What are you looking for when you bet on horse racing? Are you trying to pick a lot of winners, have a high ROI in the short-term, or playing the long game looking for one big score? If you want to cash a lot of tickets, straight bets like win, place and show are the easiest ways to grind out day-to-days winnings. Easier exotics include exactas, trifectas, daily doubles, and Pick 3’s, while superfectas and super high fives are very difficult.
The Pick 4 is perhaps the best balance. It provides an opportunity for a big win, but it’s also a bet than can be hit with some consistency if played properly (and assuming you have a decent sized bankroll).
Let’s dive into the Pick 4.
This is essentially a four-race parley: you must select the winner of four consecutive races. Tracks usually offer one or two race sequences (occasionally three) where Pick 4s are permitted. Frequently, the final four races of a card are Pick 4 events.
The standard minimum is 50¢. There may be a few outlier tracks where each combination costs $1.
While Sam Houston Race Park takes only 12-percent off the top, generally the Pick 4 is highly taxed, up to as much as 26-percent. Low 20s is the most frequent percentage; a lot of venues are in the mid-20s.
Because there is an affordability factor – the 50¢ minimum means, for only $8, you can play two horses in each race -there will be some uninformed players throwing cash at the most likely combinations (i.e. the top favorite or two in each race). But by and large, serious handicappers are betting the Pick 4.
Unlike the Pick 5 and Pick 6, the Pick 4 is frequently a strong play. It is fairly easy to spend $50 or less and give yourself a good chance at a hefty payout. Let’s take a look at an example of how you might play a Pick 4.
Like we discussed in the Pick 3 article, tiering is recommended, and dividing horses into A’s, B’s, C’s and X’s is helpful. (A horses = the most likely winners, in your opinion. B horses = next-most likely. C horses = slim chance to win. X horses = no chance to win.)
Review the chart below, and the bets that follow, to understand how you might go about attacking a Pick 4 sequence.
Race 1: A: 3, 6. B: 11. C: 1, 7. X: 2,4,5,8,9,10,12.
Race 2: A: 4. B: 1,2,7. C: 5. X: 3,5,6,8,9,10,11,12.
Race 3: A: 1,5,6. B: none. C: none. X: 2,3,4,5,7,8,9,10,11,12.
Race 4: A: 6. B: 1 C: 3. X: 2,4,5,7,8,9,10,11,12.
Bet #1 (All As at $2 per combination): 3,6 with 4 with 1,6,8 with 6 ($12 total bet)
Bet #2 (3 As and 1 B at $1 per combination): 11 with 4 with 1,6,8 with 6 ($3 total bet)
Bet #3 (3 As and 1 B at $1 per combination): 3,6 with 1,2,7 with 1,6,8 with 6 ($18 total bet)
Bet #4 (3 As and 1 B at $1 per combination): 3,6 with 4 with 1,6,8 with 1 ($6 total bet)
Bet #5 (2 As and 2 Bs at $1 per combination): 11 with 1,2,7 with 1,6,8 with 6 ($4.50 total bet)
Bet #6 (2 As and 2 Bs at 50¢ per combination): 11 with 4 with 1,6,8 with 1 ($1.50 total bet)
Bet #7 (2 As and 2 Bs at 50¢ per combination): 3,6 with 1,2,7 with 1,6,8 with 1 ($9 total bet)
Bet #8 (3 As and 1 C at 50¢ per combination): 1,7 with 4 with 1,6,8 with 6 ($3 total bet)
Bet #9 (3 As and 1 C at 50¢ per combination): 3,6 with 5 with 1,6,8 with 6 ($3 total bet)
Bet #10 (3 As and 1 C at 50¢ per combination): 3,6 with 4 with 1,6,8 with 3 ($3 total bet)
This wager costs $63, but can be reduced to $43.50 by playing the A-only combo for $1 and all other tickets for 50¢.
If you break horses down into As, Bs, and Cs, you can easily punch the ticket into drfticketmaker.com or the tickermaker app and it will spit out all of the combinations. Why this is a smart way to play? Because you take the combination you like the best (All ‘s) and bet it for more money ($2 or $1) than your other picks. But your secondary choices (the Bs) are able to win two races and still allow you to cash if two A’s also win. Tickets with one B choice and three As pay double since you bet them for $1 in an ideal scenario, rather than 50¢ for two Bs and two As.
Finally, you will also win if one of your longshots, the Cs, hits the winner’s circle along with three As.
If you handicap really well in three races, and hit a C in the other, you can hit a Pick 4 that might have a 20/1 or 50/1 shot in it, creating a very large payout.
Make no mistake, if you are looking to cash a ticket and think you can do so for $10 or $15, think twice before betting the Pick 4 (a Pick 3 or daily double might be more advisable). There will be times that your conviction is right, but more often than not, you will need some backup horses. Of course, there are certain sequences without a ton of horses, or that include a couple of massive favorites, and that can make it feel more like a double or Pick 3.
Be careful betting too many combinations if there are multiple big favorites. If a large majority of the pool is going to two chalk horses, you are more or less playing a fancy daily double, and if you spend too much cash on a double, the payout will not justify the wager.
Finally, some sequences are too difficult to try a Pick 4. When there are big fields and lots of possibilities, or you can’t pare down your A choices to one or two horses in each race, then you don’t have enough conviction and should pass.
Avoid caveman tickets, too, i.e tickets which do not involve tiering. In our example above, a caveman wager with all the As and Bs would look like: 3,6,11 with 1,2,4,7 with 1,5,6 with 1,6. If you played each combination, it would cost you $36. That might look attractive and affordable. But you haven’t put any additional money on the combinations you believe are most likely to win. You have also eliminated the C horses, which kills your ROI over the long haul because they’re the horses that tend to pay the most.
In sum, the Pick 4 is a good bet, but don’t force it. Not all sequences are created equal, and some will pay too little while others have too high a degree of difficulty.
Photo credit: public domain.
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