3 ways to maximize value betting against favorites

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

August 10th, 2022

Betting favorites isn’t the worst strategy in horse racing, but statistics reveal they lose more often than not. If you can find the right horse(s) to play in place of a vulnerable favorite, you’re in line for lucrative payoffs.

The value of playing against favorites can be increased by following these three simple strategies:

1. Don’t use the favorite defensively for win purposes

Let’s say you’ve identified a favorite you believe is vulnerable—we’ll call him Horse #5. You’re pretty confident Horse #7, a 6-1 midrange longshot, is ready to defeat Horse #5.

It can be tempting in these situations to use the favorite defensively for win purposes. If you’re betting an exacta, you might box #5 and #7 so either one can win. If you’re betting a multi-race wager like a Pick 3 or Pick 4, you might include #5 alongside #7.

But if you don’t believe Horse #5 will win, why spend your money betting him to win? It’s easy to spend as much money playing the favorite on top as you spend playing the midrange longshot you like, which doesn’t reflect your opinion of the race. Certainly there will be cases when playing defensively yields a winning ticket, but if your handicapping is generally sound (and the vulnerable favorites you identify are indeed vulnerable), playing those favorites on top simply reduces the return on investment when your preferred selections win.

2. Oppose the favorite in multi-race wagers

It’s important to remember the odds in the win pool represent just that: the odds in the win pool. A heavy favorite in the win pool might be an even heavier choice in the Pick 3, Pick 4, or Pick 6, since many bettors will single the big favorite so they can afford to spread deeper elsewhere.

This means opposing favorites in multi-race wagers can be quite lucrative. Consider a Pick 3 sequence that took place at Saratoga on Aug. 29, 2015. The first two legs were remarkably straightforward; Private Zone won the Forego S. (G1) as the 8-5 favorite and Flintshire dominated the Sword Dancer S. (G1) as the 1-1 betting choice.

But the final leg of the Pick 3 was the Travers S. (G1), in which acclaimed Triple Crown winner American Pharoah was beaten to second place as the overwhelming 35-100 favorite. The winner, Keen Ice, had previously finished a good second behind American Pharoah in the Haskell S. (G1), and his 16-1 win odds were hardly earth-shattering. But so many bettors favored American Pharoah in multi-race wagers that the $2 Pick 3 returned a hefty $439.00.

3. Consider dropping the favorite entirely

Sometimes it makes sense to play against a favorite for win purposes, but still use them for second, third, and/or fourth place in exotic wagers like the exacta, trifecta, and superfecta. But if you’re strongly opposed to a favorite, why not drop them entirely and shoot for a big score?

A good example comes from the 2022 Amsterdam S. (G2) at Saratoga, in which undefeated champion two-year-old male Corniche made his three-year-old debut. The 1.65-1 favorite was returning from a long layoff over a 6 1/2-furlong distance shorter than his best, suggesting he was vulnerable to an upset. Corniche ultimately finished last in the Amsterdam as Grade 1 winner Gunite (7.4-1) defeated second choice Accretive (2.95-1) by a neck, completing a $1 exacta that returned $25.25 and a 50-cent trifecta that returned $215.25.

The next time you encounter a vulnerable favorite, give these strategies a try and see if you can maximize payoffs. Good luck!