No state is more closely identified with horse racing — and betting on horse racing — than Kentucky.
The Kentucky Derby is the most famous horse race in not just the United States but also the world. It’s not wrong to state that Kentucky is the capital of horse racing in the US, although New York, Maryland and California might disagree.
Horse betting is always popular for the Triple Crown races, and this year in Kentucky is no different. Scroll down for a complete guide on where to bet on horse races in Kentucky as well as how to go about it.
How can I bet on horse races in Kentucky?
If you’re champing at the bit to start betting on horse races in Kentucky (pun intended), there are several ways. Obviously, there are several major horse racetracks in Kentucky available to you. However, there are other options for placing a wager on a horse race in the state. Let’s review those options.
Online horse betting
Finally, Kentucky allows its residents and visitors to wager on horse races through a variety of online betting sites. These sites function almost identically to a standard simulcast facility and are more convenient than making the trip to one. Many of the sites available to you are owned and operated by racetracks in the state, including Churchill Downs and Keeneland.
However, the best option for you — particularly if you’re a beginner — is FanDuel Racing Kentucky. FanDuel is a horse betting site powered by one of the most powerful sports betting apps in the world.
Live horse racing
Kentucky is the nexus of live horse racing in the United States. There are multiple tracks in the state that rank among the best-known in the world. And, of course, the most famous horse race in the world, the Kentucky Derby, occurs at Churchill Downs every May.
Those in Kentucky can visit any of the following racetracks:
- Churchill Downs (Louisville) — thoroughbreds
- Ellis Park (Henderson) — thoroughbreds
- Keeneland (Lexington) — thoroughbreds
- Kentucky Downs (Franklin) — thoroughbreds
- Turfway Park (Florence) — thoroughbreds
- Oak Grove Racing & Gaming (Oak Grove) — harness
- The Red Mile (Lexington) — harness
Obviously, Churchill Downs is the class of the bunch. However, Keeneland is a close second and would be the top track in any other state. Additionally, The Red Mile is one of the best tracks for harness racing and plays host to the Kentucky Futurity, harness racing’s counterpart to the Kentucky Derby.
Simulcast horse racing
Along with their live racing options, several tracks and associated locations in Kentucky offer simulcast betting. These races occur at other tracks throughout the United States (and the rest of the world). The advantage of simulcasting is that live racing is often seasonal, whereas simulcasting is usually available year-round.
Here are the sites in Kentucky that offer off-track betting on simulcast horse races:
- Churchill Downs (Louisville)
- Oak Grove Racing & Gaming (Oak Grove)
- The Mint Gaming Hall at Kentucky Downs (Bowling Green)
- The Mint Gaming Hall at Kentucky Downs (Cumberland)
- The Mint Gaming Hall at Kentucky Downs (Franklin)
- Turfway Park (Florence)
- The Red Mile (Lexington)
Historical horse racing
Historical horse racing machines, or HHR machines, are very much like slot machines. They feature similar graphics, and the conditions for wins and losses are very much like the classic one-armed bandits you find in Las Vegas or Atlantic City.
However, HHR machines legally fall under the heading of horse racing because they generate their outcomes by using horse race results from the past. You’ll never know exactly which race is at play, but the difference is mostly a technical one. HHR is big business in Kentucky, with more than $6.8 billion wagered on the machines during the 2022 fiscal year.
Here are locations where you’ll find HHR machines in Kentucky:
- Derby City Gaming (Louisville)
- Ellis Park (Henderson)
- Oak Grove Racing & Gaming (Oak Grove)
- The Mint Gaming Hall at Kentucky Downs (Bowling Green)
- The Mint Gaming Hall at Kentucky Downs (Cumberland)
- The Mint Gaming Hall at Kentucky Downs (Kentucky Downs)
- Newport Racing & Gaming (Newport)
- The Red Mile (Lexington)
The exact number and lineup of machines vary from location to location. The best thing to do is to visit their websites or call ahead if you have a particular game in mind.
How betting on horses works
There is a slew of bets available for each horse race. Many dovetail with one another and can lead to tremendous wins for you if things break just right. However, the first thing to understand is what pari-mutuel wagering means, as it is a term you are certain to encounter.
Pari-mutuel wagering simply means that all of the winners on a particular race are paid from the pool of wagers the track, off-track betting facility or website has accepted for that race. In effect, each race is like a small tournament, and winners are paid almost all of the prize pool (minus the cut taken by the “house”).
The money pool’s finite nature is the reason you’ll see the odds on horses move so much before the race. The track, racebook or site is constantly monitoring the intake of funds and adjusting the potential payouts so that it can still clear its percentage as profit. If all goes well, the host facility makes its money, all the winners are paid according to the odds, and everything comes out evenly.
The most basic bet types at Kentucky racetracks are known as straight wagers. These are bets on where a particular horse will finish its race. The three types of straight wagers are:
- Win — You choose a horse to finish in first place
- Place — You choose a horse to finish in first or second place
- Show — You choose a horse to finish in first, second or third place
Needless to say, these wagers are quite straightforward. One thing to note, however, is that these terms are often used interchangeably or exclusively to refer to how a horse finishes the race. If you’re at a Kentucky track and someone mentions a horse “showing,” they’re talking about it finishing in third place and not that it’s on display somewhere!
It’s also important to understand these wagers can be combined on a single horse. If you believe that a horse will win a race outright, then you can place a win bet, a place bet and a show bet on that same horse. If your prediction proves correct, you will win all three wagers. Even if you aren’t correct about the horse finishing first, you are still eligible to win the place or show wagers if he finishes second or third.
Finally, there’s nothing wrong with placing multiple straight wagers on different horses in a single race. If you believe that a race will be won by one of two horses in a race, there’s nothing stopping you from betting on both horses to win and place. Each bet will function independently.
That said, if you’re trying to fold all your guesses into a single wager, you’ll need to use a different kind of bet.
A bet classified as an exotic wager is a single bet on multiple horses. You are no longer simply trying to guess which individual horses will win, place or show. Instead, you are estimating the group of horses that will comprise the vanguard at the finish line.
In a sense, exotic wagers are like parlay bets in sports betting. Much like with parlays, you must be perfect with all of your selections on an exotic wager for the wager to pay off. If even one horse does not finish as you predicted, the bet is lost.
However, just like parlays, exotic wagers also bear a much higher payout potential than a series of independent straight wagers. For that reason, exotic bets are quite popular. Here are the most common types of exotic wagers at Kentucky racetracks:
- Exacta — You choose one horse to win and another horse to place. The two horses must finish in this order for the bet to pay. If any other horse crosses in one of the two positions or if the two horses swap their positions, you lose.
- Quinella — You choose one horse to win and another horse to place, but in this case the order in which the two horses finish does not matter. Either outcome will pay. Note, however, that a quinella bet costs double what an exacta bet on the same horses costs.
- Trifecta — You choose one horse to win, another horse to place, and another horse to show. The three horses must finish in exactly this order for the bet to pay off.
- Superfecta — You choose one horse to win, another horse to place, another horse to show, and another horse to finish fourth. The four horses must finish exactly as predicted to result in a winning bet.
- Double Bet (Pick 2), Pick 3, Pick 4, etc. — You pick winning horses in a series of races, rather than multiple horses to finish in a single race. The chosen number associated with the bet is the number of races that you must pick. If you miss just one selection, the wager is lost.
Executing an exotic wager is a high-risk, high-reward endeavor. There is no margin for error, so your chances of winning are much lower than they are on straight wagers. Obviously, the increased payout potential somewhat compensates you for that lower winning percentage. However, there are also some modifiers that you can select for your exotic wagers to make them a bit more attainable.
Wager modifiers open up the different conditions that result in a win for you. They can do so in one of two ways.
First, a wager modifier can remove the requirement that your group of horses finishes in a prescribed order. As long as they finish in the top three (or four) spots as a group (without any interlopers), you win the bet.
The other way that a modifier might give you more ways to win is by allowing you to choose multiple horses to finish in a single position. You’re guaranteed to be wrong about all but one of those choices, but if you can choose your odds properly and get the right horse of the group to come in, you can keep the bet alive. In fact, there are times when having a group for part of your exotic wager can be quite strategic.
One thing to note, though, is that you will have to pay more for every outcome that you want to cover. In essence, the modifiers are allowing you to place multiple exotic wagers at the same time, which means you have to pay for each possible outcome individually. But because the payouts can be so large, it may still be worth it to do so.
Here are the most common modifiers you’ll encounter when horse betting in Kentucky:
- Box — This modifier removes the order requirement. You make the same bets above, but your horses can finish in any order as long as they finish within the top three or four. However, please bear in mind that the price of a box bet escalates dramatically over its unboxed counterpart. An exacta box (which is also called a quinella) costs double a plain exacta. A trifecta box is six times the cost, and a superfecta is a whopping 24 times the cost of a single, straight-line superfecta bet.
- Key — Some races have a clear favorite, and a key bet allows you to select that horse while allowing for unexpected results to place and show. You can choose your key horse to win, then fill in your exacta, trifecta, or superfecta with whatever other horse or group of horses you like. As long as the key comes in first and one of your group places and/or shows, you win.
- Wheel — You pick the entire group of horses in a race to finish in a certain position. Because it covers the entire field, it is sometimes called a “field” bet. A wheel bet is great to combine with a key bet, as you can pick your key horse, then do a wheel for the place and show positions. All you have to do to win is make sure your key prediction comes true. Wheels are also good if you want to cash in on any long shots that might run a surprising race.
- Custom — All of this lingo and terminology may be confusing or overwhelming. It also may not capture the exact bet you want to make. Never fear! You can make a “custom” wager with any combination of horses that you like. The terms above are simply a shorthand to communicate with the ticket writers at the track. If you have something in mind, explain it to them plainly, and they can make it happen.
Different types of horse races in Kentucky
Not all horse races are run the same way. There are different types of tracks as well as different designations for horse races, all of which can be found in Kentucky.
Most people are used to seeing flat races, but there are several different types of races that tracks may offer. In fact, some tracks offer one type of race exclusively. At any rate, here are the race formats you may come across in Kentucky:
- Flat — The most common race format is the flat race. The Kentucky Derby and most of the other big races are flat races. They are run on a flat, oval track with no obstacles. The only encumbrances on the horses are the jockeys.
- Harness — Harness races are the second-most common race format. It is the type of racing at The Red Mile, among other locations. In a harness race, the jockey is pulled behind the horse in a cart known as a “sulky.” However, harness racing still occurs on an obstacle-free flat course.
- Steeplechase — The steeplechase is a rarer type of race than the first two formats. This involves the placement of various obstacles on the course, including barriers, fences and water features. The horses and jockeys must negotiate these obstacles on their way around the course.
- Endurance — This last format is more a stipulation than an actual type of race. After all, there’s nothing to stop any track from simply having the horses run several times around the track (as opposed to once). As the name suggests, in endurance races, the horses must run for longer periods of time than they do in other types of races.
Horse race designations
If you are perusing a program at your nearest racetrack, you may see a designation assigned to each race and wonder what it means.
There are levels to horse racing. A haphazard combination of different calibers of horses would not make for interesting or relevant races. Tracks will often combine horses of similar ability to make races competitive. Here are some examples of different horse race designations you might encounter:
- Stakes — Stakes races are reserved for the highest level of horse racing. The Kentucky Derby, along with its Triple Crown counterparts, is a stakes race. In a stakes race, the owners of the horses contribute to the purse for the race, and the winner of the race receives the lion’s share of the purse.
- Claiming — A claiming race is for horses that are not at the stakes level. These horses are either up-and-coming or aren’t ever going to get to that top echelon. What makes a claiming race different is the fact that each and every horse in the race is available for purchase. Their prices are listed right in the program, which means you could theoretically go buy one of the horses after the race if you like.
- Maiden — A race classified as a maiden race is not a race featuring only female horses. If that’s the type of race you want, look for a “mares only” race. A maiden race is reserved for horses that have not managed to win a competitive race yet. Maiden races may also feature horses in their very first races. Generally, this is the lowest tier of races.
- Allowance — Allowance races don’t really have anything to do with the caliber of the horses involved. Instead, they are races with strict weight limitations on both their horses and jockeys. With controls in place to equalize two common variations, the race emphasizes the athleticism of the horses and the skill of the jockeys.
How Kentucky horse betting odds work
For Kentucky horse races, the odds are listed in a format that is likely familiar to you. They use the fractional format commonly seen for most rudimentary expressions of odds. However, there is a bit of fine print associated with horse racing betting odds that you should know.
In other types of sports betting, you are engaging in fixed-odds betting. That means when you place your bet at certain odds, you have secured your potential payout at those odds. If you bet a team to win at 2-to-1, you’ll receive a 2-to-1 payout on your wager if it wins.
With horse betting, the odds are not fixed according to the time you place your wager because of the nature of pari-mutuel wagering. Again, there is a single pool of money from which winners (and the track) are paid. That means whatever the odds are at post time—the moment the race begins—those are the odds by which you’ll be paid. When you placed your bet on a particular horse, the odds might have been 5-to-1, but when the race actually began, the odds might have changed to 2-to-1, which means you get a 2-to-1 payout if you win.
Kentucky horse betting site bonuses
There are certain benefits if you prefer to bet on horse racing on your phone or computer. For one thing, you can bet from the comfort of your home. For another, there’s no dress code. However, one of the best reasons to give online horse betting in Kentucky a try is the presence of sports betting bonuses and promotions, which can put extra hundreds of dollars into your pocket.
Common types of horse betting bonuses include:
- No deposit — A no deposit bonus, which is sometimes called a welcome bonus due to how frequently they are reserved for new players, gives you a trial run on the site free of charge. You gain either a number of site credits or a number of bet vouchers to place wagers on the site, much like you would with your own cash. If the bet loses, then you aren’t out any funds. If you win, you don’t get the value of the bet, but you do get the profit that you just secured.
- Deposit — A deposit or match bonus calls for the site to augment the amount of money that you deposit in a single transaction. The site will add a percentage of your deposit to your account up to a certain maximum. However, the addition will be in the form of site credits, so expect to wager them (and their value) a few times before you get them as cash.
- Insurance — Insurance bonuses make up for the fact that losses are inevitable when you bet the ponies. For a certain period of time or for certain races, a bonus of this type pledges to refund a percentage of your net loss during the specified timeframe. The percentage varies and, like a deposit bonus, will refund you up to a hard-capped amount. The refund will also come as site credits, so it’s probably better to think of this type of bonus as giving you another bite at the apple with the same cash.
- Pay boost — Pay boosts operate exactly as their name implies. Whatever the true odds of a horse winning are, the site artificially boosts the potential payout amount. Be aware, though, that these bonuses are usually not available for exotic wagers, so they don’t make that much of a dent in the overall payout or potential odds of the bet.
- Loyalty program — A loyalty or rewards program gives you site credits, free wagers or other goodies in exchange for your continued patronage. The more you bet, the higher you rise through the program’s tiers and the more benefits you stand to receive.
Strategies for horse race betting in Kentucky
If you’re an experienced horse bettor, you probably have your system in place for how you like to bet. On the other hand, if you’re new to horse racing in Kentucky, then you might not know what to do when you arrive at a track. This section is for you.
However, we would be remiss if we didn’t include a massive caveat. Nothing you read below is a guarantee of success in any way. Even the best handicappers in the world lose a significant portion of their bets. The tips below are simply ways to improve your chances of success, nothing more.
Here are some recommended strategies to follow when horse racing betting in Kentucky:
- Get a program. Racetracks provide large packets of information on race days. Programs are absolutely key to understanding which horses are going to compete in that day’s races, along with their race histories and past performances on various types of tracks.
- Compare the odds in the program with the live odds. The movement of the odds between their initial listing in the program and their current position is one of the best indicators you have about which horses will do well. The movement indicates where the “smart money” is going—that is, money bet by experienced gamblers. A horse whose odds are hovering around 1-to-1 or shorter is much more likely to win or do well in a race than the long shots.
- The favorites aren’t sure things. Though the smart money may be pushing the odds towards certain horses, it’s important to understand that you shouldn’t always bet on the favorites. You should be selective about the favorites you choose because there may be parity among the horses, and several of them might have a legitimate chance to do well. Even long shots win sometimes. You’re also not going to get great returns on your bets if you constantly back big favorites.
- Don’t just go after the long shots, either. Although the bigger payouts are tempting to chase, understand that most long shots are set at those odds for good reason. The oddsmakers and smart money bettors have significant reasons to doubt that they will perform well in the race. For every 100-to-1 horse that comes in, there will be hundreds of other races where they finish at the back of the pack.
- Consider each horse’s recent and relevant performances. Along with the odds, the program also lists the horse’s performances in its most recent races and how it performed on similar tracks (or the same track). That information can be quite valuable to you, as it may suggest a different outcome to the race than the odds. If a horse does well in the present conditions, or the favorite does not do well on tracks of this type, you may have a clue about a good betting opportunity.
- Avoid exotic wagers for most of your bets. The combination bets are seductive because of their huge payouts. However, the tracks offer those big payouts because they can afford to do so, knowing they won’t have to pay out too often. For that reason, you should probably more often than not stick to the straight wagers. Until you master the win, place and show, there’s no need to venture into deeper waters.
- Don’t bet the house or anything to do with the house. This last tip is universal for all types of gambling. Never bet money that you cannot afford to lose. Rent money, grocery money and gas money should never ever be going to the window. We’d even go a step further to say that gambling money should be the very last part of your budget.
Kentucky horse betting FAQ
What’s the legal age to bet on horses in Kentucky?
You must be 18 years or older to place a bet on a horse race in Kentucky, either in person or online. That’s the same minimum age requirement for purchasing Kentucky Lottery tickets and for sports betting in KY.
Who regulates Kentucky horse betting?
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. If you have any issues at a Kentucky track or with a KY online horse betting site, contact the KHRC.
Can you bet on the Belmont Stakes in Kentucky?
Yes. Kentucky horse gamblers can bet on the Belmont Stakes just like any other horse race. They can place bets in-person at Kentucky’s simulcast facilities, or they can use online horse betting apps like FanDuel Racing.
Do I have to pay taxes on my winnings?
Yes. Horse racing winnings are taxable like any other type of income. Even though you’ll receive the proceeds in cash, you’re still supposed to notate it and list it when you file. We don’t have any information about how likely you are to encounter trouble, but don’t tempt fate. List your winnings for both federal and state taxes.