Horse Racing

A Sure Bet: The Trifecta

August 13, 2009

Three in a row might not win a poker game, but it pays in horse racing.

By C. Reid McLellan

One of the most popular exotic bets at a racetrack is the trifecta, a bet that allows a player to pick the runners that finish first, second and third in EXACT order. Three ways to play the trifecta are straight, box and wheel.

Straight Trifecta

A straight trifecta is played by picking three horses then going to a mutuel window and saying, “$2 trifecta 1-2-3.” You win if the final order of finish is exactly 1 – 2 – 3.

Trifecta Box

If you want to win if any combination of those three horses finishes first, second and third, you want to play a trifecta box. At the window say, “$1 trifecta box 1,2,3.” You win if 1, 2 and 3 finish first, second and third in any order. Note that the trifecta box has six winning combinations (1-2-3, 1-3-2, 2-1-3, 2-3-1, 3-1-2 and 3-2-1). Because you are betting a $1 trifecta box, you are betting $1 on each of those combinations, so the cost of this bet is $6. At most tracks, the payoffs that are shown on the tote board are the amount won for a $2 bet. So, if you bet $1 trifectas, you will get half of the amount posted. If you bet a $3 trifecta box, your total investment will be $18. If one of your combinations is a winner, you will receive 1.5 times the payoff amount posted on the tote board.

Trifecta Wheel

When there is a solid top pick in a race, that’s a good time to play a trifecta wheel. To play a trifecta wheel, you will select a “key” horse and then some “wheel” horses. Go to a mutuel window and say, “$1 trifecta 1 with 2, 3, 4 with 2, 3, 4.” This bet is a winner if 1 wins, either 2, 3 or 4 runs second and either 2, 3 or 4 runs third. There are six possible winning combinations (1-2-3, 1-2-4, 1-3-2, 1-3-4, 1-4-2 and 1-4-3), so this bet will cost you $6. But, note that you are including a fourth horse, and a four-horse trifecta box costs $24. If you are willing to commit to one horse to finish first, then you could play a trifecta in four races for the price of one.

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You can use different numbers of horses in each position, such as, “$1 trifecta 1, 2 with 1, 2, 3, 4 with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.” In this multiple-part wheel bet, you win if any of the horses finish in the spot in which they are listed. You must repeat the numbers for each spot (1 and 2 appear in all three spots) in order to win if that horse finishes in a top-three position. To calculate the cost of such a wager, you multiply the smallest number of horses listed in a spot times the second smallest number minus one times the third number minus 2. In our example, the smallest number is 2, second-smallest is 4 and third number is 6, so our cost would be 2 x 3 x 4 = $24. Once again, we have invested the same amount of money necessary to bet a four-horse trifecta box, and in this case we’ve included six horses in the wager.

When to Play the Trifecta

Generally, the best time to box three or four horses in a trifecta is in a race that has at least 10 runners and there is not a solid top pick. A wheel can be a good bet when you have strong confidence that one runner will win and the rest of the field is evenly matched. Or you have a strong feeling that a longshot has a good chance at finishing in the top three.

Don’t forget to include a straight bet to win on a “solid top pick” and a show bet on a longshot or two. But, if you can pick three in a row, you could win a lot of dough. Plus, playing the racing game doesn’t require keeping a poker face.

As Executive Director of The Elite Program, C. Reid McLellan organizes and teaches Groom, Owner and Trainer Elite classes around the country.

As owner and agent of Purple Power Equine Services, Reid helps people buy and sell race and show prospects and provides guidance and assistance with training, breeding and other equine services.

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