How small fields provide chances to nail exotic wagers

June 7th, 2023

There is a belief among bettors that small fields make for unappealing betting races. It’s a reasonable assumption; every extra horse in a race dramatically increases the number of possible outcomes, which often leads to bigger payoffs.

But small fields don’t always mean small payoffs. When there are only five or six horses in a race, bettors can feel more confident betting exotic wagers (like the exacta and trifecta) in “cold” fashion, which means betting on one precise outcome without covering any other options. This can increase return on investment so that a smaller payoff is as good as a big one. Betting a single $1 trifecta that pays $21 yields a 20-1 payoff, which is better than spending $24 to hit a $1 trifecta that pays $384 (15-1).

A lucrative example occurred on May 31, 2023 at Horseshoe Indianapolis. The day’s second race was a five-furlong maiden special weight for two-year-old fillies. Only five horses turned out, with April Clover—fifth in her debut in a maiden special weight at Churchill Downs—favored at 1-1. The second choice at 8-5 was Heavenly Dream, runner-up in a maiden special weight at Horseshoe Indianapolis three weeks prior.

Overlooked at odds of 4-1 was Crown Imperial, a first-time starter from the barn of John Ortiz. But trainer stats suggested Crown Imperial was hands-down the filly to beat. Ortiz doesn’t normally win at a high rate with first-time starters; he went 3-for-34 (9%) in 2021 and 9-for-57 (16%) in 2022.

But with two-year-olds debuting in dirt sprints at Horseshoe Indianapolis, the data told a dramatically different story. Since 2018, Ortiz had gone 7-for-13 with such runners, compiling an extraordinary 54% win rate. Factoring this stat alongside Crown Imperial’s promising pedigree (her sire, Classic Empire, was voted champion two-year-old male at the Eclipse Awards), it was easy to view Crown Imperial as a standout in her debut.

At 4-1, Crown Imperial was well worth betting to win. But keying her over April Clover and Heavenly Dream in cold exacta and trifecta wagers was similarly appealing. April Clover appeared to rank a cut above Heavenly Dream, and the other two entrants in the five-horse field were longshots, so on paper there was only one outcome that seemed likely to unfold.

And indeed, the race unfolded exactly as expected. Crown Imperial rallied smartly from just off the pace to beat April Clover by two lengths, with Heavenly Dream settling for third place. A $20 win bet on Crown Imperial returned $102, while the $20 exacta paid $252 and the $20 trifecta yielded $506.

The next time you see a small field, don’t assume it’s a poor betting race. If you can solve cold exacta and/or trifecta wagers, you might be in line for surprisingly generous payoffs.