Sports betting has become inescapable. If you ever so much as walk past a TV showing a sporting event, you’ll see talking heads jabbering about game odds and a slew of ads in-between the game action. Even staid old TVG has rebranded as FanDuel TV. If you’re already into horse betting and have considered adding sports betting to your repertoire, you couldn’t pick a better time than now. By understanding a few crucial horse/sport-betting differences outlined below you can steepen your learning curve and take advantage of the brave new world of legal sports betting.
Structural Differences Between Horse Betting and Sports Betting
Pari-mutuel Odds vs. Fixed Odds
Though the structure of sports and horses may appear similar, in reality they’re as different as poker and blackjack.
In poker, players contribute to a big pot split by the winner(s). The house isn’t directly involved, they just facilitate the betting amongst players and extract a small fee. In horse betting, the structure is largely the same. The payouts come from pooling the wagers of other players, not from competing with the house.
Blackjack, unlike poker, is played directly between an individual and the house. No matter how many others may be involved in the same game, an individual only needs to beat the dealer to profit and take the money directly risked by the house.
Like poker, the pari-mutuel system allows the track or advanced-deposit wagering platform to remain almost entirely passive. Tracks let the flow of money into each betting pool determine odds and payouts, often causing drastic changes up until the race. Unfortunately for tracks, many would-be bettors find those constantly shifting odds off-putting. To an amateur, betting $10 at 10-1 only to have shrink to 1-1 by close can be disheartening.
Alternatively, sportsbooks use a fixed-odds format. Unlike horses, sportsbooks actively set and adjust odds based on their own projections and risk tolerance. So the payout at the time the bet is placed will never change for that bet in particular. A $10 wager at 10-1 in a fixed odds format stays that way for the bettor until the bet is graded. Fixed odds require sportsbooks to be more proactive in setting & changing the odds and accepting risk since they are directly responsible for payouts at the end of the day.
Considering the rapid growth in sportsbooks’ revenue relative to tracks’, the risk appears worth the reward. Don’t think the tracks haven’t noticed, either. Some tracks, like Monmouth Park, and some sportsbooks like Circa have introduced fixed-odds wagering on horses.
How Do Sportsbook Odds Work?
Before you can beat the sportsbook, you need to understand how and why a sportsbook sets odds. Let’s use an overly simple example:
You and a friend bet on a coin flip at a sportsbook. They offer the following odds: Heads (-110) or Tails (-110).
This “-110” number is the “American Odds” system. A minus sign, means you’re risking $110 to profit $100. If it was +105 (without the minus sign or sometimes just 105) you’d be risking $100 to win $105. Often a “-” implies you’re betting on the favorite or more likely outcome. A “+” sign (note: a number with no “+” or “-” implies a “plus”) implies the underdog or less likely outcome.
You place $110 (at -110) on heads and your friend bets $110 (at -110) on tails. Combined, you both risk $220.
Thankfully, the coin lands heads. The sportsbook takes $110 from your loser friend and hands you $210 (the $110 you risked and your $100 profit). Notice what’s missing? The astute amongst you might notice the winner paid about a 4.5 percent tax. Where, you ask?
Instead of using a sportsbook, let’s say you each risk $110 on a coin flip by just placing the money on a table. If it lands heads you’d collect the entire $220 right?
But a sportsbook has to profit somehow, and they profit by taxing wins. They effectively charged you $10 ( about 4.5 percent of the $220) for the pleasure of placing bets with them. That 4.5 percent is called the vig (or the juice).
The vig is the sportsbook’s version of the racetrack’s “takeout.” Like the takeout, the vig can vary between books, but it typically stays between 4-5 percent.
The Advantages of Fixed Odds
The biggest advantage of fixed odds is, well, they are fixed. If I place a bet at 2-1, I get 2-1 no matter how much they change for everyone else in the future. Unlike ever-shifting pari-mutuel odds, the odds on my ticket stay as is.
This can be a powerful advantage for the sharp sports bettor. For example, many sportsbooks release NFL lines almost a week before they are played. An experienced sports bettor (whether they operate on a predictive model or proprietary news/information) could quickly take advantage of what they consider a poorly priced game.
It’s not unreasonable to fix your odds at +200 (2-1) at open and see the same bet close at +100 (1-1). Experienced bettors call this closing line value and it can be a powerful tool for winning bettors.
What Horse Bets Are Most Like Sports Bets
The following isn’t a comprehensive list of horse and sports bets. It’s just a simple list designed to show which sports bets might match your horse betting risk preferences.
Low Risk, Low Odds
Win = Moneyline, Spread, and Total
Betting on the moneyline, spread, or total is the most common bet in sports and is similar to betting on a horse to simply win. Mainline spreads (the one closest to -110 on both sides) are prevalent, but most also offer alternative lines at different odds.
Place and Show = Spread or Total Alternate Lines.
A horse is more likely to show than win. Consequently, the odds are lower. Similarly, an NFL favorite is more likely to win by 3 than 7 (or a total of 45.5 compared to 50). Alternate lines offer you the opportunity to bet a more likely outcome for a worse payoff.
However, alternate lines for spreads and totals also offer you the chance to increase your payout for outcomes the sportsbook views as less likely. If a Spread is -6.5 (-110), but you think the favorite will win by 10, you might find a bet for -9.5 at something like +135.
Medium Risk, Medium Odds
Boxing an Exotic = Round Robins
While round robins also exist in both horse and sports betting, boxed exotics do not. In my opinion the round robin is the closest thing you’ll find so we’ll dive in a little here.
Three-by-Two, Trixies, Patents, and Bankers
A $5 round robin (just like the tournament style of the same name) creates a series of small parlays instead of one large one.
The most common type of Round Robin is a three-by-two. It’s three, $5 bets on each two team combination: A/B, A/C, and B/C. Each bet will have different payout based on how the various odds combine (+110 & +100 pays different than -105 & +100 and will also be independent of one another. Let’s say Team A and Team B cover. You’d profit $11 from your A/B parlay, but lose the other parlays (-$10) for an overall win of $1.
A Trixie is a four-bet round robin: all the bets in the three-by-two plus a fourth, $5 bet that all three bets also hit. With the same game results above we’d tack on another $5 loss on A/B/C parlay turning our $1 win into a $4 loss.
A Patent is a seven-bet round robin: one parlay that all three teams cover; three, two team parlays on each combination; and three individual one bets that each individual team covers. Using our same example above would turn our $4 loss into a $1.50 profit.
If you like using key bets in your various exotics, a Banker is the same idea: it boosts your odds by making one bet a requirement and the others conditional.
High Risk, High Odds
Same-Game Parlays = Vertical Exotics
As the name might imply, same-game bets are betting on various events within the same game. Not all sportsbooks offer same game parlays due to some events being highly correlated. But same game parlays are quickly becoming a popular selling point for online sportsbooks to attract customers with large payouts. These bets typically have extremely high hold and should generally be avoided by most bettors.
But if you’re determined to dabble instead of SGPs and you’re normally an exacta player, you could try parlaying the spread and total together. Before you ask, no you can’t parlay moneylines and spreads .
If you want to delve into the trifecta or superfecta type parlays, you might try adding the correlated player props to your spread and total wagers.
Multigame Parlays = Horizontal Exotics
While same-game parlays are a newer phenomenon and not as widely available, multi-game parlays are as old as gambling itself and available everywhere. Parlaying five moneylines is your sports betting Pick Six.
If you’re a horse bettor looking to expand into sports betting there are plenty of options. Pari-mutuel odds versus fixed odds is the starkest difference, but even racing is getting in on fixed-odds action. Once you internalize that difference, you will see plenty of similarities to your favorite exotics and more. Furthermore, you can use tools at Unabated such as our Hold Calculator to figure out how good or bad a market is.