When to bet to place (or not)

February 7th, 2023

The place bet can be a tricky wager to properly play. Not because it’s complicated to understand, but because executing a sound strategy that capitalizes on your handicapping opinions is easier said than done.

What is a place bet?

A place bet is a lot like a win bet except you receive a payoff if your horse finishes second or first, instead of first only. Cashing a ticket when your horse runs well, but winds up finishing second, sounds appealing at first. But oftentimes the exacta (requiring you to select the top two finishers in the correct order) is a better play.

When to bet to place

Although strategies for betting place wagers can vary, arguably the best time to take the place approach is when you expect a nice-priced horse to outrun expectations, but lack any strong feelings about which rival will prevail if your horse settles for second place.

Here’s an example: let’s say you liked the chances of 34-1 longshot Golden Soul to run a strong race in the 2013 Kentucky Derby (G1). But you weren’t convinced he would visit the winner’s circle, and you found it difficult to separate the other runners.

You could have played $2 exacta tickets betting Golden Soul to finish first or second while using every other horse for the remaining slot, but with 18 other horses in the field, covering the possibility of Golden Soul finished first or second would have cost $72. You still would have made a nice profit after 5-1 favorite Orb defeated Golden Soul by 2 1/2 lengths (the $2 exacta returned $981.60), but betting $72 to place on Golden Soul would have returned an even better $1,389.60.

When to avoid place bets

The example above notwithstanding, there are many cases in which it’s wiser to bet an exacta rather than a place wager.

Continuing our theme of longshots, let’s say you liked Ami’s Mesa at 18-1 in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1). Coming off three consecutive graded stakes triumphs, she was a logical candidate to outrun her odds.

Now let’s say you were opposed to 11-10 favorite Unique Bella, a three-year-old filly making her Grade 1 debut off a single easy prep race. If you wanted to cover the possibility of Ami’s Mesa finishing second, betting her with “ALL” in $2 exactas made sense. The Unique Bella/Ami’s Mesa combination wouldn’t have been especially lucrative, but any other result would have triggered a big payoff.

And indeed, that’s what happened. Betting Ami’s Mesa first or second with “ALL” in $2 exactas would have cost $52, and when 66-1 longshot Bar of Gold defeated Ami’s Mesa by a nose, the return was $2,060.40—far exceeding the $421.20 generated by betting $52 to place on Ami’s Mesa.

Here’s another example: in the 2014 Preakness S. (G1), impressive Kentucky Derby (G1) winner California Chrome was favored at 1-2 to take home the second jewel of the Triple Crown, but 10-1 third choice Ride On Curlin was a logical challenger after finishing a troubled seventh in the Derby.

If you expected California Chrome to win and Ride On Curlin to finish second, betting Ride On Curlin to place didn’t make sense; all the place money on 1-2 favorite California Chrome would depress the payoff for Ride On Curlin. Indeed, when the race unfolded and California Chrome defeated Ride On Curlin by 1 1/2 lengths, the $2 place payoff for Ride On Curlin was a mere $5.60.

But if you had instead bet a cold $2 exacta playing California Chrome over Ride On Curlin, your return would have been $18.20, more than three times the place payoff.

Under the right circumstances, place bets can be a valuable addition to your repertoire of betting strategies. But don’t forget to ponder exactas (even exactas involving the pricy “ALL” option) if your situation matches one of the last two examples we outlined. Good luck!