A jockey on horseback being led towards the track.

Churchill Downs is perhaps best known for hosting the annual Kentucky Derby. Photo © Lou Oms, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Map of Louisville, Kentucky


First, get a program. You’re going to need to know what horses are racing, and you might want to know what jockey is on board what horse, what the horses’ previous race results are, or maybe just what color silks the jockeys will be wearing. There are as many ways of picking a winner as there are people, ranging from complicated mathematical formulas to lucky numbers and colors, so go with whatever feels right to you.

Second, scan the tote board to see the current odds for each horse. They change continually as people place bets. At Churchill Downs, odds are listed as a single number, such as 5. This translates to 5 to 1 odds, which means that you’d get a $5 payout for every $1 bet if said horse wins. Though there are payouts for second and third places, the winnings are impossible to calculate until the race has been run because they vary based on which three horses end up in the money and in what order. It’s complicated. Don’t worry about it.

Third, once you’ve picked a horse, decide how much you want to bet (there’s a $2 minimum), and whether you want to bet on the horse to win, place (finish second), or show (finish third). Be aware that if you bet a horse to place, you get a payout if it wins or places, and if you bet a horse to show, you get a payout if it wins, places, or shows. The payout for a show bet on a winning horse isn’t as much as the payout on a win bet, however.

Fourth, once you’re certain you’ve picked the winner, head to the betting window. Approach the teller and place the bet. To make sure the teller gets all the info straight, give him or her your bet in the following manner: “Xth race, X dollars to (win, place, show) on horse number X.” (For example: “Fourth race, two dollars to win on number four.”) Check your ticket before walking away from the window to make sure all the information is correct.

Finally, return to your seat and scream your lungs out in an effort to get your horse to cross the finish line first. If your horse does win (or place or show, depending on your wager), wait until the results are posted as final and then return to the betting window, where the teller will cash your ticket.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of the straight bet, you can venture into the world of exactas (pick in correct order the first- and second-place finishers), trifectas (pick in correct order the first-, second-, and third-place finishers), pick threes (pick the winner of three designated races), and other exotic wagers, which someone at the race track will gladly explain to you if you just ask nicely. Good luck!

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Kentucky.