Horse Betting in Massachusetts

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Betting on horse races is the oldest form of legal gambling in Massachusetts. Before there were casinos, bingo or the Mass Lottery, people in the state could place wagers on the ponies. Nowadays, horse racing has waned in popularity, both inside Massachusetts and throughout the US. However, there are still plenty of ways to bet on horses to win, place or show in Massachusetts. Notably, the Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville still hosts harness races between April and November.

So, even though the heyday of horse racing is likely a thing of the past, it’s important to know one’s options in Massachusetts. Here are all the details about betting on horse races in the state.

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Is horse betting legal in Massachusetts?

Yes. Betting on horses has been legal in Massachusetts for nearly 100 years. Horse betting became legal in 1934 as the result of Senate Bill 0179. Incidentally, the law also made greyhound racing legal in the state, which became a bigger deal in Massachusetts for many years until concerns over the treatment of the dogs led to a ban. However, horse betting has not drawn the same level of controversy and continues to be an acceptable activity in the state.

Can I bet on horse races online in Massachusetts?

Yes. Like the majority of states in the country, Massachusetts allows its residents to place wagers on horse races through their mobile devices and computers. There are several reputable horse racing betting sites in service in the Bay State, and they work nearly identically to the racebooks at Massachusetts off-track betting locations and simulcast facilities.

Of the major horse racing betting sites, we recommend TVG Racing. TVG is one of the top horse betting sites around and has an easy-to-navigate site for betting on races around the country. Where TVG separates itself from the rest is the fact that it also is a 24-hour broadcast network dedicated to handicapping. Every hour, TVG’s various commentators and analysts give tips and advice on how to maximize your returns, both onsite and at any live facility.

How to bet on horse racing in Massachusetts

Betting on horse races is not like wagering on sports or playing games in a casino. There’s no all-encompassing “house” that serves as the primary antagonist for all bettors. Instead, the system for horse betting is called pari-mutuel wagering, and its structure is most similar to fantasy sports leagues or poker tournaments.

Pari-mutuel betting involves the wagers for each race going into a pool. From that pool of money, the horse track, off-track betting location, or betting site will collect a fee for its hosting of the wagers and, for that matter, the races themselves. The winning bettors will then divide the remaining money according to the odds associated with the three (or four) top-finishing horses in the race. Although the track or racebook might set the initial odds for each race based upon its estimate of how the horses will finish, the final odds for the payout vary due to the action that each horse garners from the bettors themselves. The more people who bet on a horse, the lower the payout for a winning wager on that horse, as more people will claim a winning share.

Common horse race betting types

Many activities bear their own sets of lingo, and horse racing is no different. In handicapping, the bets themselves have their own distinct names and rules, and it’s important to understand the terminology before you make a wager.

Single horse wagering

The most basic type of horse wager is the single horse bet. You may also see references to these types of wagers as “straight bets.” In this type of bet, you are guessing that a particular horse will finish the race in one of the top three spots. Here are the options:

  • Win — You are picking the horse to win the race outright. If your horse finishes in any place but first, you lose your bet.
  • Place — You are picking the horse to finish in second place or better.
  • Show — You are picking the horse to finish in third place or better.

In common parlance, these three spots will appear as verbs. So, if you pick a horse “to show,” you are betting on that horse to finish in third place or better. You can pick a single horse to satisfy the winning conditions for multiple positions, too. A common choice is to select a horse for a win/place/show wager. In order to realize the full value of the bet, the horse must win. However, unlike a parlay in sports betting, a second- or third-place finish will still pay off for a portion of the bet.

Multiple horse bets

It is also possible to bet on multiple horses in the same wager. However, as the number of horses in the bet increases, so does the complexity. You may see people refer to these wagers as “exotic bets,” though that name is probably a bit grander than necessary. Nevertheless, here are some of the usual multi-horse wagers that you’re likely to come across:

  • Exacta — You select two horses, one to win and one to place. You must get the finishing order correct to win your bet.
  • Quinella — You choose two horses to win and place, but the order no longer matters. However, you will have to pay double the amount that you did for an exacta bet, as you are covering the cost of two outcomes now.
  • Trifecta — You pick three horses to win, place and show. As with exactas, you must get the order correct.
  • Superfecta — You tap four horses to win, place, show, and finish fourth. The order also matters for this wager. This is the only common horse bet that concerns itself with horses finishing after the top three.
  • Double or pick # — You select one horse from a series of consecutive races to win. You can choose how many races you want to predict. This is the handicapping equivalent of parlay betting.

Since the order of your selections matters in most exotic bets, they are much harder to predict accurately and are much riskier propositions than single-horse wagers. They do, however, come with enhanced payouts, especially if the choices involve a long-shot horse finishing in the top three. That’s not to say you should never place an exotic bet, but it’s important to understand that the chances of winning are lower because of the specific outcomes you must predict.

Multiple horse wager modifiers

If choosing horses in the correct order is a bit daunting, there is some good news. Most racebooks permit bettors to select one of a series of modifiers to their exotic wagers that can increase the chances of the bet winning.

There is a caveat to these modifiers, however. In order to attach one to your bet, you have to pay beyond what you’d pay for the standard exotic bet. As is the case with the quinella bet, you’re covering the cost of the multiple winning conditions. The increased cost does not cause the odds to grow longer, however, so it can become more difficult to realize an actual profit if you modify the bet. At any rate, here are the common types of modifiers:

  • Box — In a boxed wager, you are selecting all of the possible outcomes associated with your group of horses. A quinella bet is the same thing as an exacta box. So, with a quinella, you pay twice the cost of the exacta because there are two possible outcomes. For a boxed trifecta, you’d pay six times the cost of the straight trifecta because of the six ways your three horses might finish. For superfectas, there are 24 ways, so be careful about your exposure if you want to choose a big box bet.
  • Key — A key wager means that you pick one horse to win the race, then choose several horses for the remaining two finishing positions. These bets are common options if one horse is an overwhelming favorite. Horses that everyone expects to win often come with lousy odds, and a key bet might be a way to increase the payout potential from the back end of the race.
  • Wheel — A wheel bet is whenever you select the entire roster of horses to finish in a particular position. If you have a good feeling about the top two finishers but want to allow for some of the longer shots to show in the race, then a wheel might be the right choice. This type of wager may appear as “betting the field” from time to time.
  • Partial wheel/custom — If you want to bet on several horses in the race but omit some of them from the group, that’s fine, too. You can choose any combination of horses that you want to finish in any order that you want. You will have to pay for each entry, of course, but even if you just want to bet randomly and jam a bunch of horses together on your bet, you can. There’s always a way to put what you want together on a ticket.

What are the different types and classes of horse races?

Although it might seem as though all horse races are the same, the truth is that there are both different types of race formats and different stipulations upon each race. For the most part, the races most familiar to Bay Staters are flat stakes races, where horses run along a flat track in competition for a large purse. However, this type of horse race is only one of many. Let’s look at all the variants that exist in the world of racing in Massachusetts (and elsewhere).

Types of horse races

There are four main types of horse races to bet on. In every case, horses must bear a jockey, or rider, in some way:

  • Flat — This type of race is likely the most common overall. Horses run around a track with a level surface. The length of the race might change, and the surface might vary — grass, dirt, etc. — but there won’t be any obstacles to overcome during the event. Typically, these races use thoroughbreds or fillies as their competitors.
  • Steeplechase — Horses must negotiate various impediments during the race. Common obstacles include fences and horizontal poles with shallow splashdown pools on the other side.
  • Harness — Horses pull a small buggy — called a “sulky” — behind them with a rider in tow. Harness racing is the only type of live racing available in Massachusetts at this time. Usually, harness racehorses are quarter horses, meaning that they are better over shorter distances.
  • Endurance — These are longer races than a typical flat race. These contests test the mettle and stamina of both the horse and the jockey.

Classes of horse races

Along with the types of races, there are various classes of race that denote both the types of horses that are in the race and the overall level of competition. The classes of race are as follows:

  • Maiden — No horse in the race has won before.
  • Claiming — It is possible to purchase any horse in the race. There are advertised prices in most of the brochures.
  • Allowance — Horses may only weigh a certain amount and/or carry jockeys of certain poundage.
  • Stakes — The top races with the biggest purses are stakes races, including Triple Crown races, and involve the horses’ owners or trainers each contributing money for the competition.

For a casual bettor in Massachusetts, the type of race might not matter all that much. The horses are going to run the race, and the winners will pay out. However, with so much lingo and information available, if you’re handicapping, it’s important to know what you’re seeing.

How odds work in horse racing

Though some other types of gambling — notably sports betting — commonly use their own odds formats, horse betting in Massachusetts (and elsewhere) continues to rely upon fractional odds for displaying the probabilities associated with each horse in a race. Since fractions are a common feature of daily life, they shouldn’t be too difficult to grasp.

However, just as a refresher, it’s important to remember that the horses with lower fractions and odds have a better chance of placing high in the race, generally speaking. The track sets the initial horse betting odds based upon its own analysts’ perceptions, and experienced bettors move the lines based upon their own estimates. Here’s what a fractional odds listing is saying:

  • Odds = (something won’t happen) / (something will happen)

A horse at 3/1 means that, roughly speaking, the odds estimate that the horse will not succeed three out of four times. Simply add the two parts of the fraction together to get the total number. A horse at 2/1 has an estimated chance of winning once out or three times, whereas a horse at 20/1 indicates much lower chances of winning (an estimated once out of 21 times).

You get the idea. If you do happen to see a very small fraction, such as 1/2 or 1/3, understand that such a horse is a heavy favorite and will pay very little if it does end up winning.

Bonuses at MA horse betting sites

Like most gambling sites, Massachusetts horse betting sites have competitors that are only a few buttons or swipes away. To attract customers, they offer bonuses and promotions on a regular basis. Some offers aim to attract new customers. Others are to keep existing customers happy. Here are some common options:

  • Welcome — These offers usually promise to augment a new player’s account with a certain amount of bonus money. For example, you may receive a bonus based on your first bet or first deposit on the site. The only catch is that you’ll have to bet the bonus money itself before it becomes withdrawable cash.
  • Deposit — For every dollar you deposit, the site will match a percentage of it. If you deposit $100, for example, you could end up with anywhere from $110 to $200 to bet. Usually, deposit bonuses require you to wager the bonus funds for them to become cash.
  • Cashback/insurance — The site offers to compensate you for specific lost wagers. Usually, you’ll get some money back if the horse you picked to win comes in second (places) or third (shows). Depending on the offer, you might even receive the entire value of your wager back — up to a point — so you can bet without as much concern.
  • Loyalty — These programs are common for all types of gambling. Essentially, every dollar that you wager yields a certain number of points in the site’s loyalty or rewards program. As you achieve certain point totals, you can convert the points into bettable cash or get boosts to your various wagers.
  • Odds/pay boost — Of course, you may not need a loyalty program if the site offers odds boosts. The site might offer to pump up the payout on a certain type of wager, for instance — particularly if it’s a riskier exotic bet. It’s a good deal if you were already planning to make that type of wager, but it underlines just how risky those bets are — the site is willing to surrender 10% to 20% extra in payouts if you place such a bet.

Horse betting tips for beginners

Longtime handicappers have years of experience on their side when they log onto a horse betting site or visit a track. Most of them have a system that they’ve tested and revised. Beginners won’t have that knowledge and history. So, if you’re trying out horse betting for the first time in Massachusetts, here are some basic ideas to help get you on the right path to success:

  1. Buy the program and/or study. If you are visiting a racetrack or off-track betting location, the venue will have a program with a listing of all the races. As part of those listings, there will be information about how each horse has performed historically, particularly on races of the same length, prestige, surface, and condition. If you couple that data with the available odds, you can start to get a much clearer picture of how the upcoming race could turn out.
  2. Stick to the simple stuff. Those exotic bets are certainly exciting and can offer large potential payouts. The idea that you could wager no more than $10 and receive thousands in return is a delicious opportunity. However, there is a reason that the odds on such outcomes are so generous — they are quite unlikely to happen. Stick to single-horse wagers until you get a better handle on what’s happening.
  3. Bet only what you can lose. As with any type of gambling, the risk of losing is always present with horse betting. Therefore, you should never bet with the money that you need — for anything at all. If you have a tendency to spend your wallet dry, then only put your gambling cash in there when you head to the track. Additionally, if you do want to try exotic wagers, keep in mind that their costs have a tendency to skyrocket, particularly if you add more and more choices to your bet.
  4. Remember why they’re long shots. The idea of placing a wager on a horse and winning more than 20 times your bet is exciting. However, it’s important that you understand how unlikely a long shot is to make the top three in a race. As cruel as it may sound, it helps to remember that “long shot” and “loser” both appear in the same area of the dictionary. The horses favored to win are usually going to be the ones that do.
  5. Don’t bet on the favorite blindly. With that said, the favorite still can lose fairly often. For instance, the top horse in a race might have odds of 2/1, which is better than the rest of the competitors but still means that it stands to win an estimated one out of every three races. If you want to bet the favorites, that’s fine, but you should be on the lookout for signs that they’re overrated. If a favorite struggle with the upcoming type of race, type of track or length of race, or has simply been in a slump recently, you might want to think about a horse lower down the line for your wager.

None of the tips above will guarantee success. In fact, from one race to another, they may be exactly the wrong thing to do. However, they should help get you started as a handicapper or, failing that, make it more likely for you to have fun when you visit the track.

Live horse betting in Massachusetts

With online horse betting active in Massachusetts, there’s never any need to leave the house to place your wagers. However, you may want to visit one of the few horse racing outlets in Massachusetts for a couple of reasons. For one thing, a trip to Plainridge Park Casino, the lone live racing venue in the state, can be fun for the whole family. With each race wagerable for as little as $2, it can be a relatively cheap way to entertain everyone and let the kids have the thrill of seeing the ponies in action.

The other aspect is the atmosphere and camaraderie that comes from gambling in a live setting. You cannot feel the tension and excitement in the air if you’re playing on your computer or mobile device the same way that you can in the flesh. Even if you want to stick to horse race betting online, there’s no reason that you cannot choose a more appropriate setting. Here are the three such settings in Massachusetts:

  • Plainridge Park Casino, 301 Washington St., Plainville, MA 02762, 508-576-4500 — live harness racing and simulcast
  • Raynham Park, 1958 Broadway, Raynham, MA 02767, 508-824-4071 — simulcast only
  • Suffolk Downs, 525 William F McClellan Highway, Boston, MA 02128, 617-568-3216 — simulcast only

Massachusetts horse betting FAQ

Who can bet on horse racing in Massachusetts?

Anyone over the age of 18 and inside state lines can bet on horse races in Massachusetts. Obviously, if you are at one of the three facilities, you only have to make sure you’re of age. However, be aware that horse betting sites will require you to verify your geographic location if you try to wager over the internet.

Who oversees MA horse betting?

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission. Specifically, the Division of Racing within Mass Gaming oversees all types of horse betting in the state.

Do I have to pay taxes on my winnings?

Yes. You must report and pay taxes on any gambling winnings you incur in Massachusetts. Both federal and state taxes apply to profits from Massachusetts horse betting. For your federal return, use Schedule 1. For your state return, you will have to categorize the winnings as Part B income.

It is also possible to claim deductions on losses — up to a point. Consult IRS Schedule A for more details.

Do MA horse betting sites offer virtual races?

No. Virtual races, like most virtual sports, remain the purview of online casinos, rather than online horse betting sites. Because online casinos remain illegal under Massachusetts law, you cannot bet on virtual races at this time.

Do Massachusetts casinos allow horse bets?

No. Massachusetts’ two resort casinos do not have racebook facilities onsite. Obviously, however, you can use your phone to place bets from anywhere in the state, including on the casino floor.

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