When I tell people I’m a handicap horse racing, they usually ask me the very general question, “What’s the best way to bet on horses?” My answer is always the same: the way that works for you.
One person’s winning strategy is a disaster for others. It depends what you’re (relatively) good at. In the end, a positive ROI is the goal, and the way you get there doesn’t really matter. In this series on various bets, we have discussed straight bets (win, place and show), vertical exotics (exacta, trifecta, superfecta, super high five), and basic horizontals (daily double, Pick 3, Pick 4).
The Pick 5 and Pick 6 are the holy grail in horse racing. The Pick 5 is considerably easier thanks to a lower minimum wager and therefore an ability to cover a lot of combinations. Let’s delve into the Pick 5 – at many tracks the best bet available.
You must select the winner of five straight races. At many tracks, the Pick 5 is only available on the first five races of the day.
The Pick 5 is essentially a five-race parlay, but the odds and prices pay much better than your traditional sportsbook parlay because each race has seven to 12 betting interests, and you are betting against the pool of other bettors, not the book.
Unlike the Pick 6, which tends to have a $2 minimum, you can play the Pick 5 for 50¢. You will likely need many 50¢ tickets, so a significant budget is needed to attack the bet, but it is very doable because of the price point.
Large payouts make the Pick 5 worthwhile, regardless, but the low takeout (compared to other exoctics) provide even more incentive. Many tracks place the Pick 5 early in the card as a way to get people to start betting. While there are still prominent tracks (Churchill Downs, Turfway Park, Fairgrounds) with takeouts at between 20-25-percent, many others (in New York, southern California, and Florida) rake only 14 or 15-percent. A bet that has a lot of volume, with low takeout, and large payouts, is a tempting proposition.
The 50¢ minimum means some lottery ticket-style players will put together small wagers hoping to make a huge profit, but the vast majority of Pick 5 money is from astute bettors. Thankfully, if you have 10 horses in each race, there are 100,000 possible combinations. Even sharp players will differ in their approach and handicapping, so few combinations will be dramatically over bet. It is a difficult but fair wager.
While there will be times you can win the Pick 5 with a thoughtful and budget-conscious wager, usually you first want to be comfortable spending at least $50, and preferably between $100 and $250. If you read the article on the Pick 4, you have a general idea of how to tier horses into As, Bs, Cs and Xs. You also know how to tier wagers. Mapping out a Pick 5 is always a good idea, to get a sense of how much it is going to cost to cover the horses you like best, and see exactly how much each horse in your bet costs in relation to the overall ticket.
Identifying the more predictable and less predictable races will help you reduce the cost of the bet; you’ll be able to eliminate more horses in the more certain races, while spreading your money in the wide-open races. If you can find a race or two with a single, a stone-cold winner that needs no backups, that cuts down on cost tremendously. Look at the example below of a Pick 5 and see if you can understand why it makes sense from a strategic sense.
Race 1: A: 2,3,5, B: 1,4,6 C: none, X: none
Race 2: A: 4,6, B: 3 C: 7, X: 1,2,5,8,9,10
Race 3: A: 7,9, B: none, C: 1,3,4,11 X: 2,3,5,6,8,9,10,12
Race 4: A: 2, B: none, C: none, X: 1,3,4,5,6,7,8
Race 5: A: 1,7, B: 4,6, C: 3,12, X: 2,5,8,9,10,11
Bet #1 (all As at $2 per combination): 2,3,5 with 4,6 with 7,9 with 2 with 1,7 ($48 total bet)
Bet #2 (4 As and 1 B at $1 per combination): 1,4,6 with 4,6 with 7,9 with 2 with 1,7 ($24 total bet)
Bet #3 (4 As and 1 B at $1 per combination): 2,3,5 with 3 with 7,9 with 2 with 1,7 ($12 total bet)
Bet #4 (4 As and 1 B at $1 per combination): 2,3,5 with 4,6 with 7,9 with 2 with 4,6 ($24 total bet)
Bet #5 (3 As and 2 Bs at 50¢ per combination): 1,4,6 with 3 with 7,9 with 2 with 1,7 ($6 total bet)
Bet #6 (3 As and 2 Bs at 50¢ per combination): 1,4,6 with 4,6 with 7,9 with 2 with 4,6 ($12 total bet)
Bet #7 (3 As and 2 Bs at 50¢ per combination): 2,3,5 with 3 with 7,9 with 2 with 4,6 ($6 total bet)
Bet #8 (4 As and 1 C at 50¢ per combination): 2,3,5 with 7 with 7,9 with 2 with 1,7 ($6 total bet)
Bet #9 (4 As and 1 C at 50¢ per combination): 2,3,5 with 4,6 with 1,2,4,11 with 2, with 1,7 ($24 total bet)
Bet #10 (4 As and 1 C at 50¢ per combination): 2,3,5 with 4,6 with 7,9 with 2 with 3,12 ($12 total bet)
This ticket costs $174. This online ticketmaker helps us put together all of the combinations after we do the handicapping. We are playing our most likely outcome (all As) for more money than the second-most likely results (4 As and 1 B), and the least likely winning combos (3 As and 2 Bs or 4 As and 1 C) for the smallest amounts.
Note that we have a single in the fourth race, and cover all of the horses in the first race. Each race is different, and you must evaluate and decide where you can take risks and where you need to be conservative.
If you played all of these combinations for 50¢, the ticket would cost only $108, but then you wouldn’t be betting your best horses for the most money. You’d be betting them for the same amount as the longshots. That just doesn’t make sense.
If a sequence has no “easy” races, you are going to have to play too many combinations to make the bet worthwhile. Even if you can’t single a race, you need to be able to take one to three races and drastically narrow the potential winners.
A Pick 5 with all favorites is not worth playing, either. You will end up spending a couple hundred bucks to win 2/1 or 3/1 on your money; the return does not justify the size of the wager.
It also is not recommended that you play the Pick 5 when your budget can’t really stretch to bet it properly. If you are having to eliminate legitimate horses, play a Pick 4 or Pick 3 instead.
Photo credit: FranceSireTV, CC BY 3.0 [https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33896609]. Photo has been cropped.
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