The blare of the bugle, the beat of the hooves, the cheer of the crowd—nothing quite tops the thrill of horse racing. From harness racing to thoroughbred racing, Pennsylvania offers world-class venues to bask in the glory of this sport.

That said, if you’re a Wager Warrior who’s new to the world of horse racing, placing your first bet may feel just as intimidating as riding a wild stallion.

But fear not, for within the heart of every novice bettor lies the potential to become a seasoned pro. By familiarizing yourself with the ins and outs of horse racing, you can navigate the exhilarating world of wagering with the confidence and finesse of a seasoned jockey.

Step One: Find the Betting Area

As you enter the gates, set your eyes on the betting area—the designated section of every race track where bettors can place their bets on the upcoming races. The staff there can:

  • Help you through the betting process
  • Provide odds of each horse
  • Facilitate each wager or transaction


Fan placing a bet at one of The Meadow’s betting kiosks.
Fan placing a bet at one of The Meadow’s betting kiosks.

To find this area, look for a teller’s window or a kiosk. Many race tracks also offer online wagering, in which you can use a mobile phone or desktop computer to make an account and fill out your betting slip. If you win, your account will be credited [1].

Step Two: Understand the ABCs of Betting

The most important thing to know is that horse racing utilizes a parimutuel wagering system, which essentially means that bettors wager against each other, rather than the house [1]. So, if everyone puts their money on Winged Lightning (the up-and-coming filly), and you do the same, your payout will be low if she wins.

On the other hand, if you opt to put your money on the underdog, Slow Moe, and they—despite all odds—win, your payout will be higher, since fewer bettors believed in Slow Moe’s potential.

That said, don’t feel the need to hand over all of your earnings to the teller. You can start slow with a couple of dollars until your horse-racing senses kick in. When placing your bet, you’ll need to know:

  • The dollar amount you want to bet
  • The race number
  • The horse number
  • The type of bet

To the last point, there are numerous types of bets you can wage in horse racing, but they fall under two categories: standard wagers and exotic wagers [2].


Standard Wagers

These types of bets are the golden standard of horse racing—they’ve been around from the beginning and are great for beginners, too. They’re the best option if you’re looking to bet on a single horse and typically have low minimum bet amounts [2]. They include:

  • Win bet – It’s incredibly straightforward: If you bet on the winning horse, you win. It also has the highest payoff.
  • Place bet – Uncertain that your pick will place first? A place bet holds some room for error, allowing you to cash out if your pick places in the top two.
  • Show bet – For extra security, there’s the show bet. You’ll win if your horse places first, second, or third.


Exotic Wagers

For the more experienced bettor—or the Wager Warrior looking to take a risk—there are the exotic wagers. These types of bets involve betting on two or more horses. They can all race in a single race or they may participate in multiple races. Either way, if you win, your earnings could be big.

For the single-race exotics, there are:

  • Exacta bets – To win this bet, you’ll need to pick the first two finishers—in the correct order.
  • Trifecta bets – For this bet, you’ll choose who you believe will place first, second, and third in the correct order.
  • Superfecta bets – In a superfecta bet, you must place the top four finishers in the correct order.
  • Super high-five bets – As the name suggests, you’ll place your wager on who you believe will place first, second, third, fourth, and fifth sequentially. In these types of bets, if no one wins, the money is carried over to the next race for a jackpot prize.

The multi-race exotics involve two or more consecutive races and include:

  • Daily double – You’ll need to guess the first-place winners of back-to-back races.

Pick 3, 4, 5, 6 – You’ll need to guess the first-place winners of three, four, five, or six consecutive races.

Step Three: Utilize Your Research

Once you’ve found the betting window and identified the type of wager you want to play, you’ll want to summon your horse-racing knowledge to choose the right horse—or horses.

Fan planning their betting strategy at Presque Isle Downs.
Fan planning their betting strategy at Presque Isle Downs.

That said, as a beginner, it’s perfectly acceptable to choose a horse based on its name or color, especially if you’re particularly superstitious. That said, these factors don’t guarantee success. Rather, you’ll want to conduct research prior to arriving at the horse track to identify such things as:

  • Horses’ forms
  • Horses’ pedigrees
  • Jockeys or Drivers
  • Trainers
  • Track conditions

For this, you can analyze past performance data. This is typically a record of each horse’s results, age, sex, color, owner, trainer, breeder, and pedigree. It’ll also include the horse’s running lines, which detail how well they’ve done in previous races, as well as the distance, track conditions, type of race, jockey/driver, and other factors [1].

Learn More with the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association (PHRA)

As a Wager Warrior, it’s best to start slow. As you know, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a successful betting strategy. It’s crucial to approach the world of horse racing with patience and a steady hand and first familiarize yourself with the types of bets and each horse’s performance history.

Once you’ve got a good grip, you can pick up the pace.

For more information on the world of horse racing, you can sign up with the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association to become an honorary Wager Warrior and receive free past performance reports directly to your email.

Then, chase down the next race day through our events page and racing schedules.

Embrace the thrill of racing today.


Blog Header Image: Fan grabbing a program at The Meadow’s Adios event. 





1. N, Greenberg, “A beginner’s guide to betting on horse racing,” The Washington Post, April 30, 2022. [Online], Available: [Accessed June 26, 2023].

2. Kentucky Derby, “Types of Bets.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed June 26, 2023]


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