Key a Trifecta

horse racing trifecta
A trifecta requires picking the top 3 finishers in order. Cindy Pierson Dulay

The trifecta requires you to select the first three finishers in order and can lead to big pay-offs. However, trying to hit it "cold" (calling exactly 3 horses, in the correct order) is very difficult, while spreading yourself too thin by boxing or wheeling too many horses lowers the potential profit.  Keying lets you minimize your wager while giving you more chances to win.

Difficulty: Average

Time Required: 5 minutes

Here's How:

  1. Select the one horse you think will win.  Preferably you do not want this to be a heavy favorite or worst of all, an odds-on horse in the win pool. Optimally you have a longshot picked!
  2. Select two or more horses that you think have the best chance to finish second or third.
  3. Go to the betting window and tell the clerk which track and race you wish to bet on
  4. Tell the clerk '$1.00 trifecta key 1 over 2, 3, 4' (or whichever horses you selected), or use one of the self-service machines and enter the bet yourself.
  5. Make sure your ticket was correctly entered and printed before you leave the window.
  6. Take your ticket, watch the race and cheer for your selections.


  1. The more horses you key under your winner, the better chance you have of cashing your ticket, but your ticket will also be more expensive, thus lowering your potential profit.  If you need too many horses underneath, you may need to sharpen your handicapping to narrow it down further, or pass the race. 
  1. A 2 horse key is $2, a 3 horse key is $6, a 4 horse key is $12, a 5 horse key is $20, and a 6 horse key is $30, assuming a $1 base bet (See #3).
  2. $1 is generally the minimum wager on a trifecta key, although a few tracks now have them as low as 10 cents, but you can always wager a larger amount if you like. 
  1. In order to be worthwhile, you would prefer your top horse to not be the favorite.  Trifecta combinations with the favorite on top tend to be overbet and thus result in low payoffs.  If your top horse is going off at short odds, it may be preferable to pass on the trifecta and use the horse in multi-race bets like a rolling Pick 3, Pick 4, or the Rainbow/Pick 6 instead.
  2. Remember, second and third horses aren't always the second and third best horses in the field.  Look for closers that never can get there on time, speedsters that never can hold on at the end, horses that are running against the track's bias (speedsters on a track favoring closers, outside post when the rail is winning, etc), or the proverbial horses that always find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, maybe by disqualification for interference. These are the horses to put underneath, but are not necessarily your second choice for the win.