Like boxing, sex and most of the best things in life, horse racing is a pastime experienced with all of the senses. The thunderous clomp of hooves on soft earth; the primal odors of animal sweat and stale beer, the aesthetic sight of a thoroughbred's carved flanks, the heart-pounding thrill of a photo finish. Anyone who says horse racing is just about gambling has never spent an afternoon in the stands. Though it's often seen as the playground of two disparate social classes -- the landed and wealthy, and the cheesy and shady - horse racing speaks to the very human desire to control the uncontrollable. Specifically, very powerful animals and Lady Luck. Spend a day at the track and you're likely to see grifters and dowagers in picture hats. But you'll also rub elbows with the rest of humanity, average Joes testing fate for the price of a $2 bet and a plastic cup of Bud.
Fans who become enamored with the atmosphere and business of racing can quickly turn a weekend hobby into a way of life. But whether they're horse owners, trainers or habitual gamblers, racing fanatics are at the track for one reason: Money. There's lots of cash to be made at the races, and it's not uncommon for race goers with a knack for choosing horses and placing wise bets to make the track their primary place of business. During racing season, the same faces turn up again and again at the bar, in the stands and lurking before the in-house race monitors. Many not only bet on the races taking place at the track where they happen to be standing, but they also bet on those running at distant tracks and broadcast via simulcast. On any given afternoon, thousands - often millions - of dollars are won and lost in a world littered with cast-off racing forms and half-smoked cigarettes.
The high stakes and complexity of placing good bets can make horse racing daunting for the novice. So many factors go into choosing a horse, and the odds of your horse coming in are so slim that it can seem impossible to select a winner. But if you approach a day at the races as an experience, rather than as a way to put junior through college, you can have fun at the track and possibly even win a little cash without straining your sanity or your wallet.
There are two basic ways to experience the races: Upstairs or downstairs. The upstairs experience comes with a $10 to $15 entry fee, while downstairs runs a more economical $3 to $5. Upstairs gains you access to the track's "club," usually a full-service restaurant and bar overlooking the track and offering table monitors running simulcasts of races taking place across the country. In this rarefied atmosphere, you're far away from the noise, smells and elements of the actual race in progress. You can sip a martini instead of beer, nosh on a cheese plate instead of a pretzel and be waited on instead of waiting in line.
But for new race goers, the excitement of the day often takes place downstairs, where viewers push up to the rails to watch the horses roar past and share in the joys and disappointments of fellow bettors. You may have a better vantage point for watching the race from upstairs, but in the stands you can actually see the turf flying and watch the guys with cigars and too much gold jewelry react as their horses cross the finish line. Upstairs, you feel like a queen at the Grand Nationals. Down here you get to be a little bit La Cosa Nostra.
Regardless of where you choose to view the races, you place bets the same way. Horse racing operates on a system of pari-mutuel or "wagering against ourselves." In other words, you're not betting against the track when you wager but rather against other players. The track is simply a broker. Bets must be a minimum of $2 and can only be made in dollar increments. Before the start of a race, go to a teller and relay the name of the track (thanks to simulcast, you can bet on races at many different tracks), the dollar amount of your wager, the type of bet you're making and the horse's number. There are several varieties of bets, but it's best to start out wagering on a horse to either Win (horse must finish first), Place (horse must finish first or second) or Show (horse must finish first, second or third). The teller will give you a receipt for your bet, at which time you're free to pace the floor and bite your nails. Tracks also offer automated tellers for placing bets, but experts recommend steering clear of these until you have some experience. Mistakes can be made easily, and there's no substitute for an actual human to help you through the process.
Though placing the bet is easy, deciding which horses to wager your paycheck on is another matter. Those who've made a career of playing the ponies remind novices that it isn't easy to win at the track. George "Pittsburgh Phil" South, America's most celebrated horse player, who died a rich old coot in 1941, said of the sport, "Good race track knowledge is not a special talent. It's acquired by study, observation, hard work and the will to succeed." Indeed, many players spend their days studying horses and the recommendations of professional handicappers in newspapers and on Web sites in search of the next winning bet.
If you don't have the time or the inclination to make racing your life's work, you can still place educated bets using information from readily available resources. When you get to the track, avail yourself of a program. This booklet states the entries for each race, the horses' owners and colors, the jockey or driver, the trainer, the conditions of the race and early morning odds. It should also include professional handicappers' "picks," or choices that can help in making wagers. Handicappers make a living studying horses and their performance histories, and evaluating these against critical factors. Their insights can be very useful to the novice racing fan.
Of course, those who are betting a few bucks just for fun might want to forego such statistical methods altogether and simply put money on a horse with a catchy name or appealing colors. A lot depends on how much you like your money and how much it'll hurt to see it disappear. Even if you trust yourself to know when to stop, it's always a good idea to establish a bankroll and stop loss before you get to the betting cage. And stick to it. If you win early on, lock up a portion of your earnings. It's nice to go home feeling like a winner rather than a future member of Gamblers' Anonymous who didn't know when to quit.
For those who're serious about learning the ins and outs of horse racing, the pros suggest ignoring systems and tips and learning about the speed, pace and class of horses. Such knowledge, combined with the insights of handicappers who've made horse selection an art, will increase your chances of making sound bets and cashing in. A good way to gain visual familiarity with horses is to visit the walking ring, located on the first floor of the track. Thoroughbreds are exercised here before their races, providing a good opportunity for bettors to take stock of horses before placing wagers. However, keep in mind that appearance can sometimes be deceiving. For instance, a horse in leg bandages is usually not lame or infirm - it's wearing the wrappings for protection and support during the upcoming race.
Once you're comfortable placing bets and have been encouraged by either good luck or smart choices, try moving on to the more complicated (and risky) systems of wagering. Bets taken at almost every track include:
Across the Board: Making three equal bets on a horse to win, place and show. If the horse wins, you collect on all three. If it comes in second, you collect place winning. If it comes in third, you collect show.
Exacta: Pick the first and second placing horses in order.
Trifecta: Pick the first, second and third placing horses in order.
Quinella: Pick the first two horses to finish, but not in exact order.
Daily Double: Chosen horse must finish first in each of two races comprising the Daily Double.
Pick 3: Chosen horse must win in each of three races comprising the Pick 3.
Pick 6: Select the winners in the last six consecutive races.
Bottom Wheel: A selection in an exacta is wagered in the bottom or "place" position, while all other horses in the race are used in the "win" position. To win, your selection must finish second.
Whether you're a first-time bettor or a seasoned pony player, keep in mind that the track is a place of seduction. The electrified atmosphere and the lure of easy money can cause even the most prudent among us to behave foolishly. Factor in a couple martinis or beers, and blowing the grocery money on a horse named Gimpy can somehow seem like a brilliant idea. Play the horses, but don't let them play you.
Even if you haven't got a gambling bone in your body, a day at the races is worth it for the sights, the sounds and the sense of nostalgia that floods over you the minute you enter the stands. Grab a drink and a program and...
Chalk horse: Favorite or most heavily played horse in race.
Far turn: Turn of the back stretch
Furlong: 1/8 of a mile
Blanket finish: One which finds several horses finishing noses and heads apart, or so closely grouped that they could be covered by a figurative "blanket."
Bill Daly (on the): Taking a horse to the front at the start of the race and remaining there to the finish.
Derby: Stakes race for three-year-old horses, the most famous of which is the Kentucky Derby.
Home stretch: Final straight length of track in front of the grand stand on which horses are run increasingly faster to the finish.