We all have grand dreams of winning big on a champion horse during a heart-pumping day at the races. The thunderous bouncing of hooves down the final furlong, the exact second when your pick pulls ahead and the joyful moment you cash in your ticket—you’ve probably played the superb scenario over in your head dozens of times.

But, before you can take home your winnings and tell your tale of equine triumph, you need to understand a bit about betting. Knowing how to read odds and pick a contender are two crucial steps everyone must learn if they want to rein supreme during a day at the races.

How to Read Odds at the Track

When you first reach the betting area of your preferred horse racing track, you’ll immediately be immersed in a fast-paced, revelrous atmosphere. Seasoned pros may be checking the odds, chatting about picks with other regulars, or quizzing the staff about conditions.

In the midst of all this excitement, you’ll want to focus your energy on finding a program or the screens that list the odds for the next race. They should be easy enough to spot and, upon finding one, you’ll likely be met with a series of charts displaying the odds for three potential types of standard wagers [1]:

  • Win – A win bet, as the name suggests, is wagered upon a horse that the bettor thinks will come first in the race.
  • Place – When you wager on a horse to place, you’re betting that it will come in either first or second.
  • Show – Finally, if you think a horse has a strong chance but ultimately aren’t convinced it’ll outpace all the other contestants, a safer show bet pays out if your pick takes any of the top three positions.

These bets are generally placed on a single horse. The odds for each pick will correspond to its popularity and the bet you choose to place. Regardless of the type of bet you choose, however, the odds will be written in the same style across all three tables.

Take, for instance, this sample field for a fictional win bet:

  • Pennsylvania Pride – 2/1
  • Steel Town Stampeder – 5/2
  • Keystone King – 4/1
  • Coal State Cannonball – 10/1

As you can see, horse racing, unlike most other forms of sports betting, uses fractional odds. These uneven numbers tell us two key pieces of information [2]:

  • The forecasted chances of each horse winning
  • The payout for those who bet correctly

To more clearly understand what each number conveys, let’s break things down by the type of information we’re after.


At American horse racing tracks, gambling follows a pari-mutuel system. That means odds are decided by popularity and the horse with the most bets placed on it is given the highest chance of winning [2].

While, technically, fractional odds do tell you the crowd favorite at a glance, they’re not as easy to read as whole numbers. So, to quickly surmise who’s at the top of the field, simply convert the fractions. For Pennsylvania Pride, that looks like:

  • 2 ÷ 1 = 2

Fairly simple and, when you convert the entire field it looks like this:

  • Pennsylvania Pride – 2
  • Steel Town Stampeder – 2.5
  • Keystone King – 4
  • Coal State Cannonball – 10

The crowd favorite is the competitor with the lowest number after converting the odds—so, in this case, Pennsylvania Pride.

Why the lowest? Because these figures also determine winners’ payouts, as well.


Fans getting ready for the action at Penn National Race Course.
Fans getting ready for the action at Penn National Race Course.



As mentioned, fractional odds not only clue bettors into a horse’s chances of winning but also tell you how much money you’ll win if you pick correctly. Payouts are in line with each horse’s odds and winners always receive their initial bet back in addition to their winnings.

To calculate potential payouts, let’s use our fast, fictional friend Pennsylvania Pride and her converted fractional odds once more. To keep things simple, let’s assume a small $2 bet:

  • 2 (bet amount) x 2 (odds) = 4 (winnings)
  • 4 (winnings) + 2 (initial wager) = 6
  • Total Payout= $6

So, for a two-dollar bet at 2/1 odds, you’ll take home four dollars of profit, plus the original two you wagered. If we take that same bet and apply it to the whole field, the potential winnings are:

  • Pennsylvania Pride – $6
  • Steel Town Stampeder – $7
  • Keystone King – $10
  • Coal State Cannonball – $22

As you can see, Coal State Cannonball has the highest potential payout—which is no surprise, as he’s also the least favored to win his race. Whether you play singular win, place, or show bets, the payouts are always based on their fractional odds.

Once you start betting on multiple horses, however, the odds become more difficult to calculate.

Exotic Wagers

It’s possible to pick multiple horses in a single race in what’s known as an exotic wager. These can take many different forms that each have their own rules, including [1]:

  • Exacta bets – Bettors win these wagers by picking the first two racers in the right order.
  • Trifecta bets – These are like exactas, but you must pick first, second and third to win.
  • Superfecta – If you manage to pick the first four horses in the right order, you’ll conquer this coveted wager.

If you do decide to place an exotic wager, consider that each horse you add decreases your overall probability of winning. While the exact odds will vary based on your own picks, it’s important to remember that, while the chances may go down, your overall payout rises significantly during exotic wagers.

How to Pick a Winner

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. In much the same way, you can explain odds to a new bettor, but you can’t tell them how to wager their money.

Even longtime racing fanatics will tell you opinions are split when it comes to choosing a champion. Some stick to the favorites, which generally win around 35% of the time [2]. Others consider many factors such as the weather, venue, and horse’s history before making a selection. Meanwhile, some simply pick a contender based on their name.

How you bet is up to you—but understanding the odds will certainly help you choose!

The Wager Warrior is here to help!

Become a Wager Warrior and Place Your Bets with the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association

If you’re trying to dip a hoof (or dive facefirst) into the world of horse racing in Pennsylvania, then look no further than the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association (PHRA).

We have a full schedule of exciting events for newbies and seasoned veterans alike. Come to any of our world-class venues and try your hand at placing a bet—and, if you can’t get enough of the exhilarating action, become a Wager Warrior to stay up to speed on everything the sport has to offer.

Whether you bet on the favorites or back an unlikely champion, fantastic times await at any PHRA track!



[1] “RACING 101: HOW TO PLACE YOUR FIRST BET.” Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association. [Online] Available: https://pennhorseracing.com/. [Accessed August 21, 2023]

[2] “How to bet on Horse Racing: Complete guide to Horse Betting Online.” New York Post. August 1, 2023. [Online] Available: https://nypost.com/. [Accessed August 21, 2023]


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