A day at the track always more enjoyable if you know how it works

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Whether it’s thoroughbred or harness racing, a day at the races can be far more enjoyable if you know the best, the odds ... last but not least, how to pick ‘em. | FILE PHOTO

When it comes to enjoying a day at the races, there’s a style for everyone, expert and newbie alike.

Take a look around, whether you’re at a thoroughbred track with jockeys aboard the horses’ backs or the harness races with a driver in a two-wheeled sulky behind. You’ll find veteran horseplayers studying intently, as they weigh the past performances of horses, jockeys and trainers, the type of race and caliber of competition, the weather and more.

Others will be checking out the opinions of handicappers in print or online, trying to sort out the likely winners. Some just play hunches, betting names or lucky numbers.

But any novice can have fun at a price as low as $2 a race without getting too deep into handicapping themselves.

One thing first-timers need to understand is that wagering on the horses is parimutuel. Each winning bet is paid according to the share of the betting pool wagered on that outcome. The odds are constantly changing, and are displayed on a big board at the center of the track as well as on video screens around the facility.

There are as many ways to bet a race as there are styles in picking the horses. You can bet individual horses to win, place or show ... that is, to finish first, second or third. You can bet on combinations of horses to finish 1-2 or 1-2-3 in the same race, or on horses to win consecutive races.

The combinations are harder to pick and usually have longer odds and higher payoffs than the one-race bets. For a racing newcomer, it starts with knowing what bets are available and how to make them. Here are some of the basics:

Win, place and show: These are the basics, the one-horse wagers. You pick your horse, go to the window or to the video betting terminal, and make your bet. When making your bet, always refer to the horse by the number listed in the track program. If you’ve picked the No. 1 horse in the first race and want to make a $2 bet to win, you tell the clerk at the betting window, “First race, number 1, $2 to win.”

Easy enough, right?

If you bet the horse to place instead, you win if the horse finishes either first or second. And if you bet the horse to show, you win if he finishes first, second or third. Payoffs almost always are lower on show bets than on place bets, and lower to place than to win. That’s the tradeoff for winning more often when you bet to place or show.

Exacta, perfecta, quinella: Exacta and perfect are different terminology for the same bet. It just depends on what the track wants to call it. You’re picking two horses, one to finish first and one to finish second, in the exact order. Tell the clerk, “$2 exacta, 1-2,” and you’ll win if the 1 horse finishes first and the 2 horse finishes second.

A quinella also is a two-horse bet, but you win if your horses finish first and second in either order. Not every track offers a quinella, but you can get the same effect with an “exacta box.” If you ask for, “$1 exacta box, 1-2,” you hand over $2 get a $1 exacta on the horses finishing 1-2, and another on the horses finishing 2-1. If your combo comes in, you get half the $2 exacta payoff. If you want to go for the full pay, then you need to ask for a $2 exacta box, and that’ll cost you $4.

Some bettors include more than two horses in the box. Just understand that increases the number of possible combinations, and so also increases the overall bet size.

Trifecta: One step beyond an exacta, the trifecta is a three-horse bet, and the three horses you pick have to finish in exact order. Bet “$2 trifecta, 1-2-3,” and you win only if the 1 horse finishes first, the 2 second and the 3 third.

Like the exacta, the trifecta can be boxed. A $1 trifecta box will cost you $6 and give you half the trifecta payoff if your horses finish first, second and third in any order. Also like the exacta, including more horses in a box costs more money.

You’ll occasionally also see a “superfecta” offered. That asks you to pick the first four horses, in order. Payoffs can be enormous. So is the degree of difficulty.

Daily double: A two-race bet, the daily double asks bettors to pick consecutive winners. If the track has a daily double on the first and second races, telling the clerk, “$2 double, 1-2” gets you a $2 bet if the 1 horse wins the first race, then the 2 horse wins the second race.

Some tracks offer multiple doubles over the course of a day. Check the track program to be sure.

The daily double has spawned other multi-race bets, such as the pick 3, challenging you to pick winners of three consecutive races, pick 4, pick 5 and on up the ladder.

Even for a first-timer, walking in to the track for a day at the races becomes a much more enjoyable experience knowing the basics.