When people go to the race track, the goal is to pick a few winners and to be walking away at the end of the day with a profit in their pocket on their wagers. One of the best ways to make sure this happens is to bet smart, and betting smart always means considering the race favorites when putting together a ticket.

“Morning Line” Odds at the Horse Races

For people who don’t regularly follow horse racing, it may appear that all horses in a race are basically equal, and that’s often the way they will make their bets. There’s nothing wrong with having a fun day at the races and picking horses by your favorite number, or favorite color of silks, or simply because you like the name of the horse. And you may even win a few bets along the way.

But essentially, you’re relying on pure luck, and while everyone needs a bit of luck at the races, handicappers know you can make your own luck by understanding the odds and using favorites in your bets to give yourself a better chance of cashing tickets.

In the North American pari-mutual wagering system, all the money bet on a race goes into a “mutual” pool, and the amount bet on each horse in that pool determines the odds – the horse that takes the most money to win is the favorite in the race. Prior to the races being run, the oddsmaker at each track will assign the horses in every race with what is known as the “morning line” odds, and these become the starting point that bettors use as a handicapping guide.

If you spend a lot of time at the races, you come to realize the odds don’t often change too much once the betting begins on the two or three favorites in the race. This is because the oddsmakers and regular handicappers know their stuff, and based on the horses’ past performance, typically have a very good idea which are the best horses in the race.

Favorites and Winning Percentages

This is all to say that the betting odds at post time for a race are not just some random guess, and therefore need to be very seriously considered when you’re making your bets.

  • The long-held conventional wisdom is that favorites win roughly 33% of the races, and finish in the top three roughly 66% of the time. We can test this theory by looking at the results from a couple different track on the same day of racing.

Gulfstream Park Favorites

First up, we look at Florida’s Gulfstream Park on Saturday, March 24th. There were 13 races on the day, and in those races, the post-time favorite won five times, or just over 38% of the races. The favorite also finished second or third four times, for an in-the-money percentage of 69% – almost exactly what the conventional wisdom suggests. 

At the same time, the second favorite in the race won four times (31%) and finished second or third four times for another 31%. In fact, of the 13 races, the first or second favorites combined finished in the money in 12 of the 13 races, or 92% of the time.

If you were concentrating your bets in the top two horses in every race that day, you were all but gauranteed to walk away a with a positive return on your investment.

Santa Anita Race Track Favorites

To expand the sample, size, we’ll look at the other side of the country on the same day at Santa Anita Race Track in California. On that day Santa Anita hosted 10 races, and in those races the favorite won four races (40%) and was second or third three other times, for a combined in-the-money finish of 70%. At the same time, the second favorite won twice (20%) and ran second four other times, to finish in the money in 60% of the races. Combined, the first or second favorite won 60% of the races, and finished in the money 80% of the time. 

While this is admittedly a small sample size, the above information seems to demonstrate two things. One is that the oddsmakers and the betting public clearly have a solid idea of which are the best horses in the race, indicated by the fact the horses that were bet the most, won the most. The second is that, like the odds, the 33% – 66% has some basis in fact, and like the odds, they aren’t numbers that are pulled out of thin air, but have a solid historical basis. 

Of course, the problem with betting favorites is that they don’t return a huge amount of money on a straight bet. A 2-1 favorite that wins will return $6 on a $2 wager. But looking at this as a negative is the wrong idea, and one of the biggest mistakes that new bettors often make.

While it’s exciting to pick a big long shot winner and cash a $50 ticket on a $2 bet, it takes a lot of fun out of the day to be betting long shot after long shot all day long and losing race after race. The idea is to leave the track at the end of the day with a positive return, and it’s better to be cashing tickets five or six times on a 10-race card than it is to be cashing once. 

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Using Favorites on Your Bets

That being said, here are a few ways to boost your return when betting favorites.

Bet the favorite to Win and Place. On the above day at Gulfstream, this would have resulted in cashing tickets in eight of the 13 races. Five times you would have collected both the Win and Place money, and three times you would have collected the Place money only.

At the end of the day, you would have been up $8.50. Sure, that doesn’t seem like much, but it accomplishes the goal of winning more than you lose. And remember, this is an example based on only betting a $2 W-P ticket ($4 total) in every race. If you were betting $10 W-P tickets, your return at the end of the day would have been $42.50.

The reason you bet to Win and Place rather than just Win is that a combined WP payout goes a long way toward covering the races where you don’t cash at all.

If you were only betting $2 to Win on all of the Gulfstream races, you would have cashed a ticket five times, but would have outright lost your $2 eight times, and at the end of the day your profit would have only been $1.90 as opposed to $8.50. 

Bet the second favorite to win or place. On Gulfstream on that Saturday, this would have resulted in you making a net profit of $28 on a $2 W-P bet on all 13 races, or, again, $140 if you were betting $10 W-P. It’s significantly more money than in the first option, because the second favorite pays out higher than the favorite for a win. But keep in mind it’s a riskier bet, because the percentages indicate the favorite will win more often.

Put the first or second favorite in an excacta box with another horse in the race that you like. Over the years, this is the bet we’ve most often recommended to newbies at the track, because it allows you to have fun picking whatever horse you like, but also follows common handicapping sense in including the favorite in the bet.

One of the most satisfying – and lucrative – wins at the track is to bet a 5-1 or 6-1 horse to win and place, and also put that horse in an exacta box with the favorite. If your horse wins and the favorite runs second, you collect the win money, the place money and the higher exacta payout – that’s a big score. If the favorite wins and your horse runs second, you collect the Place money and the smaller exacta payout, not as big, but a positive payout nonetheless.   

The bottom line to all of this is that new handicappers that ignore favorites and always try swinging for the fences with big long shots do so at their peril. There is a good reason that favorites are favorites, and that is the professional oddsmakers and regular handicappers who closely follow all the horses in the race know that, all things being equal, based on the horses' previous performance, their form, their pedigree and the expected pace setup of the race, certain horses are more likely to win. In other words, favorites are favorites for a reason and often a very smart bet.