Why Horse Racing is the Greatest Gambling Game in the World

Gambling
Fans at Oaklawn Park soak in the sun during a day at the races. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Nearly two-thirds of Americans admit to gambling at least once a year. About 15 percent of us gamble at least once a week. That’s more than 48 million people. And too many of these people are gambling on something that sucks, like smashing buttons on a slot machine or flushing their money down the toilet with lottery tickets, when they could be betting on horses, the greatest gambling game in the world.

To make the case for horse racing as not only the sport of king, but the king of gambling games, I’ll put it head to head with some of the more popular gambling choices Americans make to see how it stacks up.

Blackjack

This is the most boring of all gambling games. For those of you who don’t know how to play, you literally just count to 21. That’s it. If the total of your cards goes over 21, you lose. If you stay under or hit 21, then whoever is closest to 21 between you and the dealer wins. The rules are so simple a child could play it.

Blackjack (WikiMedia Commons/ElooKoN)

What’s worse, most people play this game adhering to “basic strategy,” which is a system of playing that reduces the dealer’s advantage (which they have by virtue of going last) to 0.5%. There is no deviating from basic strategy for these people. The casino will even let you use a cheat sheet if you haven’t memorized it, reducing the player to a simple script.

The people who make the most money at this game are “card counters.” They count every high and low card that comes out of the deck to give themselves an idea of how many high cards might be left and adjust their bets. And even these heros only gain about a 0.5% edge over the dealer, meaning they need to play a lot of hands to fully maximize their potential for gains. Rumors abound about card counters sitting at their tables in casinos wearing adult diapers so they don’t need to take bathroom breaks.

One time, they made a big-budget Hollywood movie about card counters, but since this game is so boring, it had very little blackjack in it and a lot of made up sex and violence to fill in the gaps between marathon sessions of sitting at a table counting.

Why sit on a chair doing simple addition when you could be standing outside soaking up sun and watching a horse race? Instead of spending hours learning basic strategy and months training yourself to count cards just buy a good book on handicapping, or simply learn to read past performances and develop your own strategies?

Sports Betting

If you love sports, and you love gambling, there’s nothing better than gambling on sports. I’m not going to tell you sports betting is boring like blackjack, because it isn’t. Sports betting is incredible fun because you get to watch an exciting and entertaining sporting event, but instead of just an emotional investment in the outcome, you have an economic one, which increases the drama by an order of magnitude.

Las Vegas Sports Book (WikMedia Commons/Baishampayan Ghos)

Horse racing shares this aspect of sports betting. You get to watch a thrilling sporting event with money on the line. If you’re a sports fan and you’ve never watched a horse race, you’re in for a treat. What other sport has human and animal athletes working together? What other sporting event has humans traveling at such incredible speed with nothing but reins to hold on to, nothing but a 1,000-pound animal between themselves and the ground? And what other sport stages events every single day of the year, several times a day? You can’t get that much action during March Madness in Vegas!

The biggest advantage horse racing has over sports betting is that the odds in horse racing are set by how the public bets - and that provides opportunities to find odds that underestimate a horse’s actual chances of winning a race, which is called an overlay.

Finding these spots is the key to winning money in horse racing, and they happen more often than you’d think. If your opinion of a race differs from the opinion of the crowd at the track, you can make some big money.

Compare this to sports betting, where the contests are almost all head-to-head and the lines are made by incredibly sharp bookmakers, who are very good at making the spreads and lines as close to even as they can. Sure, the lines shift based on money that comes in, but generally you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a line that is far out of whack with what is most likely to happen. To do that, you have to outsmart the oddsmakers, which is very, very tough. In horse racing, you just have to outsmart the horseplayers at the track, which is still pretty tough, but a much easier hill to climb. And when you do, you’re going to get a chance to make a lot of money betting a little. When you find good spots in sports betting, you’re still only getting around even money, usually. Longshot plays don’t exist in sports to the extent they exist in horse racing.

Poker

Poker has exploded in popularity since the 2003 World Series of Poker, and for good reason. The game is entertaining, it’s easy to learn, and there’s a perfect combination of skill and luck to make sure that every sucker stays convinced they’re a genius who got outdrawn. Poker has always made a good complement to horse racing, with a number of tracks opening poker rooms and most every casino poker room being close to the racebook.

2015 World Series of Poker (WiiMedia Commons/Dutch Boyd)

I love to play poker, but it will never replace horse racing for me. For one thing, poker is intensely competitive. Unlike casino table games, where you play the evil house, in poker you play your opponents at the table - your fellow gamblers. That means that a poker table, even one where the players are having a good time, enjoying a few drinks, telling jokes, and yukking it up, still has an underlying degree of tension. These people might be friendly, but they aren’t your friends. If you end up in a pot together, someone’s taking someone else’s money, and that can be intense.

Horse racing never feels like that. Sure, it may be true that when you and your friend bet on different horses, the winner is collecting a small percentage of the loser’s money, even if only a fraction of a cent — but it never feels that way. Sure, it may be true that when your friend wins and you lose, you secretly hate your friend’s guts. But that’s just jealousy, envy. That’s a much different feeling than when you and your friend bet each other in a poker hand and one of you takes all the other one’s money. That kind of thing cuts right to the bone.

At the track, when you win, even if your friend loses (which, let’s be honest, is their own fault. You gave them the winning horse! They chose not to respect your handicapping skills. In a way, they owe you an apology if you think about it.) there always are plenty of others at the track who had the winner, too. They’ll make themselves known by jumping up and down and cheering, pumping their fists, or sometimes just walking around the track bragging loudly about having the winner. You can high five these strangers and become fast friends, co-conspirators in beating the track. The beautiful thing is the losers can do this, too! There are friends to be made, relationships to be bloomed, bonds to be forged in the shame and degredation of ripping up tickets and cursing loudly in public. By the end of the day, winner or loser, you’ll have new friends in your life. And these are true friends, not the fake kind that laugh at your jokes at the poker table just to keep you sitting there longer while they take your money.

Craps

The thing that gets me about people who won’t play horses because they find the menu of betting options too confusing or overwhelming, but they’ll happily saddle up to a craps table is this - there are over 30 different bets you can make on a craps table, with most of them available on each and every roll of the dice. You can bet on the hop, you can buy numbers, lay numbers, you can bet a horn high yo. There are bets that don’t have spots for them marked on them on the layout, you just have to know abou them. And the odds for every bet are different. It’s a ton of information to learn.

Craps at Imperial Palace (WikiMedia Commons/Craig Howell)

The point is, you can have fun playing craps without knowing every single bet and payout, and you can have fun at the track just betting to win place and show.

This game can be fun in the way I just discussed when comparing racing to poker - it’s the only game in the casino where everyone at the table wins or loses together (except for the weasels that bet on don’t pass). It’s everyone versus the casino. This is why, in any casino, a craps table where someone’s on a roll is the liveliest part of the room. There’s no better feeling than being at a wild craps table where everyone is winning and cheering and a crowd is forming just to be close to the enthusiasm.

But beware, gambler! That good feeling is temporary. Because unlike at the track, there is no communion for losers. In fact, if you were the poor soul who was throwing the dice that sevened out and ended the run, you may as well be diseased and covered in open contagious sores. You’ll go from hero to zero in less time than it takes the dealers to stack up everybody’s chips. And let me tell you, those dealers are fast.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!