What is a single, and why are they valuable?

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

August 7th, 2021

Hang around horseplayers long enough, and you might start to wonder—what are these coveted “singles” they refer to when betting multi-race wagers like the Pick 4, Pick 5, and Pick 6?

The answer is straightforward, but it does require a basic understanding of strategies for playing multi-race wagers.

How multi-race wagers work

Multi-race wagers include the double (pick the winners of two consecutive races), the Pick 3 (pick the winners of three consecutive races), the Pick 4 (pick the winners of four consecutive races), and so forth. Picking multiple winners in a row isn’t easy, but bettors can increase their chance of winning by using more than one horse in each leg of a multi-race wager.

For example, a bettor might choose to use three horses in each leg of a Pick 4. If by pure chance (or by scattershot handicapping) this bettor likes Horse #1, Horse #3, and Horse #7 in every leg, the resulting ticket would look like this:

Leg 1: 1,3,7
Leg 2: 1,3,7
Leg 3: 1,3,7
Leg 4: 1,3,7

Of course, using multiple horses per leg comes with a cost. The price of your ticket will multiply rapidly with every extra horse you include. The increased cost can be calculated with a simple formula: multiply the cost of the bet times the number of horses in the first leg, times the number of horses in the second leg, times the number of horses in the third leg, and so on.

If the Pick 4 outlined above were to be played for a base amount of $1, the formula would come together as follows:

$1x3x3x3x3 = $81

Pretty pricey, right? That’s where singles can come to the rescue.

What is a single?

A single is any horse in a multi-race wager that you trust so completely, you’re willing to exclude all other horses in that race from your ticket. In other words, you’re standing along with your “single” horse, and the success of your bet relies largely on the success of your chosen single.

In theory, a multi-race wager can be played exclusively with singles—you only need one horse per race if you pick all the winners. But even one trustworthy single can significantly decrease the cost of a bet.

In the example outlined earlier, suppose the bettor decided to single Horse #3 in the third leg of the sequence. The resulting ticket would appear as follows:

Leg 1: 1,3,7
Leg 2: 1,3,7
Leg 3: 3
Leg 4: 1,3,7

The formula for calculating the cost of the bet would also change accordingly:

$1x3x3x1x3 = $27

That’s a lot more affordable, yes?

Betting against logical singles

One advanced wagering strategy to consider involves betting against the most logical single(s) in a sequence, if you think there’s a chance they’ll be defeated. A 3-5 favorite somewhere in a multi-race wager is bound to be singled by many bettors, and when such a runner is defeated, the resulting payoff can be impressive.

Consider the results of a Pick 3 sequence at Saratoga on Aug. 29, 2015. The first two legs were won by standout favorites starting at 8-5 and 1-1. But the third leg was the Travers S. (G1), in which widely acclaimed Triple Crown winner American Pharoah fell to a shocking defeat while favored at 35-100. The winner, Keen Ice, started at 16-1 and triggered a $2 Pick 3 payoff of $439—dramatically better than the $51.20 that would have been generated by a $2 win parlay across the three winners.

The takeaway? It can pay to think outside the box and play against obvious singles when your handicapping suggests they’re not quite as unbeatable as most bettors believe.

Now that you’re up to speed on the definition of a single, you can play (or oppose) them knowledgably as you see fit. Good luck!