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Original Issue


More than $7 billion—5 of them off the track—are bet on horses in the ever-new, ever-baffling search: beating the races

Americans are essentially gamblers by instinct," a man whose first and only love was college football has remarked. "Sure, horse racing outdraws football and baseball, but if it depended on the people who think only in terms of 'improvement of the breed' the sport of racing would fall flat on its face as a public attraction. Betting is the true lure of the sport for the vast majority of racegoers, and if you conducted pari-mutuel betting on a bunch of turtle races at Yankee Stadium the same afternoon as the Belmont Stakes the chances are that both events would draw about the same attendance."

Quite possibly this fellow was unreasonably stretching his imagination. But he had boldly stated a belief shared by millions of his sport-loving contemporaries. Last year, for example, over $2 billion was spent—perfectly legally—through the pari-mutuel machines on Thoroughbred racing (and, with nearly half a billion more spent on harness wagering, the total U.S. pari-mutuel turnover came to a staggering $2,591,705,143).

Over twice this sum was spent on off-course—or strictly illegal—betting. This amazing figure (about five times the net income of General Motors Corporation, which is the country's No. 1 manufacturing company) is the estimate of men in the best position to know. Except to those who fear that such an innovation would dangerously increase gambling, the figure suggests a strong argument in favor of legalizing bookmaking in this country. The $5 billion bet illegally represents a loss in taxes of about $500 million to the 24 states who take a sizable cut of all pari-mutuel handle.

The total of more than $7½ billion which went into race betting during 1955 is approximately 50 times the combined capital investments represented by the 16 major league baseball clubs. An awesome sum, to be sure, and yet a sum which will probably be topped this year and every year to come as long as the racing business maintains a current boom marked by the construction of new tracks and the manifold improvements of old ones designed to pack more people into the horse yards where they will discover more facilities to bet more money.

Probably no more than 25% of all U.S. track patrons know how to interpret the past-performance charts found daily in The Morning Telegraph and Daily Racing Form. The Form may point out that a horse won three of his last four starts, but rarely does the average bettor take advantage of other pertinent data such as distances of past races, caliber of opposition, weights, track conditions, jockey changes and a dozen other variables that go into the calculation of probable form. Essentially superstitious, the average horse player as often as not follows a last-minute hunch.

To the man who has thrilled to the deep and incomparable satisfaction that comes only from having doped out a winner all on his own, there is usually born, sooner or later, the idea that there must be a system to beat the races. There is no such system, although it is also fair to say there can and should be method in betting. True, a handful of professional gamblers, among the thousands who give the horses their business, manage to make more than expenses. The so-called $2 bettor gains little over the long run except experience and a lot of fun. But racing need not be costly for the moderate bettor if he is intelligent and disciplined, and if he treats the experience as fun rather than as an open-war project to bring home all the money in the vault.


Far be it from me to sermonize on how to spend your racing money, but if you're going to spend it at all I wouldn't get involved with buying up a library of pamphlets which come under the group heading of "How I Beat the Races." Similarly, the value of a number of slide-rule calculators and handicapping gadgets is pretty questionable, although their manufacturers will gladly point out any number of instances where the right manipulation of a slide rule has coincided with the final result of a race. Seek advice sensibly, and don't be ashamed to let a truly evaluated opinion be your guide.

If you have only slight working knowledge of the significance attached to the past-performance charts, I would suggest two sources of sound information. One is the list of program selections or morning line odds (the first, or opening, odds listed after each horse's name as well as on the tote board). The other source is the consensus of opinion of a half dozen or more selected handicappers who rate the horses at every track daily in the Telegraph and Form. Remember, the men whose opinions these figures represent are professionals paid specifically for their knowledge of racing form. Even the best of them is rarely right more than 30% of the time, but that's a better average than that of the man who knows nothing about handicapping. Don't necessarily agree with the consensus, but weigh its opinions carefully—and in conjunction with your own—before betting.

Favorites win an average of 35% of the time on all tracks. Persistent betting on them would result in a few periods of profit, but an overall loss. A certain jockey may be in a hot streak, but it is usually unprofitable to play the jocks. Riders like Arcaro, Shoemaker and Hartack very often create a false price on their mounts, and there's no possible way of telling, at the start of a meeting, which jockey among 30 or more riders is about to launch a winning streak. Only if, for example, you had felt last April 2 that Bill Boland was destined to be the leading rider at the Jamaica spring meeting could you have turned a profit by betting Boland mounts. A $2 win ticket on each of his 202 rides (of which he won 42, was second 37 times and third 25 times) would have earned you profits of $47.10. Had you held the same hunch about any of the other jockeys at Jamaica, you would have come home a loser.

Experienced bettors (and most of them admit they are also the most experienced losers) advise against betting except to win. Place and show bets are really unsatisfactory compromises with the mutuels and as for betting across-the-board (a combination ticket, usually $6 or $15 on one horse to win, place or show), it is, as the oldtimers will tell you, "asking a horse to do three things all at once."

Obviously there is a tremendous amount to be said about betting. It's an intriguing subject which I hope we can return to often in the future. The important point I'll leave you with now, however, is that you shouldn't feel obligated to bet every race any more than you would feel it necessary to play out every poker hand. Have an opinion of your own and stick with it. If you bet, do so within your means and consider it fun. But if you plan on making a lot of money, forget it. It can't be done.