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So, you want to start betting on horse racing?

You want to place a bet online for the Kentucky Derby?

What about betting on the Belmont Stakes, the Breeder's Cup Classic, the Preakness Stakes?

Online Horse betting is easy and fun, but like other games of skill (and Horse Racing is that you can bet for FUN before you bet with real money. That way, you can test the waters and make mistakes that don't cost you anything (except your pride!) before taking the step to bet on horses for real money.

Before you go to Bet On Horses, we suggest that you educate yourself about how to bet on horse racing.

Kentucky Derby Betting How-To Page

Although it’s not the only great part about the Derby and horse racing, wagering and handicapping is certainly where the fun is had while you’re at the track, unless you’re losing money of course.

In this section Call to the Derby Post will attempt to teach the basics of betting on horse races. If you’ve never gambled at the track before, or if it’s been awhile since you put your last $2 down, this page is for you. Later in the page, Call to the Derby Post will share some of its Derby betting tips, although the place for handicapping the race itself is The Official Call to the Derby Post Tip Sheet. How to Use the Call to the Derby Post Betting How-To Page:

Divided into several sections, the Betting How-To Page is an introductory explanation of how to bet on horse racing. Throughout the explanation there will be definitions of important terms. The text of these definitions, as well as most of the info on this page, are taken from the official Web site of the Daily Racing Form, the bible of horse racing. Feel free to utilize this page as you wish; while reading the page straight through is recommended, you can also pick and choose whichever subject you desire.

Call to the Derby Post assumes no responsibility for any losses you may incur at the track, and likewise takes no credit for any winnings. Gamble at your own risk.

  1. The Basics
  2. Comparing the Field
  3. Pedigree

The Basics of Horse Race Betting

Important Horse Racing Terms

First, let’s get a definition of the term used for horse race betting, handicapping. Handicapping means evaluating the various factors of a horse’s history, then balancing that information against the same info on horses in the same race. Simply put, it is the technical way of determining which horse will win a given race. Factors to study include pedigree, trainer, jockey, class, track, pace and speed.

A horse's ancestral line. If a horse's sire or dam were winners, then chances are that horse could be a winner also.
The person responsible for a horse's development and race preparation. Not to be confused with the owner, whose claim to the horse is purely financial.
The person who rides the horse during a race. If you didn't know that already, you may want to avoid handicapping and stick to the mint juleps.
The level or quality of race at which a horse is running. Most well-known races are graded, Grade I being the highest, Grade III the lowest. For instance, if a horse which normally runs in only graded races were to step down in class and run in a non-graded race, that horse would be a sure favorite. If a horse were stepping up in class, that horse might, though not always, be less of a favorite. Movements between class is a great way to distinguish horses in a given race.
The actual place where the race is held. Often times a horse that races well on one track will struggle on another.
How a horse likes to run a race. Some horses like to take the lead early and try to hold it, others like to reserve energy and come from behind. Pace and the distance of a race go hand-in-hand.
How fast a horse usually runs. Speed horses generally take to the lead early and establish pace. Those with stamina hope to outduel speed runners by the end of the race.

The Track

While you might already have a good idea of what a track is, there are some basics to be covered which will probably answer a question or two for novices. First, there are two types of racing surfaces, dirt and turf. All Triple Crown races are raced on the dirt. Second, most tracks are one-mile ovals. For races that are longer than one-mile—the Derby is a mile and a quarter—the starting gate is lined up with the appropriate pole. The poles are placed one-eighth of a mile apart. In racing terms, one eighth of a mile is also a furlong. (A lot of horse races are six furlongs, or 3/4 of a mile, long.) So, the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby is located at the 2/8 (or 1/4) pole, which is 1/4 mile from the finish line; the horses complete one and a quarter ovals. (The numbers attributed to poles refer to their respective distance from the finish line.) The poles themselves are color coded: 1/8 poles are green and white, 1/4 poles are red and white, 1/16 poles are black and white.

Why are the poles important? Because when looking at the racing record of a particular horse, you can tell where and how in previous races the horse was running. If a horse was leading but then tired at the 1/4 pole, it ran out of steam a good quarter-mile from the finish and probably lacks stamina.

Types of Bets

OK. Now we get to the fun stuff. These are the most familiar types of wagering available at horse tracks:

  • Win: You win if the horse you bet on wins.
  • Place: You win if the horse you bet on wins or comes in second.
  • Show: You win if the horse you bet on wins or comes in second or third.
  • Across the Board: A bet on a horse to win, place and show. If the horse wins, the player collects three ways; if second, two ways; and if third, one way, losing the win and place bets.

According to these definitions, it would seem to make the most sense to make show bets in order to guarantee a payoff. A show bet may indeed increase the chance of a payoff, but it will also lower your payoff. Let’s look at the following result:

1998 Kentucky Derby Results
  Win Place Show  
2-Real Quiet $18.80 $8.80 $5.80 $2 Exacta 2-12 -- $291.80
12-Victory Gallop   $13.00 $7.60 $2 Trifecta 2-12-7-- $1,221.00
7-Indian Charlie $4.20 $1 Superfecta 2-12-7-3-- $3,007.40

Ignore the information regarding the exacta, trifecta and superfacta for the moment. Had you bet $2 to win on Real Quiet, you would have won $18.80 (a profit of $16.80). Had you put $2 to show on Real Quiet your payoff would have been $5.80. However, had you bet $2 to win on Victory Gallop, you would have lost your bet. A $2 bet to place on Victory Gallop would pay you $13.00, but a $2 bet to place on Indian Charlie returns nothing. Had you bet across the board on Real Quiet you would have won $30.40 (18.80 + 8.80 + 5.80). An across the board bet on Indian Charlie would pay you only $4.20, which would mean a net loss of $1.20 because the minimum across the board bet is $6 ($2 each for win, place and show). Got it? One more point. When stepping to the betting window (after making sure you aren’t at the $100 minimum bet window unless you want to be) you need to know three things: first, the amount of your bet (which must be at least $2); second, the type of bet, like win, place or show; and third, the number of the horse on which you are betting. This number can be found in the program offered at the track, usually for a very small fee. The number given a horse does NOT correspond to his post position in the starting gate, so don’t make the mistake of getting them confused. Read the program, and you’ll be fine. If you have a question, ask before handing over your money. Once you place a bet its yours to keep. So, had you been a wise handicapper at the 1998 Derby, you would have gone to a betting window and said, “I’d like to bet $2 to win on the 2 horse.”

Now the other bets. Here are some definitions from the Daily Racing Form:

  • Exacta (or Perfecta): A wager in which the first two finishers in a race, in exact order of finish, must be picked.
  • Quinella: Wager in which first two finishers must be picked, but payoff is made no matter which of the two wins and which runs second.
  • Trifecta (or Triple): A wager picking the first three finishers in exact order.
  • Superfecta: You are a winner if your selected horses come in first, second, third and fourth in exact order of finish in a race.

Call To The Derby Post usually stays away from trifecta and superfecta bets simply because they aren’t very simple. On the other hand, exactas and quinellas are a big favorite. Although this can be seen more clearly at the Official Tip Sheet, exacta and quinella bets allow you to choose a group of horses, rather than just one, and place bets on all of them. Say there are three horses in a race you like, but you cannot choose between them. Pick who you think is the best of the three, then match that horse with the other two in an exacta or a quinella (a quinella protects you from picking the top two finishers but losing the bet because one beat the other by a nose.) Exactas are a great way to get started on handicapping, and offer more of a challenge, and a higher payoff, than simple win bets.

Betting at horse tracks is pari-mutuel betting, which means you are betting against other bettors, not house-made odds like at a sports book at a casino. Odds on horses are determined by the amount of money wagered on a particular horse; if no one bets on a horse, his odds will be lower (like 50-1) but there will be a higher payoff—therefore the lure of betting on the longshot.

Comparing the Field in Horse Racing

The greatest tool used in handicapping are the entries published in the Daily Racing Form. If you want more information on how to read these forms, head to their site. Instead of explaining those details here, Call To The Derby Post will focus on the ideas upon which the information in the DRF is predicated.

Condition of a Horse

One factor to consider is the condition of a horse. Is the horse running “in form” or “off form”? DRF writer Brad Free sums it up this way: “Determining condition can be a simple matter of evaluating a horse’s recent races. Has the horse been finishing in the top half of the field? If he is a front-runner, has he been showing speed? If he is a late runner, has he been gaining ground on the leaders?” In other words, has a horse performed well as of late? Condition can still be a tricky conideration, however, especially for young horses like the 3-year olds who race in the Triple Crown. More often than not, as a matter of fact, the Derby champion has lost his last race before the Derby. Could it be that horses that win Derby prep races are burnt out by the time they reach Churchill Downs? Or have the races they lost actually been close or to stiff competition? Still, although the condition factor can be a bit murky leading up to Derby Day, it is safe to say that a horse who has not shown any promise in his prep races will not have a “career” day and come from nowhere to win the Derby. If a horse has not been competitve in the prep races, forget about it.

Class of Horse In the Race

Again, a quote from DRF writer Brad Free: “Class is the next point of evaluation - is the horse running at a level where he previously has been competitive? Or, has he recently improved, enough to take his game to a higher level? Class is closely linked to current condition, and sharp horses frequently move up the ladder.” In all honesty, horses running in Triple Crown races are in a class amongst themselves. You can’t go higher in class than the Kentucky Derby. So it is fair to say that Derby contenders have already reached the top of the ladder and that the class principle in terms of handicapping applies more to the average race rather than the top races of the Triple Crown. Still, out of a field of about 20 horses, it is possible to use class as a way of cutting that field in half, or even down to a third, of top contenders. Once you’ve selected an elite group of horses you think are distinct from the rest of the field, you’ve taken the first step of handicapping a race like the Derby. After all, you don’t go from 20 horses entered in a race straight down to one; you’ve got to meddle through the field a bit more wisely than that. It’s a similar idea to condition: if a horse hasn’t been competitive with any of the other Derby horses in the preps, he is not going to magically win the Derby.

Horse Speed

The most popular standard of speed comparisons are the Beyer Speed Figures, which note how fast a horse can run and take into account the “fluctuating speed of a racing strip.” To read more about these figures, head to the Daily Racing Form. In essence, figures earned under similar circumstance as the race which you are handicapping will be the ones to use. What type of history does the horse have in terms of racing? Has he run longer or shorter races, around one turn or two, and how has he performed under varying circumstances? As you might expect, and as briefly alluded to earlier, speed is the brother of pace. Since the Derby is a relatively long race, speed horses generally do not fair well in the Derby. Those with pace and that can last the whole mile-and-a-quarter distance might have an advantage, although even if a horse with lots of stamina must have some speed. If he falls too far behind the speed horses, generally a race’s pace-setter, he may have too far to go to catch up at the end.

Horse Pace

Brad Free introduces an interesting theory about pace, and used two past Kentucky Derbies as examples. His basic theory is that in a race filled with horses with similar styles, horses with the opposite style may hold an advantage. In the 1996 Kentucky Derby there were several speed horses, horses that jumped to the lead early like Honour and Glory, Matty G and Unbridled’s Song. These speed runners burnt each other out, tiring at the stretch and leaving room for late-closers Grindstone, Cavonnier and Prince of Thieves. By contrast, the 1988 Kentucky Derby was filled with closers, those who come off the pace. But while all the closers were waiting to make their move, speed horse Winning Colors took the early lead and held it. Her speed was too much for the closers who were waiting for her to fade. In Mr. Free’s words, the theory to take note of is this: “Generally, the more speed races there are in a race, the greater are a closer’s chance to win. Conversely, fewer front-runners mean those who do have speed may hold an edge.”

Analyzing these four factors together should help you create a a solid picture of how a race will be run, and hopefully, which horses will come in the money.

The Pedigree of the Horse in the Race

As noted in the Call To The Derby Post History of Horse Racing, the training and breeding of thoroughbreds goes back several hundred years. Whether it be for war, long races or short races, horsemen have always been looking to breed the best to the best then hoping for the best, aiming to engineer as close to the perfect horse as possible. It is no surprise, then, that when handicapping a race, pedigree plays a very large factor when determining which horse literally has the blood of a champion. What follows below is a more in-depth look at the fine art of breeding and the importance of understanding pedigree before heading to the betting window.

Important Horse Breeding Terms

Before moving forward with pedigrees, let’s first get a handle of some basic terms of the field, phrases with which you are probably familiar but never fully understood.

A horse's father. Also known as Stallion.
A horse's mother.
Broodmare Sire
The sire of a horse's dam. Also known as Damsire.
An influential sire. Used to complete Dosage figures (see below).
Dosage System
A mathematical method, based on the number and type of chefs-de-race in a pedigree, of figuring a horse's inclination toward speed or stamina. (For more on the Dosage Sytem, see below. For how it relates to this year's Derby, head to The Official Call To The Derby Post Tip Sheet.)
Blue Hen
A dam that has produced at least two major stakes winners and/or stakes producers.
A newborn horse; also used as a verb: to give birth to a foal.
Foal Crop
The group of horses sired by a stallion in a single year.
A horse in the first year of it's life. A horse foaled in March will be a weanling until the following January 1, when all horses turn a year older.
A horse in the second year of its life.
A combination (or Cross) of two family lines in a pedigree that tends to produce successful runners.

Sire Lines Today

Note: The majority of this material is derived from an article written by Ed Fountaine for the Daily Racing Form.

Of the original thoroughbred sires (as mentioned in the Horse Racing History’s “The Arrival of Thoroughbreds” section) the Darley Arabian—Eclipse line is the most important, since they are the direct male ancestors of more than 90% of all stallions standing at stud today. Perhaps the most important descendants of Eclipse are the stallions Native Dancer and Nearco. Not only were both great racehorses in their own right (winning 35 of 36 races between them) but they are also the two most influential sires of the 20th century; both of their lines are recognized for incredible speed. Native Dancer, a great-great-grandson of Phalaris (1913), won 21 of 22 starts, with his only loss, ironically enough, by a head in the Kentucky Derby. He is the sire of Raise a Native and the broodmare sire of Northern Dancer (both foals of 1961), whose lines are the two most popular in pedigrees today.

Raise a Native and Northern Dancer are both known as exceptional sires-of-sires: Raise a Native, through sons like Mr. Prospector, Alydar, Exclusive Native and Majestic Prince; Northern Dancer through sons like Nijinsky II, Danzig, Dixieland Band, Ly phard, Nureyev, Sadler’s Wells, Storm Bird and Vice Regent. And the pedigree continues further down the line. Raise a Native’s grandsons at stud include Alysheba, Saratoga Six, Strike the Gold, Affirmed, Majestic Light, Conquistador Cielo, Crofty Prospector, Fappiano, Forty Niner, Seeking the Gold and Woodman. Among Norther Dancer’s grandsons are Chief’s Crown, Deputy Minister, Storm Cat, Summer Squall, Baldski, Caerleon, Green Dancer and Shadeed.

Nearco, also a grandson of Phalaris, won all 14 of his starts in Europe and sired several important sires of the 20th century. These included Nearctic, the sire of Norther Dancer and another important stallion, Icecapade; and Royal Charger, whose son Turn-to is the ancestor of such top sires as Best Turn, Cox’s Ridge, Hail to Reason, Halo, Devil’s Bag, Mr. Leader, Robero, Kris S., Stop the Music, Sir Gaylord and Sir Ivor. But Nearco’s most important son is probably Nasrullah. Imported to Kentucky from Ireland in 1950, he was the leading sire in North America based on earnings five times, and then sired champion Bold Ruler, who topped the sire list eight times, seven of those in a row. Bold Ruler’s descendants have had a major impact at stud, including the Triple Crown winner Secretariat and Seattle Slew, plus Bold Bidder, Bold Ruckus, Raja Baba and What a Pleasure.

Pedigree is a key factor when handicapping the Kentucky Derby, for horses in Derby fields not only contain the blood of their ancestors but some semblance of their name as well. With one glance at a list of Derby entrants an experienced Derby handicapper can pick out names, or parts of names, and move several steps ahead of the average Derby bettor. Of the horses listed above, seven are Derby winners: Northern Dancer, Majestic Prince, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alysheba and Strike the Gold. But look at a few other of the names listed, and then peruse the list of Derby winners again. Cox’s Ridge is a sire of Derby winner Riva Ridge; Halo of Derby winner Sunny’s Halo. The name “bold” is repeated several times; one Bold not listed is Bold Forbes, who also won the Kentucky Derby. The point should be obvious and clear. Winners breed winners, and Call To The Derby Post truly believes that the longer one watches the Derby, the more familiar you become with important names and champions who are destined to leave their mark in the winner’s circle one way or another.

The Dosage System

The dosage system is one of the most scientific ways of handicapping a race, particularly the Derby. What follows is an introduction to how the Dosage system works and how it applies to handicapping and specifically to the Derby.

By definition, dosage is a theoretical means of mathematically assessing a horse’s genetic inclination toward speed or stamina based on the number and type of chefs-de-race (influential sires) in the first four generations of a horse’s pedigree. The concept was developed using a complicated mathematical formula that established the preferred percentages, or dosage, for certain chefs-de-race, reflecting the number of times those sires should appear in the first 12 generations of a horse’s pedigree. The dosage system was progressed when the chefs-de-race were classified into five (now seven) categories. Its current variation, popularized by the Daily Racing Form’s Leon Rasmussen in the early 1980s off of research done by Dr. Steve Roman, a petro-chemical engineer who first published his dosage articles in the DRF in 1981. There is an actual list of chefs-de-race, a list of sires composed by the dosage system’s founders and expanded and maintained over the years to include American sires by turf writer Abram S. Hewitt, Rasmussen and Roman. Essentially, if a horse has one (or more) of these chefs-de-race in its bloodlines, its sire is one of the top sires in racing, which then increases its own likelihood of becoming a winner. Several organizations offer the list of chefs-de-race; more information can be found (where else?) at the Daily Racing Form.

Chefs-de-race are divided into five aptitude classes—brilliant, intermediate, classic, solid and professional—ranging from pure speed to plodding stamina. These five categories form a horse’s dosage profile (DP). A chef-de-race in specific generations of a horse’s pedigree are assigned points; based on a horse’s dosage profile and these points, a mathematical formula is used to compute a horse’s dosage index (DI) and center of distribution (CD). (Head to the DRF to figure out how to calculate the DI and CD.) Theoretically, the higher the dosage numbers the more inclined a horse is to speed over stamina. The speed wing of a dosage profile contains ancestries who are labeled as brilliant and intermediate, which leads to a high DI and CD; stamina comes from solid and professional lines and will lower the dosage. At the center, classic represents the category that is closest to a perfect blend of speed and stamina.

Confused? Well, to be a bit honest, so is Call To The Derby Post. But here’s where it gets real simple, real fast. Statistical studies have shown a sharp drop-off in the number of stakes winners at a mile and a quarter (Derby length) or longer whose dosage indexes are above 4.00 and centers of distribution are above 1.25. In the words of Fountaine, “This leads to the most popular application of dosage: the ‘dual-qualifier’ dosage system for handicapping the Kentucky Derby.” To be a dual-qualifier, a horse must have a DI of 4.00 or under, and have been the highweight, or ranked within 10 pounds of the highweight, on the Experimental Free Handicap listing the previous year’s top 2-year olds, or have been a champion in another country. It was Rasmussen who developed the dual-qualifier system for the Kentucky Derby in 1984, after research showed that no Derby winner since 1929 had a DI over 4.00 or a CD over 1.25. The only horses since then to win the Derby with a dosage index over 4.00 were Strike the Gold in 1991 (whose sire, Alydar, was later classified a chef-de-race, lowering Strike the Gold’s DI from 9.00 to 2.60) and Real Quiet. No handicapping system is perfect; the dosage system, however, is the closest thing to it. To be clear: dosage index cannot tell you who will win the Kentucky Derby, but it will tell you who won’t win, even if that horse is one of the favorites.

Now for the second part of the dual-qualifier system. Remember that Triple Crown races are comprised of only 3-year old horses; therefore, 2-year old form has historically played a large part in picking Derby winners. (No Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 was unraced at 2.) This is where the Experimental rankings come in, which are based on the horse’s stakes performances as 2-year olds. Since 1972, only six Derby winners were not ranked at the top or within 10 pounds of the top of the Experimental list. Not as impressive as dosage, but close. However, when you find a horse whose DI is both under 4.00 and meets the Experimental Handicap system, you have what is called a dual-qualifier. Since 1984, six dual-qualifiers have won the Derby. Seeing as how not every Derby contains a dual-qualifier, these stats are pretty impressive. You’ll find this piece of advice and much more at the Official Call To The Derby Post Tip Sheet, but it’s worth mentioning here as well. The very first step taken in handicapping the Kentucky Derby is excluding any horse with a dosage over 4.00. The next step is to immediately give serious attention to any and all dual-qualifiers. Looking at the paybacks of some of the dual-qualifiers shows why: Ferdinand ($37.40), Sea Hero ($27.80) and Thunder Gulch ($51.00). The list of dual-qualifiers for the Derby is published in the DRF after the Experimental Handicap is released in February, and again in the DRF on the Friday before Derby Day. It can also be found at the aforementioned Official Call To The Derby Post Tip Sheet.

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