How Well do Horse Racing Favorites Perform?

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by Rich Nilsen

The wagering public has been pretty amazing over the years. Historically, the betting choice, a.k.a. the favorite, has hit the Winner’s Circle at tracks all over the country at a fairly consistent 32% success rate. However, over the past decade or so I noticed that this rate continued to creep up. No doubt, smaller fields have played a significant role in this increase. The bottom line is that the widely used 32% win rate for favorites is inaccurate by as much as 10% (35 vs 32 percent).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am the first guy who will be quick to bet against the favorite. In fact, that is what I am looking to do every time I handicap a race.

Here are the average win rates for the wagering public’s favorite, on average, at racetracks across the nation:

Favorites Win 35% of the time

Favorites Place (run 1st or 2nd) 55% of the time

Favorites Show (run 1st, 2nd or 3rd) 69% of the time

Consider these numbers the next time you place a horse racing wager! If you are playing a trifecta wager, for example, where you have to pick the top 3 finishers in order, is it wise to just toss the favorite with no regard to the percentages? Considering that the typical favorite hits the board (show) nearly 70% of the time, the answer in most cases may be a resounding “no!”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am the first guy who will be quick to bet against the favorite. In fact, that is what I am looking to do every time I handicap a race. However, I like to think that I am not stupid (no witty comments please). I realize that the favorite in most races stands an excellent chance of hitting the board. For that reason, I will often “use” the public choice in my wagers – somewhere – even if I am betting against him. It’s not just an insurance play. It’s playing the percentages, and as a “numbers” guy, that is what I am about.

A good example is the trifecta wager. Let’s say you don’t like the favorite. You are playing against him to win. However, realizing this horse could very well “hit the board” the wise thing is to include him underneath in the trifecta bet.

This is a prime reason why “boxing” horses in a trifecta is usually not a good idea. If you don’t like the favorite to win, then don’t use him in a box, where, in essence, you are including him in the win hole of the trifecta wager. Otherwise, you would not be playing against him.

Post Parade Gulfstream Park maiden race

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This year’s Donn Handicap [2012] was an excellent betting race, a great event to wager on the trifecta if you had an opinion. My top two choices in this field were Trickmeister and Hymn Book. I did not particularly care for Preakness winner Shackleford, but I realized that he could certainly be in the money, especially if he got loose on the lead.

With a full, competitive field of stakes runners, this was just the type of situation where you would hate to be right about one of your top choices (marked as A, B runners) but miss the trifecta because you tossed the favorite.

Hymn Book (A) and Trickmeister (B) were both square prices at 6-1 and 4-1, respectively. My (C) and (D) horses were Mission Impazible and Flat Out.

In this race I honestly felt any of the 11 runners could run third. When you are presented with a race like this, it is imperative to use the “ALL” button in the third slot. The approach with this type of race is to key around your top choices, and play a partwheel similar to the one presented below:

A, B with

A, B, C, D with

ALL

Total cost for this Trifecta: $108 based on a $2 base wager. The trifecta is calculated as follows: 2 horses x 3 horses (four minus one) x remaining horses, which in this case is 9 (11 minus two). Players with a larger bankroll could then reverse the 2nd and 3rd slot of the Trifecta for $1 for an additional $54 bet:

A, B with

ALL with

A, B, C, D

The idea behind the second ticket would be a form of protection in the event a longshot – or, even the favorite – got up for the Place spot.

Alhough the favorite, Shackleford, failed to hit the board in the Donn Handicap, I was protected with this wager in the event he did [provided, of course, that he didn’t win].

Hymn Book (6/1) defeated Mission Impazible (8/1) in a real thriller, as Redeemed (8/1) finished third. The $2 trifecta payoff returned a lucrative $1,296. Even if Shackleford had finished in the money, the trifecta still would have been a nice payoff because of the competitive nature of the field.

Imagine if my top two choices, Hymn Book and Trickmeister, had run one-two and Shackleford had ruined my trifecta? If I absolutely hated the favorite and completely tossed him from the wager, that would be a different story. But that wasn’t the case here. Shackleford was the deserving [lukewarm] favorite in this field. That didn’t mean I had to like him.

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About Editor

Rich Nilsen is a 12-time qualifier to the National Handicapping Championship (NHC), an event he has cashed in four times. He was the first player to finish in the top 10 twice. He recently won a $24,000 package into the 2016 Kentucky Derby Betting Championship. A former executive with Brisnet.com, Rich is also a graduate of the University of Louisville Equine Business Program. He is founder of AGameofSkill.com, a site devoted to horse racing education and promotion.

Comments

  1. Will you share your 5 favorite price horses in Fri and Sat BC races? Ifully understand there are no gurantees and many variables in races, so any misses will be understood.
    Taking wife to watch and bet BC this weekend (simulcast outlet) and would like to make it enjoyable aka winning.
    Thank you.

  2. Joseph V says:

    Thanks for a great post on horse racing! Love this site.

  3. Excellent way of explaining, and nice piece of writing to take information on the topic of my
    presentation focus, which i am going to deliver in sports academy.

  4. Hi, in 2012 you said that: Favorites Win 35% of the time,
    Favorites Place (run 1st or 2nd) 55% of the time,
    Favorites Show (run 1st, 2nd or 3rd) 69% of the time.
    Does this still hold true today in 2017?
    Any comments appreciated

    • As a whole this hasn’t changed much, Russell. If field sizes shrink, then naturally those percentage inch up. Of course, every track is different too.

  5. MoMuny says:

    i am considering wagering on the second favorite to show. If I play 20 races each day what are my odds and percentage of profitability?

  6. I don’t know the exact percentages off the top of my head, but most importantly, you’ll lose money guaranteed.

  7. John Arnold says:

    I figure that the second favorite will pay an average of $3.00 to dollars to show. This value can go up to around $4.00 when the favorite misses the board or as low as $2.20 when the show polls are flopped one way. So theoretically u need to win about 15-17 of your 20 races to profit not high %!

  8. And that is extremely difficult to accomplish, John.

Trackbacks

  1. 'Show' Me the Value: Supplement Your Bankroll | Thoroughbred Racing Dudes says:

    […] Moth race, you could expect a long-term return of 24.2% with the assumption that the favorite is in the money at 69% of the time.  For those math gurus out there, the expectation expression calculated with these probabilities […]

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