field of winners. There are exceptions, of course, but you need to make sure the odds justify the risks.

In our race, No. 1 Underdressed beat maiden claiming horses his last time out. That is the lowest class of horses, and those winners rarely go on to bigger and better things. The rest of the field is largely made up of maiden winners in races with purses between $30,000 and $50,000 with the exception of two: No. 6 Limited Liability and No. 11 Churchtown.

Limited Liability broke his maiden and then was immediately graduated into graded stakes races on the turf. He managed a third-place finish in both of them: the Grade 3 With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga and the Grade 2 Pilgrim Stakes at Belmont. Now he is being asked to take on horses in allowance company, a steep decline in class.

Churchtown’s win came on an all-weather surface, and in our race he will be trying grass for the first time. His sire has a nine percent win rate with first-time starters on the turf, and his trainer has a win rate of four percent. You can thus ignore Churchtown without a second thought, but Limited Liability looks like a contender.

Look for horses that consistently run better than their odds and for patterns that indicate improved efforts.

When a horse outruns its odds, it presents what handicappers call positive wagering value. These horses are not well-known from stakes races or well-liked by bettors — otherwise they would go at shorter odds — but they still manage to do better than anticipated. A quick scan of the past performances often show two classes of horses: those that only do well when bet as the favorite and those that surprise every now and again. The race conditions during those surprises can be compared to conditions of upcoming races to see if there are any similarities. If so, then you have found some positive wagering value.

No. 2 Freedom’s Way took four tries in the maiden ranks before graduating, but his last two were very encouraging. He finished second at 1⅛ miles on turf by 1½ lengths at 20-1 odds, and then finally broke through for a win at 1 1/16 miles on turf at almost 9-1, two cases of outrunning the odds on the same surface and distance of our chosen race. And that’s just one pattern match that indicates another good run could be coming.

A pattern match is anything from the last win that is applicable to the upcoming race. Is the horse going back to a distance or surface it loves, or to a track where it had previous success? Has there been a jockey switch to a rider that has won with the horse before? Does the trainer have improved success with the horse under similar conditions? If coming off a layoff, does the horse perform better or worse? What about after it has a race or two since the layoff? In this case, jockey Luis Saez is back aboard Freedom’s Way, looking for the pair’s second win in as many races.

No. 5 Play Action Pass won as the favorite in his first race on grass with Corey Lanerie aboard and Lanerie is back on again for a turf race. That’s a pattern match. No. 7 Merci broke his maiden in a turf route at 7½-1 odds; he is coming off a two-month layoff in this race, which is similar to a debut. That’s also a pattern match.

What is the pace of the race going to be like? Who does that help or hurt?

If a lone front-runner is coming off a win where it was able to establish the lead with early fractions — races are timed in segments and the first two, typically at the ¼-mile and ½-mile marks, are the early fractions) — that horse might not fare as well facing multiple speedsters. A closer, on the other hand, could inherit the lead if multiple horses set sizzling early fractions, yet struggle at a slower pace.

A quick and easy strategy is to circle the first and second-call positions of each horse to see who’s running first or second (early lead types) or near the back of the pack (closers). There are also horses that can run well either up front or close to the first flight of horses, also known as stalkers or pressers. These tend to win more than their share of races and can be particularly powerful when they are the only horse with that running style.

To help label horses, analyst Bill Quirin introduced a system based on past performances at the first call, which is the ¼-mile mark in sprints and ½-mile mark in routes. The running styles are denoted as a front-runner (on the lead), a stalker (one or two lengths off the lead), a presser (more than two lengths off the lead at the first call) and a closer (near the back of the pack).

For example, our race features three early-lead types, no stalkers, seven pressers and two closers. Horses on the lead won more than their fair share of turf races during this Keeneland meet, more than one such horse can lead to tiring speed duels. Turf races are also typically slower pace races until the end, favoring horses with a closing style.

Limited Liability, a horse we already tabbed as a contender, is a closer, setting him up nicely for this race. Freedom’s Way, Play Action Pass and Merci also don’t appear to be hampered by our pace scenario. Churchtown, Watch the Music and Brit’s Wit, on the other hand, will all feel the effects of a speed duel and all three can be discounted.

Will this horse be fast enough to win?

Above all else, you need to find the fastest horse. Our goal is to isolate the contenders first and then determine which have the speed to be the first to the wire.

Speed can be estimated in a number of different ways, but the most popular method is to use speed figures, which adjust for track conditions and can be found in past performance listings. When evaluating speed figures, look for horses that have consistently hit par for your chosen race, preferably under the same track and class conditions. You also want to look at how those figures were earned. A front-running horse going wire-to-wire and one that had to battle down the stretch may end up with the same speed figure, but they were earned under very different conditions. Same for a horse that hugged the rail the whole way compared to one that had a wide trip. It also helps to look at the trips of each horse to see if any had an advantage or disadvantage.

Just three horses in our race earned a speed figure of 83 or higher in a turf route race: Freedom’s Way (87 in a maiden race), Limited Liability (84 in a Grade 2 stakes race) and Play Action Pass (83 in a listed stakes race). Those three should be considered the contenders on speed alone, and with the other factors in their favor, are a solid trio to focus on.

What should the odds be on the horse? How does that compare to the odds being offered?

Once you have your list of contenders, it is time to ballpark their chances of winning the race. Only then will you know if your risk is justified by the potential reward. If you think a horse has a 25 percent chance to win but the horse is a 2-1 favorite, then it is not worth the risk. On the other hand, the same horse at 6-1 odds would offer a terrific wagering opportunity.

Don’t think you are savvy enough to peg a horse’s chances of winning a race? Use Marc Cramer’s contender line as your guide. He proposed ranking horses and assigning prefixed probabilities to them. If you think only one horse is a true contender then you must demand even money or better to make a wager. Have two horses you like? Your top pick must be 2-1 or better and your second choice 5-2 or better. Three contenders in the field would require at least 3-1 on your top choice, 9-2 on the second choice and 6-1 on the third choice. Four contenders would require odds of 4-1, 5-1, 8-1 and 9-1. Bet any contenders that reach the proper threshold.

In this case, the order of our three contenders is debatable. Freedom’s Way is the top speed horse, outruns his odds and has a pattern match with the jockey of his last win back aboard. Limited Liability has acquitted himself well in graded stakes competition, has a competitive speed figure and should be able to take advantage of a fast pace. Play Action Pass earned a competitive speed figure in a listed stakes race, plus gets a jockey back that was present for a win at this same distance and on this same surface.

I’d argue for Limited Liability as the top horse because of his class (won a $100,000 maiden race), the competitive speed figure (84 in a Grade 2 stakes race) and running style (closer). Play Action Pass would be my second choice after having earned a competitive speed figure in a listed stakes race over the same surface plus the added benefit of the jockey change back to Lanerie. Freedom’s Way, with his top speed figure of 87 (earned in a maiden race) would be my third choice. In this order they would require odds of 3-1, 9-2 and 6-1, respectively, for win bets. They could, of course, also be used in exactas and trifectas.

As you can see from the race results below, our handicapping would have been spot on. Limited Liability beat Freedom’s Way by a neck and paid $10 to win. Freedom’s Way finished second over Play Action Pass by a length. The exacta paid $33.80 on a $1 bet and the 50-cent trifecta paid $133.30. Merci, who had a layoff pattern match, finished fourth, rounding out a $111.80 10-cent superfecta. The favorite, Credit Event, finished third to last.

Remember, you are competing against the public and the wisdom of crowds, a collective that often does well at the ticket counter. But they are not perfect, and to take advantage of their shortcomings you have to be willing to seize value when you see it. Your rate of tickets cashed may not be as high as if you bet on only the favorites, but the return on your investment should be there, which is how you grow your bankroll.