“Yeah” or “Neigh” to Exotics in Horse Racing Betting?

Steve O Speak

With the approach of the late spring and summer, it’s boomtime for American racing, not least because of the three legs of the Triple Crown – The Kentucky Derby (May 4th), Preakness Stakes (May 18th), and Belmont Stakes (June 8th). These three races gain international attention, and they are able to draw in the casual fan and the casual bettor.

Tipsters will, of course, give their two cents on the big races, and you can find no end of predictions online. But what about going beyond picking the race winner? Many horse racing bettors will explore “exotics” as a means of beefing up the odds to something more exciting. Exotics will be offered by most sportsbooks that have horse racing betting online, particularly for big races. But what are they? And, more importantly, are they worth exploring? Let’s break it down:

What are exotics?

Exotics are basically a bet on the finishing order of a horse race. As you might imagine, it is more difficult than simply picking the race winner, so the odds tend to be much larger. There are four main types of exotic bets:

Exacta – Predicting the 1st place and 2nd place horse in a race. It must be in the exact order.

Quinella – Predicting the 1st and 2nd place in any order. The exact order does not matter.

Trifecta – Predicting the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place in order. It must be in the exact order.

Superfecta – Predicting the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place in order. It must be in the exact order.

Note that sportsbooks may do variations of these types of bets, and the nomenclature might differ depending on where you live and who you bet with. Nonetheless, you get the idea: Exotics allow you to get, well, a bit more exotic with your betting strategy.

Why bet on exotics?

In a word, bigger odds. The odds calculation will still depend on the base price of your runner, so you can create a very large accumulator if you have some long shots in there. Some have crunched the numbers for a Kentucky Derby trifecta, for example, and found that the average payout is around $7,000 for a $2 bet. In years where we have had huge longshot winners – Giacomo 2005 (72/1) and Rich Strike 2022 (80/1), the trifecta payout can be turbocharged. Even when the races have a hot favorite, the payouts can be huge for a trifecta or superfecta.

What’s the drawback?

Complicated bets are more difficult to win – period. In horse racing, generally, the favorite tends to win around 30-35% of the time. That percentage changes for different types of races, tracks, grades, when races are scheduled, and so on, but it’s a good rough number to illustrate our point. Therefore, the market is right about 30-35% of the time. When you start calculating the finishing order, the percentage chance of getting the call right becomes exponentially more improbable. Yes, it’s not impossible, but it’s tough. If you trawl through historical race data, it’s rare enough for the favorite and second favorite to finish 1 and 2, respectively, and it’s even rarer to see the three market leaders go 1, 2, and 3. That is the trade-off for the big payout.

Why do exotics remain popular?

If you reconcile the fact that it is unlikely to win but could deliver a huge payout, then you are on the right track. You can compare it to buying a lottery ticket, although thankfully, your exotics bet is much more likely to come up than your Powerball numbers. But therein lies the key: Most bettors usually place a small amount – a buck or two – on exotics and no more. That’s a good way to think about it.

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