How to Bet (and Win) on Exacta

Shedding some light on the exacta...

Shedding some light on the exacta...

In this latest instalment of the Oc-Tote-ber series, let's take a look at the exacta, a bet which requires the player to nominate the first and second placed horses in the correct order. The exacta is a pool bet, which means the dividend is declared by dividing the total number of winning tickets by the total pool of funds, after deductions.

For instance, if £10,000 was bet, and 20% deducted for expenses, the net pool would be £8,000. Supposing there were 80 winning tickets of £1 (£80), the dividend would be £8,000/80 = £100.

The game is to find the 1-2's that pay more than they should, and to leave the 1-2's that pay less than they should. So how exactly (or exacta-ly) do we do that?

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How Not To Play The Exacta

Before we get to the good stuff, I'd like to debunk a few myths about exactas. Specifically, I'd like to look at some bad bets.

Bad bet #1: First three in the market combination exacta

The ultimate mug bet in exacta terms, this involves six combinations, all equally staked:

1-2, 1-3, 2-1, 2-3, 3-1, 3-2

Because exactas are 'bets of the people' - that is, there is no bookmaker setting the prices, but rather the people playing the bet set the odds - and most people are either lazy or don't have any sort of opinion on a given race, this is where the vast majority of wagering falls.

This sort of bet can account as much as, or more than, half of the total pool, meaning even if the result is the least likely of the six possible outcomes, it is sure to return a deflated yield.

Apart from operating at the very top of the market, and being deeply unimaginative, it also has no merit over a straight win bet.

Imagine that the average payoff for these six combinations was £15 for a £1 stake. That means a £6 bet covering all six combinations returns £15. That gives average odds of 6/4 on your £6 bet. The favourite could well be a longer price than that on its own, let alone the second or third market choices.

You can also expect to be disappointed with the dividend if the second and third market choices finish 1-2, due to the number of other punters that have taken the same well-worn path to the bet - and then the payout - windows.

Here's the management summary: if you think the top of the market will win a race, either bet a win single on your main fancy (or value fancy)... or pass the race. There is simply no point in making a combination exacta including the first three in the betting, ever.

Bad bet #2: Level staking on combinations

A subtle nuance of bad bet #1 is that all combinations have the same amount of money wagered upon them. That means the 6/4 favourite to beat the 4/1 shot has the same bet stake as the 4/1 to beat the 7/2 second favourite (assuming the top three in the market were 6/4, 7/2 and 4/1). This leads to 'prayer mat punting': hoping that the least likely of the six combinations lands even though... well, even though it's the least likely combination.

That cannot be a sensible way to bet. It is slightly more sophisticated - and commensurately more time-consuming - to stake different combinations to different amounts to ensure a more level payout regardless of which of your six combo's cops. Although this is less 'sexy' and involves less scope for the 'big coup', it is also far more likely to return a profit in the longer term.

Blind combination bets are generally not a great way forward in any case, but if you do have difficulty separating three or more horses, then at least stake them according to the likely payouts to reward yourself equally if you're correct about it being between these x horses.

Bad bet #3: Betting 'All' or most with an outsider you quite fancy

This is the chocolate teapot of wagering approaches: something good (chocolate, or an opinion on a decent priced horse) utilized in a completely useless manner (teapot, or betting with 'all').

By using so many options with your dark horse, you completely dilute the value of the opinion. Far better to bet the horse to win, or maybe even each way, than to make an exacta with all/most of the other runners in the race, and hope to catch a second biggie in the first two for a monster return. This is another prayer mat punt.

Bad bet #4: Leaving out the favourite 'because it's the favourite'

I know people who do this. It's daft. They kick themselves when the favourite, which they feared/respected, finishes second to a decent-priced horse. Dividends for bigger priced nags to beat the jolly are often bigger than they ought to be (assuming the bigger priced horse is lower down the market rank than third or fourth).

If you think the favourite looks solid for the frame, you have two choices:

1. If you have another opinion that could 'make' the bet, then play them together

2. If you don't have another opinion, or you think the 2nd or 3rd market pick could join the jolly, move on to another race

You don't have to bet, and if you don't have two good views, then your bet will probably be misguided (i.e. lose) or return less than it should (i.e. be poor value)


If you recognise any of the above traits in the way you bet exactas, now is a good time to review your approach, and to consider an alternative. Below are some alternative methodologies - or exactologies - that you might want to employ.

How To Play The Exacta

Good bet #1: 'Down market' staggered stake combo

In my examples, I've used starting price notation (6/4, 7/2, etc) to highlight the strength of support for each horse. But with all tote multi-horse or multi-race bets, it helps the player greatly to think less in terms of market price, and more in terms of market rank.

Let's look at a 10/1 shot (industry odds) in two different races.

In race 1, a four horse race, there is a 1/16 favourite, and the 10/1 shot is second choice, with two complete no hopers prices at 66/1 apiece.

In race 2, a nine horse race, there is a 4/1 favourite, five more horses priced between 9/2 and 8/1, our 10/1 shot, a 12/1 and a 20/1 chance.

If you expect the tote prices on those two 10/1 chances to be roughly equivalent, you will be badly wrong. The former is likely be around 5/1 on the 'nanny' (nanny goat = tote), while the latter could be as big as 20/1 depending on how 'obvious' it is in the recent form string.

The difference, as you'll have cottoned onto, is market rank. Industry market rank is much more significant than industry market price when translating to tote bets.

If you take just one thing from this article let it be that. It WILL pay you repeatedly.

So, if you have an opinion that the top two in the betting look a bit questionable, but you can't split the next three (or four), play the combinations... but to varying stakes.

A three horse combination is six bets, four horses will be twelve bets, and five horses will be twenty bets. It can take a bit of time to write the varying staked bets down, but your reward is a consistent (ish) return irrespective of which combination bags gold and silver. An example of how to stake this type of bet is below in good bet #2...

Good bet #2: The quite fancied outsider revisited

As touched on in bad bet #3, if you like an outsider, you need to have at least one other opinion to justify betting it in an exacta. For instance, if you think the favourite is weak, you can play your outsider with some of the other unfavoured runners, staggering your stakes higher to lower as you move away from the top end of the market. Let me show you what I mean.

Suppose you like a 12/1 shot in an eight horse race that bets as follows:

6/4 - 7/2 - 4/1 - 6/1 - 10/1 - 12/1 - 33/1 - 50/1

If your only view is that the 12/1 shot is of interest, then exacta is not the bet. Back it to win, or each way if you like.

However, if you think the 6/4 shot might be unsuited by today's going, or class, or pace set up, or whatever, you now have a chance to back up your primary opinion. In that case, you could for instance play the 12/1 with the 7/2 through to 10/1 chances, as follows:

£5 12/1 to beat 7/2
£4 12/1 to beat 4/1
£3 12/1 to beat 6/1
£1 12/1 to beat 10/1

That's a total stake of £13 optimized to smooth the return if you're right about the 12/1 winning. The key here is that your second opinion - that the favourite is dodgy - offers scope to improve the win price on your fancy. In other words, we're looking to get better than 12/1 for any combination of stake and non-favoured runner.

If fear drives your punting bus, and watching the 6/4 fav (or perhaps worse still, one of the rags) finish second to the 12/1 shot will hurt you, then make a small win bet on it as well.

Always remember that playing more than one combination dilutes your return. As in the bad bet #1 example, a 6 x £1 combination exacta paying £15 is not a 14/1 return, it's a 6/4 return. As obvious as that is, it is amazing how many punters delude themselves that they've made a big score, when all they've done is traded off risk against return, by having more coverage for smaller average odds.

Balance is required here, because the polar opposite - habitually taking a single horse to win over a single other horse for second - is a very narrow prayer mat punt too. Somewhere between death by a single bullet and death by a thousand cuts (or permutations) is a sustainable risk-reward equilibrium. Where that pivot point is will vary according to the race type and the nature and strength of your opinions.

Good bet #3: Staggering stakes to emphasize differing strengths of opinion

In good bet #2 above, the staking is staggered to smooth out the likely returns. That assumes that the player has no specific second opinion. In other words, (s)he feels the 12/1 is a fair bet, and the jolly looks opposable. But (s)he has no view on the remaining runners.

In this strategy, we assume that we have a view that a second runner has a better than implied chance. This might be in place of, or as well as, the view about the weak favourite.

Let's use the market from good bet #2, only this time we'll suppose that we think the 6/1 horse is probably the main danger. Although we don't want to lose the value of our main opinion, the 12/1 shot, we definitely want to emphasize our return if the 6/1 runs second. Our staggered stake might now look more like this:

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£4 12/1 to beat 7/2
£2.50 12/1 to beat 4/1
£6 12/1 to beat 6/1
£0.50 12/1 to beat 10/1

We've spent the same £13, but loaded up a bit more on 12/1 to beat 6/1. The flip side is that we'll take less of a return - probably something more in line with the equivalent return for simply backing the 12/1 shot to win - if 12/1 beats one of our other nominees. That being the case, a win bet on the 12/1 with small exacta on 12/1 to beat 6/1 is a highly viable alternative play.

In both #2 and this approach, I've not touched on the prospect of the 12/1 finishing second to one of the other selections. Players wishing to insure for this will double the number of permutations - in this case, from four to eight - and should again look to spread the same (or similar) outlay over the additional combinations.

Thus, in #2 above, we might have £2 on 12/1 to beat 7/2, and £3 on the reverse; £1.50 on 12/1 to beat 4/1, and £2.50 on the reverse; £1.25 on 12/1 to beat 6/1, and £1.75 on the reverse; and, 50p either way on 12/1 and 10/1 being first/second.

In #3 here, we'd look to play up the 12/1-6/1 and 6/1-12/1 combo's, whilst splitting the other stakes accordingly.

As you can see, it quickly becomes easy to spread one's opinions too thinly to justify the play... and that's a good thing, because it forces the bettor to have a second thought about whether or not exacta is the correct conduit for investment.

(Fairly) Good bet #4: 'Two against a few'

This wouldn't be the greatest betting strategy in the world, but it is one that recognises the human failing which is the urge to bet, and embraces it! It's what the excellent 'exotics' writer Steven Crist refers to as "Stupid Exacta Tricks", also known as fun or action bets.

In races where you have a bit of an opinion but nothing strong, and where you consequently want to 'limp in', Crist suggests taking a couple at big prices for which you can make a case, and playing them with two or three or four shorted priced runners, though leaving out the front rank in the market.

Obviously, if you fancy the head of the market, or you can't make any sort of case for the bigger priced nags, then it's pass o'clock. But if you can find a pair of piggie possibles, then a bet like this is a reasonable way to engage the action:

A, B with A, B, C, D, E, F = 10 bets

A, B, C, D, E, F with A, B = 10 bets

These are ten bets each, not twelve, by the way, because A cannot be first and second, and neither can B. Should A beat B, or vice versa, the combination appears on both tickets, making for the happiness of a doubly staked winner.


Recommended Reading

Steven Crist's book, Exotic Betting, is about the best on the subject. Whilst it relates to US racing in its examples, the approaches and staking advice are generic, and will help any tote punter improve their seasonal return.

Smarter Bets - The Exacta Way: A Simple Process to Winning on Horse Racing is a newer book, written by Keith Hoffman. It's another American text, available from Amazon UK and, as the name suggests, it focuses specifically on the exacta wager.

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5 replies
  1. ChrisJB
    ChrisJB says:

    Smashing review thanks Matt. Amazing how one can look at numbers / maths in so many different ways. Probably been guilty of all the bad bets at one time or another but I think (hope) the self flagellation is working now!
    One thought I’d like your view on please – small field, “nailed on” odds on favourite, straight exacta with the field, obviously hoping for the biggest price second. Seems to work quite often in NH races. Any thoughts? (Good or bad, I can handle criticism!)
    Many thanks.

    • Matt Bisogno
      Matt Bisogno says:

      Hi Chris

      My thoughts are that any bet involving ‘hoping’ for the biggest priced outsider is a prayer mat punt, and should be avoided. If you don’t have an opinion, avoid. Alternatively, just do the favourite to beat the rag(s), and wipe your mouth if it beats one of the others.

      Hope that helps!


  2. RomJim
    RomJim says:

    Matt I am glad you are there to keep making me think about my silly (fun??) bets. Helps me reflect and realign my investments. good stuff

    • Matt Bisogno
      Matt Bisogno says:

      Hi Jim

      You’re used to me rolling my eyes at your combo exactas! More seriously, if you’re having fun making those bets who am I to judge?!

      Catch up with you soon, I hope.


  3. Sam Carson
    Sam Carson says:

    Thanks Matt
    I am a sucker for a six bet reversed forecast on the last two races if I am at the meeting and having a bad day.
    Hopefully I will now be a bit more sensible.

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