How to Bet the Trifecta

July 12th, 2018

If you’re just getting started betting on horse races, you might be confused by the multitudes of wagering options available, with many types boasting unusual names that aren’t necessarily self-explanatory.

But never fear—TwinSpires is here to help! We’ll explain the terminology, introduce you to the different types of bets, and provide tips on how to effectively structure your tickets.

What is the Trifecta?

The trifecta is one wager with a name that hints at its purpose. To win the trifecta, all you have to do is pick the top three finishers of a race in the correct order—though of course, that’s easier said than done! In an eight-horse field, there are 336 possible outcomes, and barring a dead-heat, only one outcome will be correct.

Fortunately, you aren’t required to play the trifecta “cold” and predict the order of finish exactly. You can play multiple horses in any slot of the trifecta, thus increasing your chances of winning.

Let’s explore a few different strategies for betting the trifecta using the 2018 Delaware Handicap (gr. II) as an example race. In the Delaware Handicap, I am of the opinion that the two-time Grade 1 winner #6 Elate is the horse to beat, with #5 Unbridled Mo and #3 Mopotism being the other main contenders.

The Trifecta Box

Once in a while, you’ll come across a race in which three horses seem evenly-matched while clearly superior to the rest of the entrants. This is a good time to consider the classic “trifecta box,” in which you play three or more horses on a single ticket, and if your horses finish 1-2-3 (in any order), you win the bet.

For example, if I were to conclude that Elate, Unbridled Mo, and Mopotism are clearly the three best fillies in the Delaware Handicap, I could play a 3,5,6 trifecta box and come out a winner so long as they are the first three horses across the wire.

The only problem with trifecta boxes is that they can quickly become expensive. A $2 trifecta box using three horses costs $12; adding a fourth horse raises the cost to $48, and a fifth horse takes it all the way to $120! Unless you’re playing longshots that will boost the prospective payoff, the cost of a trifecta box can quickly outpace the potential return on investment.

The ticket:

  • $2 trifecta: 3,5,6 with 3,5,6 with 3,5,6 ($12)

The Trifecta Part-Wheel

A more cost-effective strategy, and one that allows you to bet your opinions in a more clear-cut manner, is the trifecta part-wheel. This type of trifecta uses a varying numbers of horses in the three slots of the trifecta.

Since I believe Elate is the most likely winner of the Delaware Handicap, with Unbridled Mo and Mopotism the logical candidates to finish second and third, I could play a “6 with 3,5 with 3,5” trifecta that would cost just $4 for a $2 base—much less expensive than a $2 trifecta box, though of course this ticket requires Elate to win the race.

Then again, since the ticket costs less, I could also use my savings to add the longshots #1 Teresa Z and #2 Sneaky Betty to the final slot on my ticket, just in case one of them steps up and edges Unbridled Mo or Mopotism for third place:

The tickets:

  • $2 trifecta: 6 with 3,5 with 3,5 ($4)

  • $2 trifecta: 6 with 3,5 with 1,2,3,5 ($12)

The “Key Horse” Trifecta Part-Wheel

If you’re convinced that a particular horse is going to finish in the trifecta, but you’re not certain they’ll actually win the race, you can consider making that runner your “key horse” in a series of trifecta part-wheels. Basically, this means that you’ll play three tickets—one using your key horse in first place, another using your key horse in second place, and a final ticket using your key horse in third place.

For a short-priced favorite like Elate, this might not be the most cost-effective strategy. However, if the horse you like is a longshot, this approach can help you achieve a meaningful profit if you’re mostly correct, but your key horse falls short of victory.

For the sake of a simple example, let’s say that I’m planning to make Elate my key horse and play her in all slots of the trifecta, using the second trifecta part-wheel listed above as the base:

The tickets:

  • $2 trifecta: 6 with 3,5 with 1,2,3,5 ($12) $2 trifecta: 3,5 with 6 with 1,2,3,5 ($12) $2 trifecta: 3,5 with 1,2,3,5 with 6 ($12)

As you can see, this strategy can get expensive (costing $36 total), but it does provide me with a lot of options for cashing a winning ticket. And if Elate were a 10-1 or 20-1 shot, the payoff for a winning ticket could significantly exceed the $36 investment.

Betting the Trifecta Like an Exacta

Another option, if you believe that two horses are clearly better than the rest, is to play them in the first two slots of the trifecta while using several other horses (or perhaps every other horse) for third place. This is similar to playing the exacta except that you’re introducing the possibility of catching a longshot for third place, triggering a much larger payoff.

If I were to take this approach in the Delaware Handicap, I would use Elate and Unbridled Mo for the first two slots while adding Mopotism, Teresa Z, and Sneaky Betty underneath. This is the strategy that I would be inclined to employ for this particular race, since it reflects my opinion that Elate is the horse to beat while covering for the possibility that she might need a race in her first start of the season and come up short against Unbridled Mo, who looms as my clear second choice:

 The ticket:

  • $2 trifecta: 5,6 with 5,6 with 1,2,3 ($12)

Armed with these strategies, I hope you’re ready to give the trifecta a try this weekend!