What is betting "across the board," and is it a smart strategy?

November 23rd, 2021

Like any sport, horse racing comes with its fair share of specialized lingo. Throw in the fact horse racing has long been intertwined with betting (a whole world unto itself), and the amount of terminology can be imposing for newcomers to approach.

One confusing phrase you’re bound to encounter is “across the board.” You might be familiar with the phrase since it’s commonly used outside of horse racing. The problem is, the regular definition and the horse racing definition are only somewhat related.

The definition of “across the board”

Search for the meaning of “across the board” on Google, and you’ll find two definitions courtesy of Oxford Languages. The first (and most widespread) definition is “applying to all,” as in, “the racetrack is raising purses across the board for its 2022 meet.”

But the second definition is a bit different. Oxford Languages indicates “across the board” is also a U.S. horse racing phrase “denoting a bet in which equal amounts are staked on the same horse to win, place, or show in a race.” So instead of betting, say, $10 to win, you’re betting $10 to win, $10 to place, and $10 to show, for a total investment of $30.

Back in the days before exotic wagers were introduced, win, place, and show bets were the only options available to bettors. So perhaps there was originally a connection between the primary definition of “across the board” (applying to all) and the horse racing definition (which would have meant betting a horse in all available pools).

Is betting across the board a smart strategy?

Betting across the board might seem like a safe approach since it triggers payoffs in multiple scenarios. If your chosen horses wins, you cash all three wagers. If he settles for second place, you’ll cash the place bet and show bet. And if he comes in third, at least your show bet will return some cash.

But betting across the board isn’t necessarily as rewarding as it sounds, particularly if you’re betting short-priced runners. Consider the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1), a race won by 4-5 favorite Echo Zulu.

When the results were posted, Echo Zulu paid $3.60 to win, $2.60 to place, and $2.10 to show (based on $2 wagers), which meant betting her across the board would have returned just $8.30 on a $6 investment. Had Echo Zulu finished second, the payoff would have been just $4.70, representing a loss of $1.30. And a third-place finish would have returned only $2.10 for a loss of $3.90.

In instances like these, it makes more sense to take the $6 investment and bet it all to win on the short-priced favorite. In the Echo Zulu example, a $6 win bet would have returned $10.80—not quite a double-your-money proposition, but meaningfully better than the $8.30 payoff from betting across the board.

Betting across the board is a better strategy when playing longshots. Suppose you were a fan of the unheralded 37-1 longshot Commanding Curve in the 2014 Kentucky Derby (G1), but you weren’t certain he could beat 5-2 favorite California Chrome. If you had bet Commanding Curve to win, you would have missed out when he settled for second place behind California Chrome. But bettors who played Commanding Curve across the board caught a $31.80 place payoff and a $15.40 show payoff, good for a total return of $47.20 on a $6 investment.

Now that you’re up to speed on definitions and strategies, you’re ready to bet “across the board” whenever the right situations arise. Good luck!