Exacta Skills

Exacta Skills

Building your skills at handicapping and betting the exacta can make a big difference in your bankroll’s health – IF – you learn and apply the factors needed to be consistently successful at it.

By definition – you first need the skills to find the winner (most handicapping methods concentrate on this aspect) – and then (equally as important) the know-how for finding the horse/s that will most likely run second.

In the discussion that follows – we’ll concentrate on the latter: How to identify the horse/s most likely to run second.  Interested?

Exacta betting can be a frustrating thing.  These scenarios are commonplace:

– Betting your top ranked horse to every other nag with a pulse – only to watch your top pick falter in deep stretch while a few of those you had in the second-slot pass it late.

– Boxing up two of your overlay contenders with each other – along with a 1 or 2 other decent odds horses – only to watch the 6/5 favorite win – leaving you with a handful of worthless paper stubs.

– Betting a “sure-thing” top-figure consensus favorite to 3 or 4 others – only to watch the longest odds of those others win while the fav. runs second.

– Betting a well-thought-out, one-way cold exacta ticket that looks and feels like the proverbial lock, and have them come home in exactly that order – but in the second and third slot while a longer odds horse gets the win.

– etc. etc.

Avoiding as many of those incidents as possible is our goal . . .


I recently came across a reference to the Journal of Applied Statistics (Vol. 25, No. 2, 1998).  In that journal was an analysis of over 15,000 races.

The data obtained from those races led to the conclusion that:  all handicapping models tend to overestimate the probability of a horse finishing second or third when that horse has a high probability of winning, but underestimate the probability of a horse finishing second or third when the horse has a low probability of winning.

Restated:  Handicapping models suffer from a favorite / longshot bias where the assigned probability of finishing second or third is overestimated for horses which have been assigned a high probability of winning, and is underestimated for horses which have been given a low probability of winning. The data were further subdivided by year and racetrack, and an analysis of these data still led to the same conclusion about the favorite – longshot bias.

Reading that reminded me of one of Doc Sartin’s caveats decades ago – to paraphrase: “The second most likely horse to win is not the most likely horse to run second .”

A common way players structure their exacta tickets is to put their top handicapped (one or two) contenders on top – and those same one or two horses – along with their next two or three win contenders in the second slot.

That is:  They judge a horse’s ability to run second as a comparative, ordered ratio – relative to their chances of winning the race.

I submit that structuring exacta tickets should be done a different way.

The first consideration (unfortunately) is that even though you don’t put the favorite on top – you need to consider adding it to the second slot if the payoff allows. The simple fact is that in 55% of all races run in North America – the favorite runs first or second.  In addition, remember that when there is an odds-on runner who is also the top “consensus” horse among the public (DRF/track program) handicappers – these types figure into the exacta around 68% of the time!  Many races will therefore need to be passed for exacta betting.  

It’s often better to just try to beat the favorite for win.  If your win selection is not returning fairly high odds – coupling with the favorite in the exacta won’t return enough to make the venture worthwhile. 


Now lets dive into how to get a better handle on finding the horse/s most likely to run second and completing the exacta.

First look – pace and pace-opposites:

– If you have a race with three or more early speed horses, the chances increase that the place slot will be filled by a horse that doesn’t run to that style.  The likelihood is that one of the speedsters will end up dominating that early group (from the pace-setting position, or just off it).  The other early runners will run their hearts out – then get discouraged and fade – thereby allowing a mid-pack or late runner to run into the place spot.

–  If there are only two speedsters and both are need-to-lead types – then that can set up a pace duel where they wear each other out, and both melt down – allowing the stretch runners to pass them in the stretch.

– Then there’s the race with a lone front runner who also figures to be competitive in today’s field. These are very dangerous for win, and again set up the race so the place horse will likely be the best third fraction runner from among those that can also – stay close to the pace of the group running behind the lone speed horse.

– Very few tracks actually favor late closers over the long-term, but most any track can develop a late bias in the short-term.  When this is the case,  you’d be looking at one of the best early horses in the race to hold on for second.

– You should always consider including the strongest closer in the race (given that the horse otherwise looks to be competitive with today’s group) on the backside of your exacta ticket. Traffic problems – a slow early pace – poor timing on the jock’s part, etc – several things in a race can work against the strong closer, but they very often still manage to get rolling late and get up for place.


Second look – class:

You’ve undoubtedly noticed how horses dropping in class often run better than their figures suggest.  As well, most players are aware that in claiming races – a drop in class of 30% or more is one of the strongest factors for win consideration.

Have you also noticed how often a class dropper of say one level – or two – runs an improved race, but has not yet found its proper win level.  This is the kind that will often complete the exacta.

If a horse has back class (and has been running for the highest purse values of any of the others in the field), is in the hands of a decent trainer, and is dropping today off poor (but not horrible) looking recent efforts – it should be considered as a place candidate on your exacta ticket.


Third look – last race.

Did the horse win its last race uncontested on the lead?  If so, and it appears it will get challenged on the lead today, these types (if holding their good form) will often run second today.

Is the horse cutting back in distance?  A horse that appears to be okay in its form cycle, and appears to have enough speed at the route to at least be in the same zip code at the second call in a sprint, (and particularly if in the hands of a sharp trainer), will often be blasting home in the late stages.  As mentioned above, much can mitigate against this type winning, but they often go off at value odds, and can produce some nice exacta payouts.


. . . Saved the most important for the last –

Serious players will keep a model for the horses that are placing (actually running second) at the tracks they play.  Nothing else – no generalized guidelines, or ‘hossy’ aphorisms will provide you with the real key to profitable exacta betting – but . . . keeping a place model will (refer back to the post on Keeping A Handicapping Model).

You also need to bet the exacta properly:  Many players bet the exacta in too many races, bet too many combinations in a race, and also tend to accept too low of payoffs.

My personal guidelines are to bet 8 or fewer combinations – and to require the minimum payoff among the combinations selected to be at least triple the amount I’ve put into the total wager.


Okay!  Exactas can grow your bankroll if played wisely, and they provide the opportunities for some sudden ‘jolts’ upward on the occasional big hit.  Put in the time to learn how to identify the horses most likely to run second , and you’ll get your deserved rewards.

As always – best of fortune to you . . . Comments are welcomed.

– Gary


  1. Gary,
    Thanks for sharing your exacta skills.
    I have only a brief comment regarding
    boxing the favorite with potential place
    horse going off at long odds. I have missed
    many huge exactas being intimidated by
    the favorite’s stellar credentials and not
    trusting the Longshot to win. Reversing the
    exacta when the prospective place horse goes
    off at long odds is a good strategy in the long
    run. The longshots do win and exactas with the
    favorite at the bottom pay off handsomely.

    • Marin — Thanks for the comment – and right you are! That’s what I was hinting when I talked about the favorite being in 55% (or more) of all winning exacta combinations, and that they must be considered in each race. Most usually – having the favorite on top (to any horse) will result in a payoff that is lower than it should be – given a fair payout for the two odds involved. Fav on top combinations are just invariably over-bet. Which is not to say that good amounts (total exacta payout) can’t be had, but they will still be paying less-than-fair. Of course, the only way to know is to have a fair payout chart and consult the will-pays just before post time.

      I’ve added a page to this site (brought over from the Horse Racing Gold site) that has several tools players might find useful. The link to that page: Wagering Tools. If you want to go directly to the “Fair-Pay” exacta chart – that is here: Exacta Payout Chart

  2. As always, an excellent article, Gary. In years past, I was one of the “lazy” bettors who boxed everything….then, with a little “counseling” from HRG, I began to look at odds and payoffs in a much more critical light. The result has been that I now only bet two or three exactas on any particular race day….my bankroll has been spared a ton of losing tickets and I can now say that I have fared much better in the long run with my win bets…no longer compromising my betting by trying to cash a break-even or losing combination of horses in exactas or trifectas. Thanks for all your “hammering” on this old hard head!

    • Carl – Your comments are always much appreciated. Yep -“boxing” does seem to be a favorite way for exacta bettors to wager. Other than the ease of placing the wager, I guess it stems from often seeing one’s ‘straight’ exacta combo come in in the reverse order, and thus boxing becomes kind of like an ‘insurance’ bet. But – as general fare (without consideration of other important factors) – it’s not a good way to approach the exacta wager.

      And as you mention – over-betting the exacta is also very common (and can be a result of trying to “box” up too many horses). After all combinations are sorted out, a player will tally up the cost of those combinations. Sometimes the net payoff on a particular combo/s (less the total amount bet on all combos) – though profitable should it hit – will still return less than win-betting the horse on top of that ticket would have. A last minute check of the ‘will pays’ and a quick tally as above – will often lead to a more prudent mix of win bets and exacta combinations. – Gary

  3. Excellent essay Gary. I intuitively knew that a win contender was not necessarily a good place candidate, but I had never seen statistics to support my “feeling”. Thank you for giving me a lot to think about. I don’t currently play exactas, but I now have a guide for formulating a strategy. Luckily I have a half million-race database to test against.

    • Doug – Thanks for the comment. The exacta has been called, “the people’s bet” – meaning that for those without the deep pockets that allow going after the superfecta or pick 4s, pick 5s and pick 6s . . . the exacta bet is an accessible wager that still provides (potentially) a bit of “bang for the buck.” It’s well worth study, and creating a profitable strategy can be accomplished by those willing to get serious about it. Best of fortune to you. – Gary

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