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Complete Guide to Horse Racing in the United States

Horse racing in the United States is a massive spectator sport, an even bigger industry, and not surprisingly an even bigger gambling business. The origins of horse racing in the Unites States go back to 1665 in New York State. Since then, it has grown into a massive industry with race track grandstands topping out at more than 100,000 seats.

Horse racing has been around since ancient times with civilizations like Ancient Greece, Babylon, Syria, and Egypt participating in the sport. It is estimated that the market worth of horse racing globally is north of $115 billion dollars annually. With this much money involved, it is worth learning more about the sport and how you can participate in the action.

In this guide, we’re going to walk you through everything that you need to know to be knowledgeable about horse racing in the United States. We’ll cover the different types of races, the key races you should know about, the types of bets available, where you should bet, important horses that are must-know, and some general history of the sport and its growth in the states. While this is, of course, not every piece of information there is about horse racing in the US; it is every important piece of information you need to be able to enjoy and bet on the sport confidently.

Types of Races

There are many different types of horse races in the United States that mainly differ by location, distance, and inclusion or exclusion of obstacles. Below, we’ll dive into some of the more popular types of races so that you can gain a better understanding on each of them. After that, we’ll cover some of the most important horse races in the United States.

  • Quarter Horse Races

    As the name implies, Quarter Horse races involve distances of a quarter of a mile or less. American Quarter Horses are bred specifically for these short sprint distances. These horses can reach speeds of up to 55 miles an hour when at full sprint. Currently, American Quarter Horses are the most popular breed of horse in the United States with over 3 million horses currently registered.

  • Thoroughbred Horse Races

    Thoroughbred Horse Racing involves Thoroughbred Horses. These horses are bred specifically for their type of racing. When it comes to Thoroughbred Horse racing, there are two main types of races: Flat racing and jump racing.

  • Thoroughbred Flat Horse Races

    Thoroughbred Flat racing involves flat tracks that are typically made up of dirt, turf, or synthetic material. Flat Thoroughbred racing is the most well-known type of racing in the United States as the major races involved are household names. The Kentucky Debry, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes are all Thoroughbred Flat races. These races tend to range from 0.25 miles up to 1.5 miles in length.

  • Thoroughbred Horse Jump Racing

    The other form of Thoroughbred is jump racing. For these races, horses run longer distances and must clear obstacles such as water and hurdles along the way. These races tend to range from 2 miles up to 4.5 miles in length. Jump races are often referred to as Steeplechases or National Hunt racing depending on the style.

  • Standard Horse Races

    Another type of horse race in the United States involves the Standardbred Horse. The Standardbred Horse is most commonly used in harness style (think chariots) racing. Standardbred Horses are fast horses that can also be used for pleasure riding and horse shows.

  • Endurance Horse Races

    Taking things to a whole new level is endurance racing. Endurance racing, as the name implies, involves much longer distances. An average endurance horse endurance race might range somewhere between 10 and 100 miles. Currently, the longest horse endurance race in the world is the Mongol Derby which has a staggering distance of 620 miles.

  • Arabian Horse Races

    Arabian Horse Racing is a rarer form of racing in the United States. This race involves Arabian Horses with roots from the Middle East. These Arabian Horses were bred for stamina over long distances which make them very good at endurance style races. You’ll often find many Arabian Horses competing in longer endurance races like the Mongol Derby.

Important Races

While there are tons of horse races every year in the United States, there are really four major races that nearly everyone needs to know about today. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes all combine to make up the Triple Crown Series. The fourth important horse race in the United States is the Breeder’s Cup which is held at the end of every year.

Types of Bets

When it comes to types of bets that you can make on horse racing in the United States, there are 11 main bets. Below, we’ve provided a quick cheat sheet of the 11 types of bets. After that, we’ll go into more detail on each one so that you can gain a better understanding of what your options are at the track or sportsbook.

Horse RacingTypes of Horse Racing Bets Cheat Sheet:
Type of Bet Description
Show Your selected horse must finish 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place.
Place Your selected horse must finish 1st or 2nd place.
Win Your selected horse must finish in 1st place.
Quinella Your selected horses must finish 1st and 2nd place in either order.
Exacta Your selected horses must finish 1st and 2nd place in exact order.
Trifecta Your selected horses must finish in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place in exact order.
Superfecta Your selected horses must finish in 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th place in exact order.
Daily Double Your selected horses must finish 1st places in two consecutive races.
Pick 3 Your selected horses must finish 1st place in three consecutive races.
Pick 4 Your selected horses must finish 1st place in four consecutive races.
Pick 6 Your selected horses must finish 1st place in six consecutive races.

Show is the first type of horse racing bet. For a show bet, the horse that you pick must finish in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place. Your odds of winning a show bet are pretty good. Payouts for Show bets tend to be modest.

If you want to make things a bit harder than a show bet, you can make a Place bet. For a Place bet, your chosen horse must come in either 1st or 2nd place. Payouts for Place bets tend to be better than Show bets, and you have good odds of winning.

If you’re really feeling good about your horse, you can place a Win bet. This one is pretty self-explanatory as your horse needs to finish in 1st place. Win bets give you average odds of winning and payouts will vary depending on the odds when your bet was placed.

After Show, Place, or Win bets, things begin to get more complicated but also can get more fun. Another great bet to consider is the Quinella. For a Quinella bet, you select two different horses, and then those two horses must finish in 1st and 2nd place. What’s great about the Quinella bet is that the order of the two horses does not matter and long as one of them finishes 1st and the other in 2nd. Your odds of winning a Quinella bet are average, and so are the payouts.

Taking the Quinella idea to another level brings the Exacta bet into the equation. For an Exacta, you select two horses and pick which one will finish 1st and which one will finish 2nd. Unlike the Quinella where the order doesn’t matter, the Exacta requires you to select the right finishing order. Your odds of winning an Exacta bet are hard, but because of this, payouts can be higher than other easier bets.

If you’re really looking for a challenging bet, consider making a Superfecta. For this bet, you must select the horses in the exact order for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place. It’s very similar to the Exacta, but it adds in one additional place. A Superfecta bet is very hard but can have big payoffs if you’re able to pick the right lineup of horses.

Another betting option is a Daily Double. For this bet, you have to select two horses to win two consecutive races. You must pick the 1st place finisher for back to back races. If you properly select both winners, you win! A Daily Double bet is a hard bet, but it can give you a decent payout if you’re correct.

Taking the Daily Double up a notch is the Pick 3 bet. For this bet, you must select the winner of 3 consecutive races. It adds one additional race to the Daily Double. A Pick 3 bet is very hard, but payoffs can be large if you’re able to pick correctly.

If you want to add another race to the Pick 3, you can select a Pick 4 race. For the Pick 4, you have to select the winner of 4 consecutive races. A Pick 4 bet is extremely hard but does typically have large payouts associated with the added risk.

Last, but not least, is the Pick 6 bet. This is the most challenging horse racing bet. For a Pick 6 bet, you must select the winner of 6 consecutive races. It is typically very expensive to place a Pick 6 wager, however; payoffs can be huge if you’re able to get it right.

Recommended Sites

To help you find a new home for your sports betting needs, we’ve gathered a short list of our favorite sites for betting on horse racing in the United States. Each of these recommended sites ranks highly in customer service, security, ease of navigation, and reliability. Our team has also analyzed the types of lines that they put out on horse races to make sure that they are in line and competitive with the rest of the industry.

If you’re serious about betting online, our recommendation is that you join multiple sites. This will allow you the ability to shop lines so that you’re making sure that you’re getting the best lines available. It is free to join these websites, and it can help you earn more in the long run.

If you’re ready to wager, check out the list of recommended sites below and be sure to take full advantage of their signup bonus offers for new members.


Horse racing in the United States dates all the way back to the year 1665. That year, the Newmarket course was established in Salisbury, New York on Long Island. Richard Nicolls, the colonial governor of New York, was present to supervise the first ever racing meet in the United States.

In 1868, The American Stud Book started the publication. This book listed a directory of Thoroughbred racing horses around the country. The publication of The American Stud Book pushed forward the beginning of organized horse racing in the United States.

After the publication of The American Stud Book, horse racing in America took off like a wildfire.

By 1890, there were 314 horse racing tracks operating in the United States. Due to the rapid growth of horse racing, the American Jockey Club was formed in 1894.

The American Jockey Club was an important development for horse racing in the United States. Till this day, the American Jockey Club is the breed registry for Thoroughbred horses in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. The American Jockey Club helps connect owners, breeders, and trainers with the end goal of helping to improve Thoroughbred racing in the United States.

In the early 1900s, both state and federal governments started a very strong anti-gambling stance. Due to this, many tracks shuttered forever. It was a massive blow to the US horse racing industry. Major races including the Belmont Stakes were not run for years while the anti-gambling focus was at its peak.

The anti-gambling laws of the early 1900s nearly wiped out horse racing within the United States for good. However, with the introduction of Parimutuel betting in 1908, things took a turn for the better. Parimutuel betting is a common type of betting for horse, greyhound, and jai alai. Parimutuel betting basically consists of one large pool of bets with the payout odds being calculated based on sharing the winnings with other winning bets.

With the introduction of Parimutuel betting, horse racing popularity in the United States began to flourish once again. Things were chugging along up until World War II. Once that began, the wind once again got sucked out of the sails as the entire country was focused on the war effort.

After the war, horse racing in the United States did not begin to gain popularity again until horses began winning The Triple Crown on a more regular basis. Luckily, two horses won the Triple Crown in 1946 and 1948 and it began to help the sport flourish once again. There was another significant spike in popularity after three horses won The Triple Crown in the 1970s.

Important Horses in US Horse Racing History

As we mentioned earlier, there are only 12 horses that have ever completed the chase for The Triple Crown. Many of these horses have now become household names in the United States and around the world. Below, we’ve built a short chart to showcase these horses along with the year in which they achieved the elusive Triple Crown. You’ll also find information about the jockey, trainer, breeder, and owner of the horse.

Year Winner Jockey Trainer Owner Breeder
1919 Sir Barton Johnny Loftus H. Guy Bedwell J. K. L. Ross John E. Madden
1930 Gallant Fox Earl Sande Jim Fitzsimmons Belair Stud Belair Stud
1935 Omaha Willie “Smokey” Saunders Jim Fitzsimmons Belair Stud Belair Stud
1937 War Admiral Charles Kurtsinger George Conway Samuel D. Riddle Samuel D. Riddle
1941 Whirlaway Eddie Arcaro Ben A. Jones Calumet Farm Calumet Farm
1943 Count Fleet Johnny Longden Don Cameron Fannie Hertz Fannie Hertz
1946 Assault Warren Mehrtens Max Hirsch King Ranch King Ranch
1948 Citation Eddie Arcaro Horace A. “Jimmy” Jones Calumet Farm Calumet Farm
1973 Secretariat Ron Turcotte Lucien Laurin Meadow Stable Meadow Stable
1977 Seattle Slew Jean Cruguet William H. Turner, Jr. Mickey and Karen L. Taylor Ben S. Castleman
1978 Affirmed Steve Cauthen Laz Barrera Harbor View Farm Harbor View Farm
2015 American Pharoah Victor Espinoza Bob Baffert Ahmed Zayat Ahmed Zayat
  • Secretariat

Secretariat was The Triple Crown Winner in 1973. He broke a streak of 25 years with no Triple Crown winner. Secretariat finished his quest for The Triple Crown with an astonishing 31 length lead when he finished The Belmont Stakes. In 2010, Walt Disney Pictures released a movie about Secretariat.

  • War Admiral

War Admiral was the fourth winner ever of The Triple Crown in 1937, and he was also named the Horse of the Year that year. He was a dominant horse with a reported fiery temperament. War Admiral lost the “Match Race of the Century” to little-known Seabiscuit.

  • American Pharaoh

American Pharaoh is the most recent winner of The Triple Crown, having earned that honor in 2015. He also won The Breeder’s Cup Classic in that same year. His winning time at The Belmont Stakes was the 2nd fastest ever of a Triple Crown winner.

  • Seabiscuit

Seabiscuit is the horse equivalent of the Little Engine That Could. He had a very slow start to his racing career but then become one of the top horses in the world. Seabiscuit became a household name when he defeated highly favored War Admiral in the “Match Race of the Century” in 1938. Many books and films have been made about the story of Seabiscuit including the most recent film in 2003.