Del Mar  :    :  Beginner's Corner  :   print

Beginner's Corner

It's race day, you've arrived at the track and found your seats. There's lots of activity and you don't have the slightest idea what you are doing. Will this be a joyous, pleasurable event, or something you will endure and hope for the best? We want you to have a great time!

The pageantry of racing can not be found anywhere in any other sport: from the moment you wander to the paddock to watch these magnificent animals, to owners enjoying their horses, to the jockey boarding the horse when "riders up" is called, to the bugler announcing that the horses are coming on track... and then these magnificent animals bow their necks anticipating the race, asking to run. Some of them biting their ponies, others bucking. If you are lucky enough to attend when a star races, you will witness a horse that understands racing at its finest... you will see an individual in spectacular physical shape, with a mental attitude that is often not found with our human athletes.

Many are hooked just by viewing the horses on the way to their races, others like the challenge of picking horses to win and being right. People use various methods to handicap the races and you will hear arguments or jokes about others' choices. You will see boisterous folks saying "My horse can beat your horse," and you will understand that this is how it all got started, long ago. . . "Can your horse beat my horse though?"

The majority of this section is devoted to handicapping. However, most racing fans are in awe of this spectacular animal. Del Mar highlights and celebrates the horse every day. We are proud to have Trevor Denman as our race caller. Trevor is both an advocate for the sport as well as the horse. When you hear one of his calls, you will agree that he focuses on the horse and makes each race an event.

Our website is dedicated to fans of horses and horse racing. Spend some time exploring our website for all that you need to make your Del Mar racing experience more pleasurable. If you have questions don't hesitate to e-mail Del Mar. While you are reviewing this section, please don't forget to use the glossary located at the end.


Most fans like to know which horses will be racing on the day they plan to attend the races. Two days before the races are run, the Racing Secretary takes entries for the races. At Del Mar, he announces over a loudspeaker on the backside (the stable area) that he is taking entries for the races in the condition book. If he cannot fill those races, he will use the listed substitute race(s) in the condition book. And finally, if he can't fill the substitute races, he will write special races. The entries become available to race fans on the internet around 12:00 noon.

During the 48-hour period between the entries and the actual race day, a program is developed. The program contains a lot of important information including the actual betting numbers of the horses. Many fans, new and old, confuse the entry numbers with the program numbers. If you have the incorrect program number, you will not be betting on the correct horse!

In addition to handicapping seminars conducted during the weekends and on Labor Day, Del Mar offers post-race concerts on Fridays. Also check out the many other events that Del Mar offers daily.

Arriving at the Track

Seating and Tickets. Are you the type of person that likes to wander around and get to know a place? If you purchase grandstand seats, you need to know that you are not allowed full access to the track. Clubhouse seating allows you to wander all over (except for the Turf Club and a few other places). Many people get confused, but it is not much different than at a football game or basketball court where seating is defined by the amount of admission you've paid. Also, the admission price to a track does not include a reserved seat. You must purchase a seat separately. For your convenience there are photos which show the site lines of each seating area, as well as frequently asked questions about seating. You may also order your tickets in advance, on-line.

Once you have your seats, and you've arrived at the track, you'll need to know a few things.

The Horse

Horse racing is as wonderfully compelling and complex as you want to make it. Some people come specifically to watch the horses run and do not bet.d No Thoroughbred can start at a recognized pari-mutuel track unless it is registered with the Jockey Club. Before a Thoroughbred foal is approved, the registry requires that the color and all markings be clearly set forth in the application, such as a star, blaze, stripe, snip and stocking. A lip tattoo is also necessary. The tattoo is required before the horse ever races. If you want more information on the horse and the history of the Jockey Club, see The Jockey Club site.

The Track

Many fans love the pageantry and attend the races to visit the paddock where the horses are saddled. In this area, the owners gather to watch their horses and the horses are led around so that everyone can see their condition. Some handicappers do not miss watching horses in the paddock. They want to know if their future wager is walking well, looks healthy and is relaxed enough to win a race. It is here that the jockeys come out, get instructions from the trainers and then are booted up onto the horse.

The Thoroughbred Owners of California has a handbook on-line for owners. Chapter 2 -- The Game does a great job of explaining horse racing. And while Chapter 16 -- Race Day is specifically for owners, it also explains what happens on race day. To give you a flavor of the complexities of this sport, Chapter 20 -- Ins-and-Outs explains many of the rules that face the owners and trainers in this industry. Most of these rules protect the fan, but some rules protect the owners and the horses.


There are many forms of handicapping. In fact, the methods may be limitless. Common types are class, speed, pace, trip and computer handicapping.

Class handicapping is very difficult to explain mostly because, like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. Class is hard to define. Some of the most rousing arguments in horse racing has to do with the definition of class. Generally, class handicappers are willing to say "Horse A ran at this level, which is perfect, and Horse B has never won at this level." Horse A is therefore classier than Horse B and should beat Horse B. However, handicappers are also looking at Horse B to determine whether form is improving. Perhaps Horse B is young and destined for better things, while Horse A is losing a step?

Speed handicappers use different types of speed figures. Speed figures measure how fast the horse ran, taking into consideration the track varient (how fast or slow the track played in the last race), class and other variables. Some people purchase speed figures (Thorograph or Ragozin). Others use the speed figures provided by the Daily Racing Form (Beyer Speed Figures).

Pace Handicapping is based upon the turn times of horses, as well as the "pace of the race." Is your horse a front running type? Are many of the horses front runners that will run at about the same speed? Pace theories basically state that this kind of race might set up for a come from behind horse to pick up the pieces after the speed burns itself out. Pace numbers are assigned to the horses so that when a lot of speed is in the race, the handicapper can tell which horse is faster and thus able to run ahead of the others. For example, Horse A might be a front running horse, but not as fast as Horse B which is also a front runner. If there is no speed save one horse, this is called "lone speed." Many handicappers believe that horse will be able to steal the race. Bloodstock Research Information Services (BRIS) uses pace numbers as do other Internet services.

Trip handicappers make it a point to watch nearly all the races run during a meet. They take extensive notes and watch for trouble during a race. They make it a point to also watch the race replays every night and often tape them for review before attending the races in which "their" horses are running. They may make a note on certain horses to bet next time out. The list they develop is usually called "horses to watch". Many of the free on-line links we furnish have "horses to watch" lists.

Computer handicapping is fairly straight forward. Someone develops a computer program, you buy it and use it to handicap the races. Today, BRIS and a few other sources allow you to download the races to your computer to "tweak" the race card to come up with your selections. There are countless computer programs on horse racing. Many are suitable; some are not. Caveat emptor.

Most people use a blending of these various methods. Some people use other services. The Del Mar website has provided Free Links and Commercial Links on handicapping.

The Gamble

About Pari-Mutuel Wagering. When you make a wager at a racetrack you are NOT betting against the "house" as with most casino games. Pari-mutuel wagering means "betting amongst ourselves." The odds are dynamic and are solely dependent upon how you, the participants, place your wagers. When you're at the track or a simulcast wagering facility, the track extracts a commission from all wagers made and redistributes the remaining funds (or wagering "pool") among the winners. In fact, the racetrack has absolutely no interest in the outcome of a race. The track receives its commission per wager, similar to a stockbroker's compensation, no matter if a favorite or longshot wins. YOUR wagering determines the favorite and longshot odds, NOT racetrack management.

The How-To's of Wagering. At Del Mar (and its off-track wagering locations) the minimum straight win, place or show wager is $2. The final winning prices are all based on a $2 wager. For example, if you bet $10 to Win on Best Pal, and the Win price was $5.20, you would fill your pocket with a total of $26. The math looks like this: [$10 multiplied by $5.20 Win divided by $2 minimum= $26.00].

Straight $2.00 Wagers:

  • WIN - - You win if your horse finishes first. (On average over 30% of favorites win.)
  • PLACE - - You win if your horse finishes first or second. (On average over 45% of favorites win or place.)
  • SHOW - - You win if your horse finishes first, second or third. (On average over 60% of favorites win, place or show.)
  • WIN/PLACE/SHOW - - An equal amount bet "across the board" to win and place and show. For example, $2 across the board, or $2 win and place and show.

Exotic Wagers. These wagers are generally more difficult to win than Straight Wagers and may require some advance handicapping. However, the potential payouts are significantly greater. (Not all racetracks offer every exotic wager. These are general guidelines; different tracks offer slight variations.)

  • DAILY DOUBLE - To win you must pick the winners of two consecutive races. Wagers must be placed before the first of the two races. Minimum bet is $2.00.
  • PICK THREE - To win you must pick the winners of three consecutive races. Wagers must be placed before the first of the three races. Minimum bet is $1.00.
  • EXACTA - To win you must pick the first two horses to finish in exact order in a single race. Minimum bet is $1.00.
  • TRIFECTA - To win you must pick the first three horses to finish in exact order in a single race with eight or more betting interests. Minimum bet is $1.00.
  • QUINELLA - To win you must pick the first two horses to finish in either order in a single race. (Easier than an Exacta, because either horse can finish first or second.) Minimum bet is $2.00.
  • SUPERFECTA - To win you must pick the first four horses in exact order of finish in a single race with eight or more betting interests. Minimum bet is $1.00.
  • PICK SIX - To win you must pick the winners of six consecutive races. Wagers must be placed before the first of the six races. (This is a very difficult wager, but the payouts can be very high!) Minimum bet is $2.00.
  • PICK FOUR - Similar to the PICK SIX, but uses the last four races. Minimum bet is $2.00.
  • PLACE PICK ALL - You win a major payoff if you pick the winners or second-place finishers of the entire card (8, 9 or 10 races). If no ticket contains the winning combination for all races, the payoff will go to the ticket with the highest number of correct selections. Minimum bet is $1.00.

Sources of Important Information

How much will my wager pay if I win?

Approximate Payoff for a $2 Win Bet

    Odds Pays   Odds Pays
    1-9 $2.20   2-1 $6.00
    1-5 $2.40   5-2 $7.00
    2-5 $2.80   3-1 $8.00
    1-2 $3.00   7-2 $9.00
    3-5 $3.20   4-1 $10.00
    4-5 $3.60   9-2 $11.00
    1-1 $4.00   5-1 $12.00
    6-5 $4.40   6-1 $14.00
    7-5 $4.80   7-1 $16.00
    3-2 $5.00   8-1 $18.00
    8-5 $5.20   9-1 $20.00
    9-5 $5.60   10-1 $22.00

Daily Program - Contains race by race listing of all the horses running in each race along with their jockeys, the number each horse is assigned and the Morning Line odds.

Del Mar's CyberTote Board - Toteboards keep a running tally of the total monies, or handle, wagered, as well as changes in odds, on the current race for every horse.

Daily Racing Form - is a tabloid newspaper devoted exclusively to racing. It contains complete listings of past performances on every horse.

Decision Making

Your first few times at the track, you may want to limit your betting practices. Most experienced horse players have a bankroll, the amount they start with, and do not ever gamble more for that particular day. They also decide in advance whether they will bet one or two units per race, or extra units on a race on which they feel particularly confident. Most horse players don't bet every race, except for "fun only" days. Instead they prefer to focus on those races in which they excel.

There are a number of ways new bettors can approach making their decisions on betting. Some first timers choose to go with first timers luck. They choose the horse with the prettiest silks, or the pretty gray horse, or look at the favorite and bet on that one. Others bring along their daily local newspaper and choose to bet only newspaper picks because those picks have been winning. Some bet on the nicest, healthiest looking horse in the paddock.

At Del Mar, each day there is a "Cybercast" show shown on television as well as RealPlayer on the Internet. This show is also broadcast throughout Del Mar. New bettors might want to listen to the information offered by these handicappers. Note, however, like anyone, they have bad spells, some of which have been known to last an entire season.

A simple method sometimes played by folks wanting a good time, but by putting very little effort forward, is to bet the odds, combined with the highest speed figures, combined with the average earnings per horse. This will at least show you the main competitors in the race. It will not, however, show you young horses that may have little experience that are ready to give a top effort. It won't show you that an older horse is tailing off or perhaps just coming back into form. For that you need the Daily Racing Form or the DRF as it is commonly known.

Another simple method is to bet the odds, but not the favorite, perhaps betting the 2nd or 3rd choice of the betting public.

The Del Mar site also has a number of links to Free Picks for the track. Some of these folks are very good at picking winners. Some specialize in long-shots (longer odds horses) and therefore don't succeed as often, but when they do, the payoffs can be very rewarding.

Ready to Make a Bet

Whether you've decided on the pretty gray filly or have done some major work to make your choice, it's now time to make that bet. You do not go up to the teller and say "I want to bet $2 to show on that pretty gray filly." Each horse, as previously stated, is assigned a program number. If your horse is the #4 in the second race, your bet would be:

"DEL MAR, Second Race, $2.00 to show on #4"

Some bettors write their bets on that race's program page in exactly the way they'll call out the bet to the teller. That way, should it be very hectic -- as it often is -- when making bets, it's easy to remember what the actual bet is.

The teller will punch in your bet and your ticket will be spit out. Make sure you take your ticket, count your change and verify that your ticket is correct.

Uncertain? A bit nervous? Del Mar has SAM assistants (in teal vests and khaki pants or skirts) who are located on each floor of the Grandstand and Clubhouse. They are there to assist people in learning how to bet, how to use mutuel windows and how to use the betting machines. Customer Service representatives can also help out. They wear teal blazers and khaki pants or skirts. Do not hesitate to ask!

Links for Beginners

Glossary of Racing Terms

Age. Every horse celebrates a birthday on January 1, regardless of the actual date of birth. Yes, this would mean a horse born on December 31st would be a yearling on January 1st. However, the breeding industry avoids this problem by timing the breeding season to start in February. (Mares carry their foals for approximately 11 months.)

Two-year-olds only race against other two-year-olds. Three-year-olds normally only compete amongst themselves during the first half of the year then begin to challenge older horses as they gain experience. Many handicappers watch for older horses racing against three-year-olds. It takes a special three-year-old to challenge their elders and win. Handicappers also watch four-year-olds as they come of age. Because most three-year-olds are protected for a majority of their racing lives, as a-four-year old they may have trouble making the transition to becoming a competitive older horse.

Chalk - When a horse is the favorite -- or has the most money bet on it -- that horse is termed the "chalk." Interestingly, this term comes from the pre-computer era of the bookie. When a bookie recorded bets on a blackboard, the odds would change over and over as more and more people bet on the favorite. The horse became known as the "chalk" because the horse's name would disappear in chalk dust as the bookie constantly erased and lowered the horse's odds.

Condition book. The Racing Secretary at all tracks writes a condition book for upcoming races every two weeks. The condition book allows horsmen to schedule their horses for races. Del Mar's condition book is available on-line. The condition book also reminds horsemen of upcoming stakes and nomination deadlines.

Entry. In California, when two or more horses entered in a race belong to the same owner, they are called "entries" or "coupled" horses. In other states, a coupled entry is defined when two or more horses are trained by and/or owned by the same person. The coupled entry is comprised of two or more horses and are a single betting interest. For example: In California, Mrs. Smith owns horse A and horse B. Mrs. Smith's entry would thus be 1 and 1a. This is considered a bet on #1 for betting purposes. Once in awhile, there will be more than one coupled entry: Mrs. Smith owns Horses A and B while Mr. Jones owns Horses C and D. Mr. Jones' entry would be numbers 2 and 2a. In other states, if the same trainer conditions Horse A and Horse B, these horses will be coupled, and/or if the two horses are owned by the same person, they will be coupled.

While this seems complex, what it means is that you get two horses for the price of one. However, it usually means that a horse you thought would be at long odds may be affected by the other "coupled" entry. The industry has not determined how to address this issue. Some bettors believe that common interests mean that the horses should automatically be coupled (to prevent conflict of interest). Other bettors believe it isn't fair that the other horse has lower odds because of common ownership (or conditioning). This is the reason that each state has differing rules on coupling.

Handle - Amount of money wagered on a single race or a full-day of racing (e.g., the handle for the day was $2,000,000).

Morning Line. A prediction by the Track Line Maker of what the final odds will be based on how the public wagers. It depends on the line maker whether the prediction is accurate. Many people often get confused thinking that the Morning Line is an indicator of the possible winner. This is one critical area of handicapping.

The public can and does choose the wrong horse, termed a "false" favorite. Many people bet exclusively on favorites without handicapping the races. If the horse is a false favorite, the other bettors -- especially those who do not like to bet low odds -- will seek out a more qualified horse. The payoff is usually much better. The trick is finding those horses that are false favorites and not talking yourself into believing a favorite isn't qualified to win today's race.

Past Performance. A history of each horses' racing performance: how he/she ran, placed, the jockey, at what track, etc. The past performances are often referred to as the "pp's." Reading the Daily Racing Form, or any document that contains the past performances, is not as difficult as it may look.

Post position. The post position is the position from which the horse breaks out of the gate. Most of the time a horse comes out of the same gate number as his/her program number. However, if there are coupled entries in the race, that isn't possible. Both the 1 and the 1a cannot break from the 1 slot so they draw for the post positions. Your program will show you which post position the horse breaks from.

Some handicappers keep track of post positions believing there is a track bias. They may have observed, for example, that the outside is playing better than the inside (or reverse). As a result, they might be willing to bet a certain horse that is not quite as good as the others because of its post position.

Post Time. The time the horses are expected to reach the starting "post"; when a race begins.

Race Card. The schedule of races on a specific day.

Race Types

Stakes and Handicap Races. Del Mar has one of the richest stakes schedules in this country which includes just about every racing distance and surface, see our link, Stakes Schedule. Graded stakes and handicap races are the highest level of racing at any race track. The best horses usually compete in stakes competition. The owner must pay nomination fees and entry fees in order to run their horse. An example of a very early nomination fee is the Breeders Cup. This fee ($500) is paid in the foal's weanling year. Other fees are due a month or several weeks before the race is scheduled to run. The owner may also have to pay a fee to enter the horse during the entries. These fees are usually paid back in the purse. The nominations will frequently include many horses. The conditions of the race will determine who gets to race. (At present the industry is experiencing a horse shortage. As a result, it is often not necessary to leave horses out of races.)

The Racing Secretary assigns weights to horses in a handicap race. The toughest horse must bear the highest weight, while the least competitive horse will have the lowest weight. Assigning different weights is an attempt to level the playing field between competitors, just like a handicap in golf. There are also weight breaks for younger horses or for a filly racing against colts. A stakes or handicap race can also list age conditions like "two-year-olds," "three-year-olds," "four-year-olds" or "three and up."

Overnight Stakes. The main difference between an overnight stakes race and a stakes race is the amount of entry fees a trainer must pay to enter the horse. Overnight stakes do not usually require nomination, entry and starting fees. Nominations for overnight stakes are generally taken up to a week (or less) before the race. Overnight stakes bring out quality horses to compete for excellent purse money, though usually not as much as in the highest quality stakes races.

Claiming Races. A claiming race means that the horses may be purchased by a qualified, licensed person for the claiming price listed in that race. Many people do not understand why someone would want a horse to be claimed. Just as in other professional sports, not all horses are good enough to be top competitors in stakes level races. Racing in the claiming ranks allows the owners, as well as the horses, the opportunity to win against horses of the same caliber. Depending on the track, a horse may be entered for as low as $10,000 or as high as $100,000. There is also another type of race called the optional claimer. In this case, the horses may be eligible to be claimed or they may be allowance horses, competing under allowance conditions, and therefore are not eligible to be claimed. This type of race was created to combine two types of races and help the Racing Secretary have a fuller field of horses for this type of race.

Starter Allowance Races. A horse entered in a starter allowance race cannot be claimed. The horse, however, must have run at a certain claiming level (depending on how the conditions are written) during a designated time (for example "since August 1998"). The starter allowance generally brings together the best of the the claiming-level competitors.

Allowance Race. Allowance races are exactly like their name implies. Allowances are made or "conditions are set" in order for the horse to be eligible in that race. Examples of allowance races are: Non-Winners of 2 (races), Non-Winners of 3 (races), Non-Winners of 4 (races). As you can see, each level is more competitive. A horse that has never won two races might have a hard time winning a race against horses that have won three. There are often other conditions like "of a race since August 5th, 1998" or "at a mile or over." Sometimes there are monetary conditions set, such as "Non-Winners of $3000" or "Non-Winners of 5000 lifetime." A good handicapper will make note of these conditions. Some horses entered in the race may be competitive against Non-winners of $5000 lifetime, but not at all competitive against Non-Winners of three races.

These races are exciting for the fan and industry alike as we all learn whether a horse is going to be good enough to continue on to the stakes level of racing. It depends on the trainer and owner, of course, but often a horse will be run through all of their conditions before they are ever entered in a stakes race. Some feel that it is important to season a horse by going this route. Others feel that it is better to strike while the iron is hot and go after the better purses in stakes level racing. Some horses can't make the cut and go from the allowance to the claiming ranks and back over their careers.

Maiden Races. The term "maiden" means non-winner, the horse has never won a race. Some maidens, in fact, have never raced at all (nonstarter). There are two types of maiden races. Generally, the maiden special weight race is the best. A horse cannot be claimed out of a maiden special weight Race. The purses are also better than the maiden claiming race as well. Most of the time the maiden special weight races have the best youngest horses on the race track. They are often the best bred horses and often have the best connections (owners, breeders and trainers).

Scratch. When a horse is withdrawn from a race in which it's scheduled to run. Depending upon the type of wager you've placed, you're entitled to either a refund or your interest will automatically be transferred to the betting favorite.

For Pick Three wagers when a horse is scratched, the betting favorite no longer is substituted for the scratched horse. Under an amended CHRB rule, the wager is refunded if the scratch occurs before the first leg is run. A consolation pool is created when the scratch occurs after the first leg is run.

Horsemen are allowed to "scratch" their horses up to 24-hours after entries are taken, sometimes because a more suitable race has become available. There are many reasons to scratch a horse, however, including illness or injury. If the scratch occurs before the writing of the program, the numbers of the other horses change, which is where the confusion lies between entry and program numbers. If the scratch occurs after the program has been written and sent to the printer, the scratch is called a 'program scratch.' In that case, the other horses in the race do not change program numbers.

There are many rules regarding scratches. If a horse is scratched due to injury or illness, for example, the horse can't immediately be entered in another race. Depending upon the injury or illness (for example, if the horse was administered medications), there may be a time frame when a horse may not be entered.

Simulcast Wagering. The option to watch and wager on the races live via television broadcast. If you are unable to enjoy live racing at the track, you can attend any one of hundreds of simulcast wagering facilities nationwide that carry the Del Mar television broadcast, including California's own Southern and Northern California Off-Track Wagering network.

Tote Board. The infield graphics board, or tote board, provides the following information: the amount of money wagered on each horse individually in the win, place and show pools, updated odds, fractional and final race times, the results of the preceding race and additional messages including program changes, post time for the upcoming race and the time of day. The tote board is updated frequently. Also see Del Mar's CyberTote Board on our website.