Horse betting – an exacta science

A little advice for gambling novices who caught the bug at the Preakness

May 23, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

Certainly, by now, there are more exotic bets than the exacta, but none that seem to be both practical (if anything in the world of betting can be considered practical) and exciting, especially to the pari-mutuel tourist. I hit my first exacta in 1978, and my latest in Saturday's Preakness.

I'm no expert, and I've lost plenty of bets over the years. But exacta wins make you forget about the losses. Indeed, scoring $114.80 on a modest bet carries a lingering sweetness. Plus, you get bragging rights from having picked the two top finishers in a big horse race.

I'm sure hitting a $2 trifecta is absolutely thrilling: If you picked the 5-11-1 finish in the 136th Preakness, you made $1,401.80. And if you managed to nail Pimlico's superfecta in the big race, picking the top four finishers, the payoff was $3,106.30.

It would be sweet to make such a score at any track, any day.

But if you're new to this game and bet on a budget, which goes for about 100,000 of the 107,000 who were at Pimlico on Saturday, then the good ol' exacta is perfect — a mildly exotic, "practical" bet from which the intermittent gambler should not shrink. By "practical," I mean there's some logic behind the bet, and your investment is minimal.

To win an exacta, you have to pick the top two finishers in order. That costs you $2. For $4, you can play your picks in a "box," which means you're playing both combinations — for instance, 5-11 or 11-5. Betting various combinations in multiple exactas is cool; it increases your chances of winning. But it also increases the chances that the payoff won't cover what you've wagered.

So I usually only bet one or two exactas in a race.

I look for a heavy favorite in combination with a horse with much higher odds. A horse that goes off at 2-1, combined with one that goes off at 12-1 or 14-1, can mean a handsome payoff for a $2 bet. I look at what the oddsmakers say. I look at the charts. Most of all, I look at the tote board to see wagering trends; they tell you what the true experts are thinking as the jockeys mount up. If a horse improves from 12-1 to 6-1 odds, while the favorite remains at 2-1 or 5-2, I go with that combination. This is not a perfect system — relying on the handicapping skill of strangers — but it's worked for me.

When I have more time to study past performances of the ponies, I go against the other bettors. At Pimlico, I prefer the horse with a decent record, and who sits at 10-1 or 12-1 odds with a few minutes before post time. I like to match him up with the favorite. It's more risky, but there's a potential for greater reward.

And that's my point: Do you want to play $2 for a horse to win for a payoff of $3.20, or would you rather try an exacta and take a shot at 10 times that?

I'm a realist. I have fairly modest ambitions when it comes to gambling. But I like exactas because they usually offer a little more than straight-ahead bets. I've won exactas ranging from $16 to $54 to $200-plus.

What I do is pretty simple: Identify the two horses in the field that might challenge and even beat the favorite and match them up with that favorite in exacta bets.

Animal Kingdom, the No. 11 horse, won the Kentucky Derby and was the favorite in the Preakness. He was 2-1 in the morning line. Shackleford, the No. 5 horse, went off at 12-1, and Dance City, the No. 8 horse, was 12-1. So I bet those combinations in a box: 11-5, both ways, and 11-8, both ways. That cost me $8, and I knew if those odds held, the payoff could be quite nice.

Saturday, the combination of Shackleford's victory and Animal Kingdom's second-place finish gave exacta bettors a payoff of $114.80.

That's a very satisfying payoff for any pari-mutuel tourist.

I realize that the 2011 Preakness is past tense, and that I should have expounded on this subject before the big race. But it's always easier to give betting advice after you've won a few bucks. So mark my words, and clip-and-save for them for next year.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His email is

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