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The show parlay provides a good way to potentially come out ahead at the track... or lose it all (Photos courtesy Eclipse Sportswire).

There's an old racetrack story about a guy who bet $2 on the daily double and wins big. He figured ‘hey, this is the track's money’, so he bet all his winnings on the third race and won again. Wow, he thought, what a windfall! So he let it ride on the fourth race and hit again. Race after race he bet the entirety of his pockets, and race after race he kept winning. By the ninth race he was up $9,000. He noticed the 9 horse was named "Nine Lives." His anniversary, he remembered, was September 9th. His kid was 9 years old. It was fate, he reckoned. So he put it all on the 9 horse to win. The horse came in ninth.

When the guy got home his wife asked him "how'd you do today?"

"I lost $2" he replied.

Letting it ride is a familiar concept to gamblers. It means to take all your winnings and bet them again. Also known as "pressing your luck," the concept is universal across cultures and games. In horse racing, the allure of letting it ride is strong. Especially given how tilted the game is to those who can bet the most money, since payoffs on straight wagers on favorites are often so small. 

The Show Parlay is a popular betting strategy that allows bettors to let it ride without having a big bankroll to start out with. If you're familiar with parlay bets on sports, you probably have some idea of how the bet works (and how difficult it is to hit). 

You start with a show wager (a bet that a horse will finish either first, second or third) and, in the event you hit it, you invest the entirety of your winnings into a show wager in the next race. Even when parlaying favorites, as your bet size increases so will your payoffs. And because favorites often do finish in the money, it is a good way to stay in action throughout the day.

The payouts on show bets can often be pretty paltry, so it helps to start out with a good-sized bankroll. When I spend a day at the races with a group of friends, we always bet our own money but will each throw in $20 at the start of the day to get a good show parlay going. If there are five of us, we can start with a $100 show bet. Each of us takes turn picking the show horse in each race. If we bust out, we throw in another $20 and start over.


Parley Inside

The real trick to the show parlay is to have enough gamble to be willing to continue to let it ride even when your winnings grow to a sizable amount. The temptation to take a small win is great when faced with the possibility of losing it all late in the day. It's also in identifying horses that aren't huge favorites and will pay a good show price but still have a strong chance of finishing in the money. You could take the favorite every race and stand a good chance of making a little money, but that's the coward's way! Real gamblers like to find value!

An alternative to the show parlay that allows you to play with less naked gamble and be more risk averse with your money is the Partial Show Parlay. You start with a certain amount in your bankroll, and with each race you choose a horse then bet a percentage of your bankroll relative to that horse's odds. The horses that will pay less because of their short odds you will bet a larger percentage of your bankroll. The longshots that will pay big, but you are less sure of, you will bet a smaller percentage of your bankroll. And you always reserve some amount of your bankroll in case you bust out. It's a show parlay with training wheels. But it gives you the freedom to pick longshots at will, and puts you in a position to maybe make a bigger splash! 

Santa Anita offers a version of the show parlay in a contest for customers called ShowVivor. You choose one horse per day in any race to finish in the money. If you're right, you continue to the next day. If you're wrong, you're knocked out. The last person standing wins the pot of money. 

Next time you're at the track with friends, go ahead and get a show parlay going. And don't be a jerk. Let your friend who likes to bet the horses with the prettiest mane or the funniest name get their turn at picking, too. Chances are, they will be the ones to turn your parlay from a beer money fund to a collective financial investment with difficult group decisions!

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David Hill

David Hill is a writer and gambler who grew up in the shadow of the Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. He has written for a number of publications and is currently writing his first book. You can read more at

Image Description

David Hill

David Hill is a writer and gambler who grew up in the shadow of the Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. He has written for a number of publications and is currently writing his first book. You can read more at

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