The Saratoga season is reaching it's peak.  We're into week five and have therefore begun the crescendo into two of the Spa's biggest stakes races, the Alabama and the Travers.  In anticipation of these two races, which I'm sure will be infinitely hard to handicap, I thought I'd bring you a little article on how to bet the odds.  This is Talking Track:  The Novice's Guide to the Saratoga Race Course.

There's a lot of ways to bet at Saratoga.  You can try and handicap.  You can give up on handicapping and pick at random.  You can just bet jockeys or trainers.  Bet names.  Bet whichever horse's name contains the most "e's."  Whatever.  No matter how you bet, though, you should always pay attention to the odds.  If you don't, you run the risk of consistently betting favorites to show.  I mean hey, God bless you, but winning $1.50 a race isn't what I'm looking for.

Come on people, horse racing isn't some game of Jacks we're playing on the playground for sticks of gum.  We're trying to make money money make money money money.  I mean look, you can bet anyway you want. If you're perfectly happy betting $2 on 3-2 favorites to show, I'm happy for you, but I'm looking for the right balance of quality bet and return on investment, and that's what I'm looking to discuss here.  To make that happen you've got to play the odds, and there's some things you should know - like what the odds mean.

We all know that the higher the number the worse the odds.  7-1 is worse than 3-1, meaning the 3-1 horse has a better chance to win.  What you may not know is that odds are controlled by the betters.  After the morning line odds are set by the track expert, the odds move depending on how much a horse is bet.  If a horse opens at 8-1 and ends at 3-1 at post time it means that he has been bet heavily.  If he opens at 8-1 and moves to 16-1 though, betters are avoiding him like the plague.  Be sure to remember: you don't get the odds the horse is at when you bet him, you get his odds at post time. You may bet a horse at 17 minutes to post at 9-1, but you'll get his odds at post time at let's say 3-1.  In this scenario, betters think the horse has a good chance to win, yes, but you get less value.  Also, the lower the odds, the lower the payout; and the lower the risk in the bet, the lower the payout - a la a bet to show (finish first, second, or third) will pay out much less than a bet to win.

With exactas and trifectas it's even more important to bet the odds, specifically "the pool." Exacta/trifecta payouts can be approximated by checking the odds, but their respective pool will give you the definite answer.  Ever wonder why several horses who are all at 9-1 don't pay out the exact same amount in exactas?  The answer is the pool. The pool is the amount of money wagered on that bet.  The more money that is spent on one specific combination, the lower the payout.  Let's say, for example, that horses 1 and 2 are both at 3-1.  If everyone in the park is betting the 1-2 exacta, but no one is betting the 2-1 then the payout on the 2-1 exacta will be higher.

Knowing this information can help you when it comes time to figure out what to bet.  And what do you bet?  Well, it pays to find the balance of good chance to win the bet with good return on investment.  Does betting the even money favorite to show give you a good chance to win the bet?  Absolutely.  Will it give you any return on investment?  No. Come on.  If you're betting that, and you're not my mother, then run home, get your daddy's shoes and come back - it's big boy time.  But let me be clear, no one is saying that you should bet a 70-1 horse in an exacta just because of the odds.  If he's at 70-1, there's a reason...chances are he's a greyhound or something.  Bottom line, you need to find the balance.  And to find it, there's some things to remember:

Unless you're betting huge dollars, never bet a horse that's under 10-1 to show.  It's not going pay anything unless you're betting big.  And if you are throwing enough money at that bet to make it pay, you have a problem, sir.  To be honest, never play a horse under 30-1 to show, but I figured I'd throw my mother a shout-out with the 10-1 (she loves that show bet).  You're just not going to get a quality enough return on investment.  Conversely, always bet a horse over 50-1 to show.  Generally these are your last race of the day specials.  Horse racing is fickle, and it happens frequently that a horse comes out of no where to maybe not win, but contend enough to finish in the money.  Bottom line, a $2 bet with three chances to win and a $20 payout is a good bet.

Similar can be said about win bets.  Look, they'll pay exactly what the odds say they'll pay, but because horses worth betting to win rarely rise to 20-1, it won't always pay to bet a horse to win - unless you're throwing huge money at it that is.  If you're looking to make a little bit and just feel good, then by all means do it up.  But if you're looking to make serious money, either make it rain on this bet or look elsewhere.

Look for great jockeys getting long odds as well.  Javier Castellano and Johnny Velazquez are great jockeys who get great horses.  If either of them are getting odds of over 5-1 or so, I'd bet them.  I mean, hey, make sure the horse he's on isn't a complete mess, but if the horse has got any run in him at all, go for it.  In a maiden race, a Saratoga patron that I know bet a ten cent superfecta on the four best jockeys in that particular race and won over two hundred dollars.  I'd take it.

Along those lines, Johnny Velazquez teaming with trainer Todd Pletcher in a dirt sprint used to be a secret amongst people in the know.  Not anymore.  The pair is a lethal combination and therefore their odds will be at or near even money in most races.  If somehow that combination rises to say 5-1 and above you bet it and you bet it hard!

Your best chance at a serious payout, though, is betting exactas, trifectas and superfectas.  Because they're so hard to hit these bets will almost always pay out well.  But you still have to check the odds.  An exacta with two favorites won't pay you enough for that soda you've had your eye on, and it's not exactly guaranteed, so it's a big risk for something that's not the pay day you're looking for.  But an exacta with two 5-1 shots means you're putting money on good horses, and unless the world is betting on them, the payout will be good.  To be sure, check the pools.  Anything paying under $20 isn't really worth the bet.  But over that?  Pick your horses and bet away!

The final tip I have is a strategy I picked up from a friend of mine.  His theory is all based on morning line odds.  The morning line odds are set by a racing expert.  That expert surveys the horses and sets the odds based on how he/she thinks the gambling public will bet.  The bottom line is the better horses will generally have low morning line odds.  My friend checks these odds and compares them to the odds close to post time.  If a horse's odds have risen since betting opened he bets them immediately. The thought is that if the racing expert set the odds low and the much less informed gambling public moved the betting line higher, then he is getting serious value on a good horse.  How effective is it?  Well, he hit a $2,000 trifecta a week ago when he bet a horse who's odds moved from 12-1 to 24-1.  Seems like a brilliant enough strategy.  Hey, worked for him to the tune of a grand (he bet half of it), I'm sure you can make it work for you for at least a little.

However you want to bet just make sure you're checking the odds. That's kind of the theme of the article.  You can bet your birthday, or your favorite color or whatever other stuff you want, but if you want to be a sportsmen and bet the way the track god's intended, be sure to watch the odds.  Hopefully this helped, if you have more questions let me know.  Also, keep an eye peeled for a preview of Saturday's Alabama Stakes and other Talking Track articles.