There is nothing quite like a nice warm summer’s day at the horse track. Whether you are at Churchill Downs in Kentucky or Belmont Park in New York, horse racing has been a hugely popular form of entertainment for millions of Americans for decades. The thrill and excitement of watching the horses and jockeys go at it is one which I can never get enough of, even if I do have to stop myself from getting too carried away, at times.

While it is easy to place big bets on races, a trip to the horse track does not require you to empty your bank account and sell grandma’s heirlooms at all. In fact, I would advise you not to do that at all. Ever. Instead, be comfortable and have some fun. You don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money at the horse track to have fun, as the atmosphere and vibe are usually pretty uplifting. It’s an experience.

If you are looking at attending the horse track for the first time, there are some things that you should know. There are rules – both written and unwritten – and a number of ways to place bets, collect your winnings (if you are lucky), and to have fun. Remember, if you are attending the horse track with any other intentions, you might end up disappointed. This is entertainment, after all.

The Basics

First things first, you need to ensure that you are at least 18 years of age to place a bet at most horse tracks. If you are lucky enough to defy Father Time, I would personally advise taking some ID with you, just in case. In order to place a bet, you’re going to need some money, too, so don’t forget your wallet! There is also an entry fee to pay at most major tracks, so factor this into your day, if you haven’t already bought your tickets.

When it comes to snacks and refreshments, you will find that most tracks have you covered. Unless you are planning to dine in one of the higher-end eateries of America’s horse tracks, you will more than likely be limited to what you can order. Sandwiches, fries, hot dogs, and popcorn are usually what’s on the menu. You may find that this varies slightly from track to track, but don’t go expecting lobster and caviar!

What is Horse Racing?

If you are asking this – and worry that this may sound like a dumb question – don’t worry. You would be surprised at how many people know what a horse and jockey are, but don’t really grasp the idea. It is very simple: horse racing is a sport where horses are ridden by jockeys around a track. Depending on the track and the type of race, there may be small obstacles to jump, or none at all. The aim is to be the first horse to cross the winning line.

The horses in a race must be ridden by a jockey in order to race. One of the most common questions I hear from those who are new to horse racing relates to when a jockey falls off and the horse keeps running. “Can that horse still win, Danny, even if there is no jockey riding him?” The answer is no. Even if the free-running horse is a sight to behold, as soon as the jockey falls off, he cannot win the race.

When betting on horse racing, you will simply select the horse you believe to win. There are some horses who are considered better and faster than the others and these will usually come with shorter odds. Shorter odds mean that, if you back a particular horse that wins, the payout will be less. Don’t worry about this now as I will cover everything you need to know about horse racing bets a little later.

Choosing a Track

For those of you who are not already committed to attending a particular horse track, you have options. Well, in theory, at least. There are some very impressive horse tracks dotted around America but you may find that some – if not most – are not in your state or even remotely close. You will usually find smaller tracks to visit, but if distance is no issue and you have your heart set on one of the larger tracks, fear not.

According to many horse racing enthusiasts (and little old me), these are the 5 best horse tracks in North America:

Churchill Downs (Louisville, Kentucky)

Churchill Downs
You can’t get any more iconic than the twin spires of Louisville’s Churchill Downs. This is the home of the world-famous Kentucky Derby, which is also one of the most respected races on the planet. The track is steeped in history and has a really cool, old-fashioned feel to it that will inspire you to get involved in the festivities.

Santa Anita Park (Arcadia, California)

Santa Anita Park
For residents of Los Angeles, this is the place to be. With almost 85 years of history, Santa Anita is also an American institution of horse racing. The Santa Anita Derby is known by horse racing enthusiasts all over the world and the prize of $1 million is not too shabby, either.

Belmont Park (Elmont, New York)

Belmont Race Track
The final leg of the triple crown takes place at Belmont Park. The course is another example to the world of how to run a horse track, given that it consistently appears in many “to-do” lists for tourists visiting the city. Belmont Park once hosted airshows at a time that attracted thousands of viewers to the ground, which is an interesting by-note.

Saratoga (Saratoga Springs, New York)

Saratoga Race Track
Saratoga was partly-founded by one of the richest men in America, Cornelius Vanderbilt. This is an historic horse track that attracts many budding bettors keen to indulge in iconic surroundings. Saratoga Springs, the area that surrounds the horse track, was once the stomping ground of the elite families of New York in the 1800’s.

Del Mar (Del Mar, California)

Del Mar Race Track
California’s Del Mar is regarded as being one of the most picturesque of America’s horse tracks. The slogan for the track, “where the surf meets the turf,” certainly does a lot to promote it as one of the most unique tracks you will likely visit. Del Mar also has some interesting history: Seabiscuit and Ligaroti raced here in 1938. The track was also built with the help of Bing Crosby and Gary Cooper.

Before You Visit the Race Track

There is no doubt that attendees of the race track will fall into two categories: those who are there for the fun and those who are there for the fun and to win money. If you are the former, you may believe in letting luck have its way with your money. If you are edging towards the latter, you may want to prepare a little more for your trip to the track. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, but you can’t win them all.

With that in mind, there are a few areas you might want to consider before you visit the track:

Set Your Bankroll Limits

How much are you planning to spend on your day out at the races? Have you set your bankroll, or in other words, allotted an amount to spend on bets? If you have, good for you. If you have not, you had better figure this out before you visit the track. Horse racing is fun but can lose the entertainment value if you indulge in spending money you don’t have. That’s why it is a good idea to figure out an amount to spend.

One of the most important things to do – especially if you have poor money management skills and an impulsive nature –  is to assign money to bets and money to food, drinks, and so on. If you can’t be trusted with a credit card or ATM card, don’t bring it. Take cash but always ensure that is kept safe in your possession. While the majority of racegoers wouldn’t dream of pickpocketing, you can never be entirely sure.

Educate Yourself

Do you know how to get to the track? Do you know where the entrance is, according to your tickets? Are you certain of where to go to place bets and collect your winnings? Don’t fear, I will cover that in more detail later. For now, however, you should think about learning a little about horse racing and odds, bets, and how it works. You don’t have to go overboard – as there are tips below for you – but it might help.

If you have no idea what a horse track is and don’t know a horse race from a horse’s face, then there is a lot of material online that can help. If you are feeling a little anxious about your first trip to the track – especially as you have never seen a race before – then it might be a good idea to…

Watch Some Races

Horse racing is one of the world’s most popular spectator sports so you can be certain that there will always be a horse race somewhere in the world, on most days. If you are a visual person, or one who prefers to learn by observing rather than reading, it might be a good idea to watch as many races as you can to get the feel for things. There are also tons of classic horse races on YouTube, so fear not.

Once again, you don’t have to really go overboard when watching horse racing, but a little familiarity might make you the leader of the pack when you visit the track. You can be guaranteed that there will be someone who feels clueless in your group, so you could even become the fount of all knowledge on the big day.

When at the Track

This is when things get interesting! The day of your first trip to the horse track is here and the excitement is too much. You have your bankroll sorted, you have done a little homework, and have been identified as the smarty pants of the group. The first thing you will need to do is check your tickets and find out where you will be sitting. Your entrance, row, and seat number will be printed on the ticket making it all easier to find.

Once you have found your seats and have settled in, you may want to place your first bet. You have options, but these will depend on what races are on that day. You will find that your programs or guides list the times of races and the horses, jockeys, and trainers that are taking part in those races. The trainers don’t actually race, but they will likely be there to watch the action take place.

Odds are not printed in guides as these tend to change according to betting activity. However, you will find odds in monitors around the betting terminals that are located in the areas inside the stands and around the track. There are also automatic betting terminals that you can use to place your bets. Many race bettors find these are easier to use, in comparison to traditional betting windows.

Placing Your Bets

In order to place your bet, you must list:

  • The race number/time/name
  • The amount of your bet (in dollars)
  • The type of bet
  • The horse’s number (or numbers, if you are making multiple bets)

There are also a few different ways you can pick a winner. The most basic wager is a “Win” bet. This is a bet where you choose the winning horse in a race. If you are not sure that the horse will win, you can opt for a “Place” bet, which is choosing a horse to finish either first or second. You will win a fraction of the horse’s odds for this bet. There is also a “Show” bet, which also pays a fraction of the odds for a horse to finish 1st, 2nd, or 3rd.

Alternative Bets

There are other bets that can be placed, which are a little more complicated and involve more races than one. These are:

Exacta: Choosing the winner and runner-up in that order
Trifecta: Choosing the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places, in that order
Superfecta: Choosing the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th places, in that order

If you want to bet on a number of races on the day, you can also place “pick” bets. These are:

Daily Double: Choosing the winner in two consecutive races
Pick Three: Choosing the winner in three consecutive races
Pick Four: Choosing the winner in four consecutive races
Pick Five: Choosing the winner in five consecutive races
Pick Six: Choosing the winner in six consecutive races

As you can see, there are a number of bets out there for racing enthusiasts. The bets you place are entirely up to you, but always ensure that you understand how these work and what payout to expect.


If you are lucky enough to have won any of your bets, you can make your way to the betting clerk at the terminal where you placed your bet. Once they have checked your ticket, they will pay out your winnings! Always ensure that you wait until the race results have been confirmed, however, as you cannot receive your payout until this has been finalized.

Those who win big at the races might consider tipping the clerk. This is something that is seen as a nice gesture for anyone who makes a lot of money at the races. If you have just won a dollar or two, you are probably OK to just take your money, however.


A day at the race track should be fun. After all, what is watching the horses all about if it isn’t entertainment? The event, crowds, races, and the unfamiliar feel to everything might be a little intimidating. However, you will find that it all makes sense after a little while. If you have done your homework before attending the track, things will be even easier to get the grasp of.

Whether you are in New York, California, or Kentucky, the horse track should pretty much work the same way. You place your bets, watch the races, and hopefully leave with fatter pockets at the end of the day.

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