You are probably aware that I’ve consistently advocated having AT LEAST 60 per cent of one’s investment in the straight pools. Exactas, trifectas and other exotics have a way of punishing good handicapping.

The number of variables that must be synchronised in order to collect on a trifecta ascends geometrically compared to the amount of knowledge and skill needed to collect a win or place bet.

Through the years, I’ve followed the 60/40 rule faithfully, often excluding exotics altogether. But today I must admit that after having collected on a healthy trifecta a few days earlier, something twisted my neurons.

I’d picked ‘em one-two-three in order in a full field. So now I was going into this race with the wrong attitude, thinking I was invincible.   I now expose my error so that you may learn from it, as I have.

My handicapping had been razor sharp, and I figured I could hone down this race like an inspired craftsman. Since I pass most races, each race I do bet is analysed intensely. A race came up in which I thought I knew EVERYTHING.

Three horses stood above the rest of the field and they figured to be the three favourites. For the sake of abstract clarity, let’s call them #1, #2 and #3. I knew a few things about this race that I thought would separate me from the crowd. First, let’s look at how I was right.

  1. I excluded the #3, a recent winner, for I knew this horse well, and knew that he was coming back too soon. He’d always peaked with a three or four week layoff and now was coming back in seven days. The past performances showed a horrendous record for this horse with all early returns. I threw out the #3, and that alone gave me a mathematical edge in the race. This was a brilliant move!
  2. The #2 had recently reached his peak with a victory over a similar field. His come-from-behind style did not fit today’s pace dyna­mics, at least not for the win. This horse’s inherent class was equal to the #1 horse, and above the rest, but he figured to retrogress off his peak. I visualised him as the archetype of a third-place trifecta finisher.
  3. The #1 horse was up-and-coming, and I imagined a year from now when this #1 would be entered in top stakes races while the #2 would be a notch lower. The #1 horse also figured to control the pace.
  4. I decided that the tri would finish with #1, some other horse, and #2. I decided to use every other sharp horse I could find in the two-hole of the tri.

I used five other horses, which for the sake of this discussion we’ll call 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. In my combinations, I pressed more heavily with the 4 and 5, so I stood to win more if it finished 1-4-2 or 1-5-2. I also used back-up bets with 1-2-4 and 1-2-5. The #4 and the #5 were both longshots, but both had been victimised by bad racing luck in their recent races. What I didn’t do was to make a win bet. I was too smart for the 60/40 rule.

Well, as it turned out, I was right about the #1 as the winner. He controlled the pace and walked away in the stretch. I was right about the #2 horse finishing third. And in a poetic way, I was right about the big longshots, the #4 and the #5, as they finished a strong fourth and fifth, beating out a number of lower-odds horses in this 12-horse field. Where was I wrong?

Among the four horses I did not use, one of them, the #9, at 36-1, got the best closing jump in the stretch and had the clearest trip among the late brigade. The tri was mine with 50m to the finish. But the #9 got up for second.

I’ve gone back and checked the form of the #9. I still believe I made the right decision in leaving him out. His times were slower than my other place contenders, and he’d only raced once at this class level, finishing ninth. He needed a quantum leap to be a part of the finish. He got it. Committed trifecta players will argue that, since I knew so much else about this race, I should have used the FIELD in the place hole. To a certain extent, they make a good point.

But another strategy stands out as more obvious. A win bet on the #1 at 2/1. If you were putting $100 into this race using the 60/40 rule, you’d have had $60 to win on the #1 and $40 in the tris.

Remember that the 60/40 rule says the maximum portion of exotics should be 40 per cent. But it also allows you to go 70/30 or 80/20, or to bypass the exotics altogether.

So the worst-case scenario for the $100 bettor following the 60/40 rule would be to collect $6.40 to win for a $30 bet, for a return of $192. Yes, that’s not a big score, but consider the alternative: feeling stupid for knowing virtually all the nuances of a race, and yet coming away with nothing.

The 60/40 rule is not for everyone. I’m the first to recognise that there are many ways to win at the races and different styles for different players.

But I’ve also seen too many good handicappers failing to make a long-term profit because they’re thinking of every race as a path to exotic glory. Result: They key a longshot in the tri or pick three, the longshot wins, and they have no win money on it.

Everyone has their style for playing exotics, and I’m the first to admit that my style may not be for you. But the evolution of my exotic wagering style may help some of you in making decisions as to which path to follow.

Longshot player Gibson Carothers, for example, prefers to play the pick six and other exotics when he can single or key a horse he likes at 10/1 or up. He wants to be one of the privileged few to collect or he prefers not to bet. He waits for his opportunity and attacks.

Susan Sweeney is willing to press the FIELD button on one leg of a pick three, or a pick six, or in the third slot of a trifecta if the horse(s) she’s keying are worthy discoveries at high odds. Many of her keys are based on trainer specialties stats, as developed by her husband Ed Bain. Both are winning players.

Dick Mitchell likes to attack contentious races and is willing to throw out the lower priced combinations, and I’ve been with James Quinn when he’s excluded the exacta combinations with the lower-priced contender. I’ve seen both collect in races that seemed too hot to handle. If I were seen in the same room with these players, I might look like a wimp, for I prefer to wait for races (exactas and trifectas) or series of races (pick threes) in which I can comfortably eliminate more than half the field. This means choosing precisely those races, which are most likely to have field fillers.

The edge in horse betting comes from eliminating horses. If we could only eliminate three numbers from a roulette wheel, we’d have the mathematical edge, and could then bet randomly and win.

But in fixed-percentage games like roulette, we can never take the advantage away from the house. In racing, on the other hand, by simply eliminating a 2/1 favourite, we automatically have the edge.

Of course, knocking out the favourite requires clever handicapping and a knowledge of the percentages of the game.

Eliminating horses, however, is only half the battle to winning at exotics. The other half involves charting the dynamics of the race. Who’s going to have the least stressful trip, which horse(s) will be hurt by the pace configuration, which ones are at the wrong point in their performance cycle and are not likely to be cranked up for this race?

If betting exotics were simply a question of eliminating horses, then exotic wagering would be equivalent to Newtonian physics.

But the dynamics of a race are more complicated, and when second and third place are in question, we’re more likely to be dealing with the equivalent of quantum physics.

After all our eliminations have been done, which of our eliminated horses has the chance to “pick up the dead” as French handicappers call it, and take over third place when better horses have wilted in the competition?

Mark Cramer is one of America’s greatest writers on horseracing betting. His books are available from the Gambler’s Book Club at

By Mark Cramer