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A day at the races: Here’s how to figure out betting and odds

Q: Would you describe betting at simply horse racing or the Kentucky Derby generally? What does it mean to”go off” at 10-1 odds or become a 33-1 long shot?
Ed, of Shiloh
A: Allow me to break this answer into two parts — the what and how — so that if I begin burying you with too much info (as I occasionally do) you will have a working understanding of the numbers.
What it signifies is easy. The chances — 10 to 1, for instance — are simply a ratio or comparison of two numbers. The first number is the amount of money you’ll win if the horse does what you think it will. The next number is the amount you need to bet to win the very first number.So, let’s choose your 10-1 example. What it means is you will receive $10 in winnings for every dollar you wager on that horse when it wins. Consequently, if you put a standard $2 wager, you’ll walk away with $22 — $20 in winnings (two times 10) plus the return of your original $2. In the same way, if you’re feeling as frisky as a colt and wager $100 on a horse with 33-1 odds, you’ll scoop up $3,400 (33 times 100 in winnings plus your first $100). If a horse has 5-3 chances and you bet $30, then you will take home $80 (10 times 5 plus the original $30). That’s all there’s to it.
Comes the trickier part: How is this stuff figured? Why are a few horses given nearly even chances — state, 3-to-2 — while others might start a race (“go off”) in 50-to-1? It’s all of the result of pari-mutuel betting, that is the type of wagering used in most horse racing.
Pari-mutuel is merely a high-falutin’ French expression that means”mutual stake.” In golf, as an example, players battle each other to get a pot of cash offered by a host. However, when you bet on the ponies, you are fighting for part of a pool of cash that’s been wagered by each one the other bettors like yourself. You have a mutual stake in it as it were.
A few things should become obvious immediately. The more that bettors prefer Horse A, the more money they’re going to bet on it. Because of this, they’re saying the chances are good that it is going to win. But it also means that those gamblers will acquire less per dollar bet because you need to split the entire pool of money among a great deal of individuals. Conversely, if few men and women are gambling on Horse B, then they’ll take home a far bigger pile of money if their horse wins because far fewer people are going to have claim to the exact same pool of money.
And to make things more interesting, these chances can keep changing in the days leading up to a race. As horse experts learn more about the many variables that go in their decision — the background of the horses and jockeys, injury rumors, weather forecast, etc. — they may begin hedging their bets and start laying down cash on other entrances, thus altering the numbers.
Now let me give you an oversimplified example of how the odds are guessed. Let’s say this year’s Kentucky Derby was a three-horse race involving Fleet o’ Foot, Not So Fast and Beetlebaum. Now, let’s say folks bought a total of $1,000 on those 3 steeds — $500 on Fleet, $300 on Fast and $200 on Beetlebaum. Here’s what would happen:
To begin with, the folks accepting the bets would take their talk off the top as their fee for providing the service — generally 10 percent to 20 percent. Let’s say it’s 10 percent. That leaves $900 since the payout to be divided among the winning bettors based on the race’s outcome.
Today we must figure out what they will win. This is the formula: The odds for each horse have been calculated by subtracting the total amount bet on that horse from the available payout and dividing the result by the amount bet on that horse. Therefore for Fleet o’ Foot, you’d initially subtract 500 from 900 to receive 400 and then split by 500. The resulting chances are 4-to-5, which means for every dollar you wager, you would win 80 cents plus your original buck back should Fleet wins.
Likewise, Not So Quick’s chances will be 2-to-1 (900 minus 300 divided by 300) while Beetlebaum would go off at 7-to-2 (900 minus 200 divided by 200). So the less preferred a horse is, the worse (or”more”) its odds and the greater its payout because theoretically you’re assuming more risk if you gamble on it.
Real life, of course, is not so simple. This year’s Kentucky Derby had 20 horses and the total wagers of $139.2 million shattered the previous record of $137.9 million in 2015. Always Dreaming wound up paying $11.40 on a $1 wager to win.
Bettors also wager on a lot more than simply wins. In North Americathere are”place” bets that cover if a horse places first or second. (In the Derby, Lookin at Lee paid $26.60 finishing second.) Additionally, there are”series” bets that cover if a horses finishes in the top three (Battle of Midway compensated $20.80). Should you feel you have a lot of horse sense, you can gamble your cash on perfectas, trifectas and superfectas, where you try to predict the exact order of finish for the first two, three or four horses in a race. And so on.
As you may expect, as these stakes get ever more exotic, the calculations become more and more complicated although the core principle is exactly the same. Thank goodness modern computers can figure out it at a gallop.
TODAY’S TRIVIA
Which Kentucky Derby winner had the longest odds ever?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: As of January, 31 states still can impose the death penalty. Four others currently have governors that have set a moratorium on its use. Each of 31 use lethal injection as their primary way of execution but nine can use electrocution, six can utilize the gas chamber, three can use hanging and three can utilize the firing squad, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
More numbers to think about: Since 1976, there have been 1,453 executions, attaining a peak of 98 in 1999. This past year, the United States saw 30 sentenced to death and 20 — in five states — were executed. As of Oct. 1, there were 2,902 offenders on death row (54 women). Since 1973, there were 157 death-row exonerations. Former Gov. Pat Quinn abolished Illinois’ death penalty in March 2011.

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