Chicago Bar Project Guide to Horse racing

May 2 at Fizz: Kentucky Derby party to benefit Children’s Memorial Hospital

Planning your annual visit to beautiful Arlington Park Racetrack or one of the more adventurous racing venues like Balmoral Park (Crete), Hawthorne Race Course (Cicero), or Maywood Park? Looking for an off-track betting (OTB) facility to lay a few bucks on the Kentucky Derby? Just bored? Whatever the case, before you throw some good money at some bad ponies there are a few basic terms you should know. This guide won’t make you a turf-side natural, but at least you can act like one.

  • Arlington Park Racetrack

  • Maywood Park

Basic Horseracing Terms

Pari-Mutuel Wagering

From the French for “among ourselves,” pari-mutuel wagering means the track itself has no interest in the outcome of the races. They simply act as the agent to hold all the wagers and payout the winners accordingly. The track makes its money by keeping a predetermined cut from the pool of all wagers, known in other gambling parlance as the “vig” or the vigorous. Remark: This is a good thing. Otherwise horseracing would have no more credibility than professional wrestling or professional boxing for that matter.


I don’t really need to explain this, do I?


I.e. 2nd place. “Hey, I made a Place bet, but the stupid horse ending up winning.” Remark: A Place bet pays for either a 1st or 2nd place finish, but the amount paid is based on the place odds, explained below.


I.e. 3rd place. See above.

Across the Board

To place three separate bets on a horse to Win, Place and Show. Nothing shows your confidence, or lack thereof, like an across the board bet.

Daily Double

Selecting the winners of 2 consecutive races. Remark: Not as difficult as it sounds if there are a couple of overwhelming favorites running back-to-back.


Selecting the first two finishers of a single race in exact order.


Selecting the first two finishers of a single race in either order. Doubles the odds over an Exacta, but payouts are subsequently lower.


Selecting the first three finishers of a single race in exact order. Remark: Yea, and buy some Lotto tickets while you’re at it.


Selecting the first four finishers of a single race in exact order. Remark: Even Nostradamus had trouble with these.

Boxing a Wager

To wager on all winning combinations for a single bet. So, boxing an exacta (two horses) requires two separate bets, a trifecta (three horses) requires 6 bets. Remark: These act as a hedge against all possible outcomes, but the cost of these bets can add up. Boxing a $2 trifecta will cost you $12.


Odds reflect the amount of money wagered on a given horse, not necessarily the chances that horse will win. Remark: The initial betting line is designed to spread the wagering among all horses. That’s why putting $5 on a 6:5 favorite is barely worth the effort of going to the window. Chances an 80:1 long-shot will win are slim, but upsets can and do happen and the rewards can be great.


Payouts are based on the odds finalized at a race’s post-time. Though you may have placed your bet on a horse when it was 10:1, those odds can change until betting is closed. Example – A 2:1 favorite would payout the following on a $2 bet: $6.00, $3.40, 2.80. (Remember: in this scenario $2 of your payout is the $2 you originally bet.)

Box and Wheel a Trifecta

Dear lord, this is a beginner’s guide. If you’re intrigued by this bet, please call 1-800-Gambler immediately.

General Tips

How to Place a Bet

  1. Track name (all race courses take wagers on multiple tracks via OTB)
  2. Race #
  3. Amount of bet
  4. Type of Bet
  5. Program # of the horse (aka that colored, numbered sash the horses wear)

Example: Arlington Park, Race #4, $5 to win on #3. (Never, ever use the horse’s actually name when betting, unless you enjoy being laughed at.)

Racing Form

Sold separately upon admission, the racing form is essential for general betting information. The racing form contains enough data to make a seasoned track degenerate go cross-eyed, so focus in on a few key details for each horse.

  • Jockey – More essential than it sounds, considering they’re called horse races, not jockey races. Every racetrack has 1 or 2 all-star jockeys, who seem to win a disproportionate amount of the time. Bet on the horses they ride, regardless of the odds, and you may find yourself on the winning end of a long-shot or two.
  • Recent Results – Results of the last five races will be listed for each horse. Finishes in the money (win, place, show) will appear in bold print. If the horse you like hasn’t finished better than 7th in their last 5 races, why do you think their fortunes will change now?
  • Distance – Watch for horses moving up or down to new distances. Some horses are sprinters, some are distance runners. Just because a horse is a good miler, doesn’t mean they will fare as well at longer or shorter tracks.

Tip Sheets

Sometimes called tout sheets, tip sheets are sold separately from the racing form and are like weathermen: they’re wrong more often than not, but they can probably do a better job than you can.

Baseless Beginner’s Strategy

Betting the favorites always seems like the safe way to go, but you’ll have to throw down some serious coin to realize a decent payout. If you simply like the thrill of winning once in a while, stick with these bets.

Alternately, bet $2-3 on each race’s long-shot to Show. The odds are long, but if just one of these plodders comes in the money you’ll likely pay for the entire day’s wagers with enough left over for a round of drinks. Should you lose them all—which is a distinct possibility—you’re only out $20 for a day’s entertainment.

If all else fails, bet on the horse whose name has some fleeting relevance to something in your life. As the multitudes of crumpled betting slips on the floor can attest, there is no fool-proof “system” for betting on horses, though many fools will offer you proof otherwise.

So, enjoy the excitement. Enjoy the rush. And remember: the beer tastes the same whether you win or lose.