Betting on the Ponies. Can you Beat the Odds?

Betting the Ponies

My introduction to betting on the ponies came at an early age. My maternal grandfather loved to go to the local track – Belmont – and sometimes he took me along, starting when I must have been five or six. He would avidly study the racing forms. I would pick the prettiest horse in the paddock. Did I ever win? Not that I remember. But neither did he. Or at least, not enough to make a difference and certainly not enough to make a living. In fact the only time I can remember collecting on a bet was when Justify won the Derby. I asked a friend who was there to put $10 on him to win and another on My Boy Jack. Since Justify was the favorite, I think I “won” about $8.

My winning ticket
My winning ticket! A friend of mine was at the Derby and I asked her to bet $10 on Justify to win and $10 on My Boy Jack to show.

The problem with horse racing is that it is, by its very nature unpredictable. Horses aren’t machines and they can be impacted by the racing conditions, the track surface, how they break from the gate or how they feel that day. How many races have you watched where the favorite doesn’t even hit the boards? For example, in the year’s Kentucky Derby, the favorite, Forte, was scratched before the race, leaving handicappers and betters scrambling to predict the winner. Angel of Empire started as the favorite at 4-1, Tapit Trice was the second choice at 9-2 followed by Derma Sotogake at 7-1 and Two Phils at 9-1. The winner? Mage, a horse with only three starts, and who started with odds of 15-1. Wish I’d had a bet on him!

While I watch the early races of Derby contenders and study their pedigrees (Tapit was the major force in this year’s Derby), I almost never place a bet. The only time in recent memory was when I held a winning ticket on Justify (a friend of mine was at the Derby and she placed a $10 bet on him for me). Keep in mind that when you bet on the favorite and it wins you typically don’t make more than a few dollars; to make it big, you need to find a horse with higher odds and a streak of luck.

With all the controversy over horse racing in the past few years, you might think the industry was winding down, making it harder to find enough races to bet on. Certainly, fields are getting smaller but despite that trend there’s more money in racing than ever before.

According to Equibase, and as reported in America’s Best Racing,

  • Total wagering handle topped $12.2 billion in 2021, an 11.86% increase over 2020
  • U.S. purses exceeded $1.1 billion, a 35.77% increase over the previous year
  • U.S. race days and total races jumped by more than 20% over last year
  • The average field size contracted from 7.94 to 7.37, a 7.20% decrease
  • The average purses per race day increased by over 10% to just shy of $290,000
  • In 2021, the Breeders’ Cup Classic purse was increased to $6 million, the highest in the race’s history. This led to a record handle of $230 million, an increase of 24% from the previous year.

Significantly, this surge occurred during the Covid pandemic and despite negative press over racehorse scandals and safety issues.

Probably the number one factor driving the increased handle is the popularity of online betting. In 2022, online betting accounted for an estimated 35% of all horse racing wagers in the U.S. because of its convenience and flexibility.

Higher purses work to attract better horses to races, which makes the races more competitive and increases visibility. Organizations like Kentucky sports betting see a massive influx around the time of the Kentucky Derby – a record total of $188.7 million was wagered on the 2023 race, surpassing the 2022 record of $179 million.

Betting Systems

How can you beat the odds and actually make money? There are several betting “systems” that promise to provide more returns than losses. Some of the most popular include:

  • The Dutching System: Where you bet on all possible outcomes of a race, so that you are guaranteed to win some money even if your horse doesn’t win.
  • The 80/20 System: This system involves betting 80% of your stake on the favorite and 20% on an underdog. If the favorite wins, you will make a smaller profit, but if the underdog wins, you will make a much larger profit.
  • The Place Laying System: This approach involves betting on horses to finish in a certain position, but not necessarily to win the race. This can be a lower-risk way to bet, as you don’t need your horse to win in order to make a profit.
  • The Yankee System: Here you bet on all possible combinations of 3 horses to finish in the first three places. This is a higher-risk bet, but it can also offer a higher payout.
  • The Exacta System: This system involves betting on the first two horses to finish in the correct order. This is a more difficult bet to win, but it can offer a higher payout.

Other things you can look at when trying to find the right horse are to bet on the trainer or the jockey. Trainers with the highest winning percentages are typically those who have good horses, good training systems, and who choose appropriate races. According to The Bloodhorse, the top trainer for 2022 was Chad Brown, who had a 27% win rate. Runners up were Todd Pletcher (22%) and Steve Asmussen (18%).

Great jockeys also can make a huge difference, especially on tracks like Belmont, known as “the Big Sandy”. The track at Belmont Park is unusually big with wider turns than most other tracks. The width and breadth of the track can feel overwhelming to riders who report feeling lost. It’s an advantage, therefore, to have a jockey who feels at home at the track and who can pace their horse accordingly. The top jockeys of 2022 are mostly household names like Irad Ortiz, Flavien Prat and Joel Rosario. Most of these jockeys are riding well over 1,000 horses per year and have win rates over 20%.

The Most Successful Gambler of All Time

Perhaps the most successful gambler of all time in horse racing was Bill Benter, who made a fortune betting on horses using a mathematical formula. He is estimated to have won over $1 billion betting on horses. Benter turned to horse racing after being blacklisted from Las Vegas casinos.

Bill Benter might look like a college professor, but this college drop out created the most successful algorythm for predicting winners to date.

Bill Benter only bet on parimutuel races (primarily in Hong Kong) starting in the 1980s. Parimutuel betting is a type of betting where the odds are determined by the amount of money that is bet on each horse. This means that the odds are constantly changing, as more money is bet on the horses. Benter believed that parimutuel betting was the best way to bet on horses, because the odds were more accurate. He also believed that the parimutuel system made it easier to identify undervalued horses. Benter developed a complex algorithm that took many factors into consideration including:

  • The past performance of the horses
  • The track conditions
  • The jockeys
  • The weather
  • The distance of the race
  • The weight carried by the horses

He is rumored to have made more than $1 billion dollars before he retired from gambling in the early 2000s. While his system is not fully understood, it is still the basis for systems used by some professional gamblers and is considered to be one of the most successful horse betting systems ever developed.

Bill Benter’s system is still considered to be the best way to make money when gambling on horses.

As for me? I think the old adage holds true. What’s the best way to make a million dollars gambling on horse races? Start with three million. My most successful experience with racehorses was my partnership with Freedom. He cost me $300 and gave me many years of pleasure, not to mention he was by far the fastest horse I’ve ever ridden.

The important thing to remember is that gambling means taking a risky action in the hope of a desired result. And when it comes to horse racing, there’s a lot of luck thrown into the mix.

What about you? Have you ever won big at the races?

One thought on “Betting on the Ponies. Can you Beat the Odds?

  1. I have won at the races, but not Big. When I gamble, and the ONLY thing I bet on is horses, I take $25 with me to the track and when it’s gone, it’s gone. I stop. But several years ago I and a handful of horse fans went to Emerald Downs in Auburn, WA to see Rachel Alexander run. She got beat, they changed the jockey and she went on to win often.I think she went on to be Horse of the Year. Can’t rememer who the jock was, though.
    So I won about 75 dollars that day.
    My ‘system’ is one of pure horsemanship. I like to see the post parade so that I can look in the eyes of the horse as he’s passing me on the track before the race. Is he washing out? Is he dinking around with the pony? does he look like he is ready to run?. This doesn’t always work, but there are times when I see his body language that says, this is my race to win. It works about 25% of the time.

    I remember reading once that one should bet on the apprentice jockey, the rider with the ‘bug’..asterisk before his name on the DRF. Maybe not anymore, but it used to be a new rider was given a 5 lb allowance and that, as Affirmed proved in the Triple Crown races, made all the difference.

    Many years ago, I was watching the KD and a horse named Ferdinand was in the race. He wasn’t well regarded, the odds were pretty high on him, and there was a field of very good horses with him. The one thing he had going for him was his jockey: Bill Shoemaker.
    THe Shoe, by this time, was on the downhill side of fame and notoriety. I believe he’d come out of retirement after a disastrous divorce, or something to do with a DUI, I can’t remember, but no one really gave him credit. I mean, come ON..BILL SHOEMAKER? but he was old old news. The gates opened and the Shoe weaved his way on his ‘nothing’ horse Ferdinand to win the KD.

    Last year, the NBC clowns (I despise the way NBC has turned horse racing in to a circus/rap concert) had some joker with busy hands saying who should win. And they also had AI choose the horse. No one gave it much thought, it was just a gimmick, like so much of NBC’s showing the KD. AI picked Early Voting…and damn if he didn’t beat all the ‘Big” horses.

    Interestingly, NBC and the racing industry has never had AI pick another horse.

    OR, like you as a kid, Liz, my mother would watch the Triple crown races with me. I remember she picked Kauai King because he was ‘so pretty’.

    Remember the track adage: any horse can win any race on any day.

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