Horse racing is an ancient sport with a rich history dating back thousands of years. For as long as horses have been domesticated, people have been racing them. The tradition continues today, with major horse racing events held regularly around the world.
In the United States in particular, you can find horse racing tracks in most states. And of course, where there is competition, there will be people betting on the outcome. Up until recently, all horse racing betting took place at the track. The internet has changed everything and now people can just as easily place real money wagers online.
One of the nice things about online horse racing is that you can bet on races that take place around the country. If you live on the West Coast and want to bet on a race that is taking place on the East Coast, that’s no problem. Internet betting brings the action to you.
The best part of all is that it’s all legal. Most states in the USA permit online horse race betting. So as long as you don’t live in one of the few restricted states, you can bet to your heart’s content. You can even watch the races live on your computer and see how your bets pan out in real time.
Of the racebook sites listed on this page, all operate in compliance with the law in the United States. You don’t have to visit offshore betting sites to bet on horses. Sites we recommend are all licensed and regulated to do business in the US.
The Legality of Online Horse Racing
Online horse racing betting is legal in most states in the United States. Horse and greyhound racing both received specific exemptions from anti-gambling prohibition that was passed at the federal level in 2006.
A few states have opted out of online horse betting, but most Americans are free to bet on horses all they want. You can see the chart below for a list states that allow online horse betting, and those which DO NOT allow online wagering. If you live in one of those states, you’ll have to visit a track in person, or use an approved off track facility. Everyone else is welcome to join up and wager at licensed and regulated online racebooks.
Why is online horse racing betting legal in the United States?
Online gambling law is murky and convoluted, but the general agreement is that most forms of gambling, betting and poker are outlawed. The Wire Act of 1961 was used as the basis for anti-gambling enforcement, and then the UIGEA of 2006 further reinforced that line of thought.
Horse racing in particular has receive two notable exceptions in federal law. First was the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 (IHA). Although the IHA was written well before the advent of the internet, it has played an instrumental role in giving us legal online horse racing betting today.
In short, the IHA made it legal to place interstate wagers on horse races as long as such betting is permitted in both states. This piece of legislation is why off-track betting parlors (OTBs) located in one state may accept wagers on races taking place in a different state. Back when the IHA was written, it was with OTBs in mind.
Legislators updated the Interstate Horseracing Act in 2000 with a minor change to the definition of an “interstate off-track wager” to include the words “or other electronic media.” This opened the door for legal online horse racing betting.
The second major exemption for horse racing came in 2006. That year, Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) in an effort to crack down on illegal online gambling. The UIGEA basically made it illegal for banks and other financial entities to do business with offshore gambling sites. This didn’t technically make it illegal for citizens to place bets online, but it instead made it very difficult to move money to and from betting sites.
However, horse and greyhound racing received specific exemptions from the UIGEA. It was a bit of a controversy at the time, but several senators managed to ensure carve-outs for racing betting. This set up the framework for the system we have today: legal online horse betting.
The only catch is that the individual states were given the option to “opt out” of online horse racing. Several states took that route and the citizens of those states are not allowed to join or place wagers at horse betting sites. The good news is that only a small number of states decided to opt out.
How Horse Racing Betting Works
This is your primer guide for actually placing bets on horse races. The bets outlined below can be placed both in-person and online. The best way to get started is to try out some of the basic bets first. As you become comfortable with how it all works, you can progress up to more complex wagers.
Before we get into each type of bet, I’d like to give you a general overview of how the betting system works with horses. Horse wagering is classified as a form of “parimutuel wagering.” This is a little different than sports betting, so read closely if you’re new to horse betting.
In parimutuel betting, all bets on a specific race are pooled together. The racetrack then sets aside a percentage of that pool to keep for its own income and operating expenses. This is called the “vig.” This system ensures that the racetrack earns its money regardless of the outcome.
The percentage taken out of the pool varies depending on the track and type of bet placed. Generally, you can expect to see a vig of anywhere from 15% to 30%.
After the vig is taken out, the rest of the money in the pool is used to pay out the winners. The payouts in a horse race change constantly up until the beginning of the race. As new wagers are collected, the offered payouts change to account for the new betting action.
This is why favored horses offer lower payouts. More people tend to bet on the favorite, so when the favorite wins, the portion of the pool assigned to that horse has to be split up among more people. When a longshot horse wins, there tend to be fewer people backing that horse, so each person collects more winnings.
Types of Bets
There are all kinds of different bets that can be placed on a single race. The general rule is that the more difficult the bet is to win, the higher it pays. For example, a straight bet on a single horse to win pays pretty well, but a bet on the exact finishing order of the top 3 horses pays even better.
Here are the most common types of horse bets:
There are three different types of straight bets. These wagers are pretty simple and act as a good starting point for newbies.
- Win: This is a bet on a single horse to take 1st place
- Place: A bet on a single horse to take either 1st or 2nd place
- Show: A bet on a single place to take 1st, 2nd or 3rd place
Exotic bets are more complicated than straight bets. In an exotic bet, you make multiple picks that include more than one horse and maybe even more than one race.
- Exacta: A bet on two horses to take 1st and 2nd place. Your horses must finish in that exact order to win
- Quinella: A bet on two horses to take 1st and 2nd but the order doesn’t matter
- Trifecta: A bet on three horses to take 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in that exact order
- Superfecta: A bet on four horses to take 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th place in that exact order
- Daily Double: A bet in which you pick the 1st place finishers of two different races
- Pick 3: A bet in which you pick the 1st place finishers of three consecutive races
- Pick 4: A bet in which you pick the 1st place finishers of four consecutive races
Boxing comes in handy when you know that a few horses are solid favorites, but aren’t sure which order they will finish. You can “box” these horses to cover every possibility.
- Quinella Box: You pick three horses and you will win if any two of those horses finish in 1st and 2nd place. A quinella box on horses #3, #4 and #5 would cover all possible outcomes: 3-4, 3-5, 4-3, 4-5, 5-3 and 5-4.
You can also box exactas, trifectas and superfectas in this manner.
You can key horses when you have a strong feeling that one horse will finish first but you aren’t as sure about the horses that will take 2nd and 3rd place. In other words, you have one “key” horse picked to win the race and a few other horses that will come in after that one.
So let’s say you make a $1 trifecta key of #1 over #2, #3 and #4. In this example, you need the #1 horse to win, and then any of the other three horses to finish in 2nd and 3rd place in no particular order.
Now that you have a grip on the basics of horse betting, you can apply that knowledge to betting on the internet. In practice, it’s basically the same idea. The only difference is that instead of talking to a cashier at the racetrack, you select your wagers onscreen using your mouse and keyboard.
1. Create and Fund Your Betting Account
The first thing you’ll have to do to bet online is sign up for an account at a legal horse racing site (see my three picks near the top of this page). All you have to do is visit the race betting site of your choice, click one of the big “join now” buttons and fill out the new account form. It should be pretty self-explanatory.
The next step is to fund your account. You do this by logging in to your account at your betting site and then hitting the “deposit” link in your account area. If you have never made a deposit before, you’ll probably get a pop-up asking you to deposit.
Then, you can choose from a number of deposit methods:
- Wire transfer
- Credit cards and debit cards
- Check or money order
- Green Dot Moneypak
Note: The Green Dot Moneypak is a type of prepaid voucher that you can purchase at stores like Wal Mart and Walgreens. You pay cash for the Moneypak and then redeem that Moneypak online by typing in the unique number on the back of the card. Basically, it’s an easy way to fund your account with cash.
2. Place Your Bets
After you have an account funded with money, you can start placing your wagers. Click on the “bet now” button and this will take you to an area that shows a list of all the tracks supported by your betting site. Click on the name of a track and then you’ll see a list of upcoming races and the horses competing in each race.
Every betting site does it a little differently but in general, you will see a screen that allows you to select your bet amount, the type of bet and the horses that will be competing. As you make your selections, you should see a bit slip that shows a summary of your current bet. You will also have the option to box and key your horses at this time.
When you think you have your bet all set up, you’ll see a “verify” or “submit” button near the bet summary box. Hit that button and then it will ask you one more time if you’re sure this is the bet you wish to place. If everything looks good, click the confirm button and your bet will go live.
After you submit your bet, you can go back and place more wagers, watch the race live on the website or go about your day as usual. The website will track your bet and pay out your winnings if applicable. If any of your wagers are winners, the betting site will instantly credit your account with the money. You can then cash out your winnings or use them to place more wagers.
The best horse betting sites compete heavily with one another for your business. They all know it doesn’t take much effort at all for a customer to switch to a competitor. Thus, they all offer their own rewards programs and promotions in an effort to increase customer loyalty.
You won’t go wrong with any of the horse betting sites on this page, but you might want to check out their promotions to see which ones look the best for you. Here’s a look at what each betting site has to offer:
Right off the bat, BetAmerica gives all new customers a 100% match deposit bonus worth up to $300. This means that any amount you deposit will be doubled for up to $300 in extra cash. The bonus money is released at a rate equal to 10% of every wager you place at BetAmerica.
BetAmerica also allows players to create their own betting tournaments. This is a unique idea in which you can create your own handicapping tournament in which you specify the buyin, required bankroll, bet types, payouts and date. You can then invite your friends or let anyone join. BetAmerica also picks one tournament every week and guarantees at least $250 in prizes for free.
On selected “bonus tracks,” BetAmerica offers 3% cashback on all wagers, with no maximum cashback amounts. You can also refer friends to BetAmerica and get $50 when your friends sign up and make a deposit.
TwinSpires takes a slightly different approach with its promos. Instead of focusing on long-term promos that rarely change, TwinSpires constantly releases new, short-term promotions. These promos revolve around special betting events in which you can earn more loyalty points and get payout bonuses for placing bets on big racing events.
Player points are racked up at TwinSpires by placing wagers and participating in the frequent promos mentioned above. You can redeem these points for wagering credits, gifts from Brisnet.com and for free entry to racetracks.
Additionally, new customers are welcomed to TwinSpires with a $100 signup bonus. This bonus is given when you sign up, make an electronic banking deposit and wager at least $500 during your first month. Meet those requirements and you’ll get $100 added to your betting account.
TVG is a little weak on the promotions side, but it does offer a couple of perks to customers. All new players qualify for a $150 signup bonus that is released in $50 increments directly to the real money account. For your first three months, you’ll get $50 added to your balance if you wager at least $250 in any single month.
TVG also has an ongoing promotion in which you earn 1 point for every dollar wagered. Over time, you will accumulate these points and can eventually redeem them for cash rewards and Skymall gift certificates. The rate of return is a little on the low side, but it does come in handy after a few months of heavy betting.
Major Horse Racing Events
People bet money on horses year-round, but a big portion of betting action revolves around major horse racing events.
The Triple Crown
The Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing (Triple Crown for short) is a set of three different races. This is the biggest racing event of them all and it is restricted specifically to 3-year-old horses. That makes it a once-in-a-lifetime event for every racehorse.
The pinnacle of horse racing glory is to win all three events in the Triple Crown. It is exceedingly difficult to win a Triple Crown because every race is of a different length, and horses typically fare better at some lengths than at others. Add to that the fact that every horse only gets one chance ever to win, and you can imagine that it doesn’t happen often. In the United States, only 11 horses have earned Triple Crown glory.
And just to clarify something – the term “Triple Crown” means different things in different countries. Every horse racing nation has its own Triple Crown series of events. So if you overhear someone talking about the Triple Crown and they mention the Epsom Derby, that person is talking about the UK’s version.
The three events that make up the Triple Crown in the United States are:
- Kentucky Derby
- Preakness Stakes
- Belmont Stakes
- When: First Saturday in May
- Where: Louisville, Kentucky
- Length: 1.25 miles
The first event in the series, the Kentucky Derby, is the single most celebrated event in all of horse racing. It is held at Churchill Downs every year since 1875 and even non-horse racing fans dress up in flashy clothes and outlandish hats to celebrate. Even if you can’t make it to Churchill Downs, the odds are you can find a Kentucky Derby party in your own city.
- When: Third Saturday in May
- Where: Baltimore, Maryland
- Length: 9.5 furlongs (1 and 3/16ths miles)
After the Kentucky Derby comes the Preakness. This one doesn’t draw as much of a crowd as the Kentucky Derby, but it’s still a massive event in its own right. This is also where you’ll start to see some of the drama that comes with the possibility of a Triple Crown. All eyes are on the winner of the Kentucky Derby.
- When: Three weeks after the Preakness
- Where: Elmont, New York
- Length: 1.5 miles
And the last leg of the Triple Crown is the Belmont Stakes. At 1.5 miles long, this is the longest race in the series. This one is run three weeks after the Preakness and ranks somewhere in the top 5 in terms of attendance and viewership. However, this race becomes the biggest of them all whenever there is a horse that has taken 1st in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, giving that horse a shot at the coveted Triple Crown title.
The Kentucky Oaks is held on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby each year at the same racetrack in Louisville. The Kentucky Oaks is an extremely popular race that regularly attracts a crowd of 100,000. The winner gets a $600,000 purse and the famous garland of lilies known as the Lilies for the Fillies.
The Breeders’ Cup is a series of 14 races held across a single weekend every November. This event is usually held at a different track in the United States each year. It is one of the most-watched events in horse racing, with more than $25,000,000 in prize money up for grabs.
The biggest event in the Breeders’ Cup is the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which is a 1.25 mile race worth $5,000,000. The smallest event in the series is worth $500,000; every other event is worth $1 million or more.
The Travers Stakes is the oldest thoroughbred racing event in the United States and is currently 1.25 miles in length. The race is open to 3-year-olds only and has a purse worth $1,000,000. Only one horse in history (Whirlaway in 1941) has ever taken the Triple Crown and the Travers Stakes.
Big Players in the Industry
This section will cover some of the big players in the US horse racing industry. More specifically, we’ll discuss some of the major betting websites and explain how they all fit into the big picture.
TVG and Betfair
TVG is short for the “Television Games Network” and it is a television network devoted entirely to horse racing. It started broadcasting in 1999 and is now the largest horse racing network in the United States. TVG also facilitates offtrack betting via the internet, phone and sometimes even through boxtop sets on your television.
The television portion of TVG shows live horse races, analyses, betting tips and other programs that cover the broad subject of horse racing. TVG also operates a US-based website that you can visit to watch live races and place wagers on your computer.
In 2009, TVG was purchased by Betfair, a UK-based betting site founded in 2004. Betfair is best known for its exchange-style betting system in which people can buy and sell “shares” in positions on sports bets. In this way, betting at Betfair is similar to trading options.
Betfair does not do business with customers in the United States, but it keeps TVG alive as a separate entity. You probably won’t see any references to Betfair when you visit TVG, but Betfair does own the company.
TwinSpires is a US-based horse betting website owned and operated by Churchill Downs. TwinSpires is open to customers in the United States and provides betting options on tracks around the country. It is a free-to-use service that offers a wide range of wagers, live races and signup bonuses for new customers.
TwinSpires is one of the largest horse racing betting websites and has a clean track record. If you decide to wager here, you’ll be in good hands. The company is licensed to accept and handle real money betting in the US.
BetAmerica.com is the youngest horse racing bet site but it has grown quickly and now acts as a substantial player in the online betting market. BetAmerica is licensed by the North Dakota Racing Commission and accepts wagers from customers in most US states.
Like the other race betting sites on this page, BetAmerica offers a variety of racing wagers, live streaming video and simulcast options for all members free of charge. What makes BetAmerica unique is that it offers online greyhound betting in addition to its horse racing options.
Online Horse Racing Gambling in a Declining Industry
Major horse racing events draw impressive crowds to this day, but the sport as a whole has experienced a slow, steady decline over the past couple of decades. Betting handle is down significantly since the 1970s and many horse racing tracks are suffering financially.
You can point to a variety of reasons for the decline. Americans have more gambling options, other sports have grown in popularity, it’s easier to sit at home and watch TV and so on. Today, you can get the general public to tune in to the Kentucky Derby, but other races tend to be the realm of serious horse racing fans.
Racetracks first looked into adding other gambling games to their premises as a way to bump up revenues. We can see this with state legislatures finally opening to the idea of ontrack slot machines. The tracks that have managed to add slots have benefitted greatly from the new income.
Likewise, tracks are depending more and more on off-track betting – specifically internet betting. The horse racing industry still holds considerable clout in politics, and that is probably one reason why horse racing received a carve-out from the UIGEA in 2006.
Online betting benefits the tracks directly, and it gives smaller tracks access to a much wider audience. This additional betting handle is a huge benefit to the industry, but we still have a long ways to go before we see horse racing reach anything near its glory days of years past.
But as people grow more accustomed to the idea of betting online, we can expect to see online betting handle grow. There’s bound to be a topping-out point, but I doubt we’ve reached that yet. If you ask any Average Joe walking down the street, the odds are he will have no idea online horse betting is legal at all.
Accessibility has done wonders for increasing revenues, but the industry still has a long ways to go. There are still concerns about PEDs, inhumane horse treatment, risks to racehorses and life for horses after racing. If the industry can combat these issues, improve its reputation and continue to push online betting, it has plenty of room to grow.
Internet betting isn’t the end-all solution to horse racing’s financial woes, but it does help. Combine that with unique marketing strategies, such as what Churchill Downs has accomplished over the past couple of years, and there are bright spots in the future.