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How to Bet the Ponies at Belmont

Two racing analysts give advice on making the most of the Belmont Stakes.

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Belmont Stakes / Courtney Heeney

I grew up in Baltimore, not far from the Pimlico Race Course. With some regularity, I attended the races with my father and a buddy of his. I was young and we were an oddball-looking group, but it worked out that twice a month we’d meet at the grandstands. After a month or so I had mastered deciphering the racing program. I knew when and how to scream at Number 3 to move his ass down the stretch. I could slam a rolled-up newspaper against the palm of my hand with the best of them. I thought this was a common thing, that horse races were something everyone attended. I was wrong.

I discovered that, outside of the Triple Crown Races, not many people frequent horse tracks. None of my friends can read a program or know what a furlong is (it’s an eighth of a mile). This is a shame, because horse racing provides some of the most exciting spectating in sports. And when taken in with the knowledge of its history and culture (read Seabiscuit if you think you have even a hint of interest in the sport), it’s among the greatest of American traditions. It’s got booze, cigars, gambling and world-class athletics. There’s nothing else this legal and this fun. And, more to the point, the sport provides among the most favorable wagers a gambler can place.

This is because wagering on a horse race in America (but not overseas) is based on parimutuel betting, which means that while racing analysts will assign early odds to a race, they are just guidelines. The actual odds, and therefore the actual payouts, will move around before a race as bets are placed. This is why horse betting is not like other gambling: you aren’t betting on something happening, like a coin flip, but rather you are betting on information. It’s an important distinction. The odds are not assigned by probability, like roulette, but on the collective opinion of the entire betting pool. So if you think you saw something or read something or (god help you) sense something that other bettors missed, you have a relative advantage.

An example of making this work in your favor: One of my favorite bets is betting on an overlooked longshot not to win, but to show (come in the top three). Maybe he only runs short races and comes in fourth or fifth each time, but he’s always surging at the end. If the current race is a bit longer, chances are some people missed this potential and he’s a relatively discounted bet.

Horse racing at its finest is seeking out those bits of information that can give you an edge. Not trying to be right, but a little more right than everyone else. In the long run, when it comes to tossing money around at the track, you are betting against the relative intelligence of the other bettors. So if you are knowledgable, confident and a little arrogant, it’s the perfect sport for you.

Below, two racing analysts, one from Pimlico, home of the Preakness, and one from Belmont, home of the Belmont Stakes, answer a few questions to help those looking to bet the ponies at the Belmont this year. Their expertise will arm you with enough know-how to gamble better and get the full horse racing experience this Saturday, which will likely include ripping up your losing tickets and swearing you’ll never gamble on a race again.

Meet Our Experts

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Dave Liftin (left) is a 26-year-vetean racing handicapper for the Daily Racing Form in New York and the author of Dave Litfin’s Expert Handicapping. Gabby Gaudet (right) is a TV host, reporter and racing analyst at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park.

Q: Can you provide some tips for first-time racing fans?

Gabby Gaudet: Get in the action as much as possible. Go down to paddock, go see the horses in the flesh. Go down to the apron and go to the rail see the finish line! Get as close as possible. It’s such an exciting sport if you get closer to the action. If you aren’t a bettor it pays to go see them in the flesh. I think humans can point out a happy, healthy looking horse in a paddock. Are they on their toes? Does their coat look well? Physical handicapping is huge. And ask questions. There are people there that will help you understand how to read the racing form. It’s not as intimidating as it seems once you make that first step.
Dave Liftin: Bet early, as lines can be long on big­ race days, and there may be inexperienced bettors ahead of you that can delay things. The proper order for calling your bets to the clerk at the mutuel window are: amount, type of bet and horse, as in “$20 to win on the 3,” or, “$10 across the board on the 5.” Remember that wi-fi, while available at the track, can be slow when so many people are using the same network.

Weather permitting, consider packing the fixings for a picnic, as Belmont’s picturesque backyard area is one of the best­-kept secrets in the area. Try to arrive early, and if at all possible, consider using mass transit to and from the track. The Long Island Railroad from Penn Station is very convenient. When leaving, have patience, because it may take a while whether by car, bus or train. There are eight other graded stakes to be run on Belmont Stakes day as well, so make sure to budget accordingly; it’s a long day!

Q: What is the “most interesting/notable” wager for readers to make in the following three categories: the safe bet, the risk taker and the long shot lottery.

GG: So I guess this goes back and forth between the most well-known and the safest. Betting a horse “to win” is not the safest, but it is the most well known. It’s the least intimidating way for a new fan to get into the ring. One of the safest bets is the win/place/show. However, if it’s not a long shot you won’t win a lot of money going that route.

The bet in between safe and risky is betting three horses and boxing them in an exacta. It’s my favorite. They can finish first and second in any way. So that’s kind of a safe bet, and it’s also a fun bet since you can make a lot of money. Straight exactas are pretty popular bets as well.

Then the riskier bet is the multi-race wagers: the pick four, the pick five and, newly, the pick six. That’s really taken off, especially at Santa Anita and Gulf Stream. Even in New York. It’s an intimidating bet but essentially you are just picking the horses you’d like to see win in six races. It’s fun to see what races you’re more confident about and least confident about and structure your ticket accordingly. It’s the riskiest but also a lot of fun.

DL: Let’s try the risk­/reward scale this way: Low risk is­ “across the board” (win­/place/­show); some added risk ­is the exacta (picking first two finishers in order) or the daily double (pick the winner of two consecutive races); more risk is the­ trifecta (first three finishers in order), or pick three (three straight winners); riskier still is the­ Superfecta (first four in order), or the pick four; extreme risk ­is pick five and pick six.

I think the lower­-risk wagers are suitable for those who are relatively unfamiliar with the game, and perhaps attend the races once or twice a year on big­ event days. Consider mixing in some spice to the lowest ­risk bet by running a show parlay. Your horse need only finish among the top three, and then you reinvest the proceeds on the next race, and so on. If you get a handful of logical­-looking contenders in the money, and you “let it ride” each time, the winnings can add up; if the streak ends at some point, the initial outlay is all that has been lost.

Q: Lastly, what was the most memorable race you saw recently? What happened? This is to give an example of what can happen during a horserace, since I think people misunderstand just how unpredictable they are.

GG: The most recent example was Old Ben’s Cat. He ran on Black Eyed Susan Day. You don’t often see horses come back when they are eight, nine or ten years old. He came back at ten years. He’s a remarkable animal. He won the first race after his layoff and the second time it looked like he was beaten a few strides out, but he found a seam and won just under the wire. It’s on YouTube, they are at the quarter pole and this horse makes a right-hand turn and goes to the inside. I saw that live in the flesh, and I’m thinking to myself, where is this horse going to go? And then he won the race. It was insane.
DL: The most memorable race I’ve seen in the past year was American Pharaoh’s Belmont Stakes, because it made him the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. Overall, readers should bear in mind there are an infinite number of ways for a horse to lose any given race, but only one way to win. I’ve seen horses jump the inside rail in the stretch while seemingly home­ free, and wind up in the infield lake; I’ve seen a race declared “no contest” when an alligator could not be removed from the turf course in time (in Florida); and so on and so forth.

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