Every once in a while, I'll talk about the betting aspect of the game. This is the first post in that vein.)
"I am #1...Two is not a winner and three nobody remembers...."
These words were spoken by the rapper Nelly, who clearly had never been to the track, as you can be a winner without having the winning horse. The place bet is sort of the ill-gotten step-child of the vertical wagering menu. Most people play the win. Some will play the exactas/trifectas/superfectas only. A few fools will play the show only (AKA Bridge-jumpers). But no one ever lists the place bet as their top play.
It provides some coverage just in case the picks are close but not perfect. Who wants to bet a 4-5 favorite to win when a 15-1 horse will pay more to place! When there is a huge favorite, the biggest payout can be the place. (Big Brown in the Preakness comes to mind. $2.40 - $2.60 - $2.10) The place bet is a good bet to build your bankroll on those days where you really like one horse late on the card, but still want to play around before on the earlier races. One or two decent price hits can help go a long way to improving the ROI at the end of the card.
Some of the complaints out there about place betting (You turn a 15-1 into a 5-1, you can't make money betting to place, etc.) are just excuses. If a person reasonably knows what the expected payout is for a bet, the price is not an issue. If the bettor knows that he might miss out on a $30 horse to win when the bet is made only for the horse to finish at least second, there is no reason to sneer at cashing a $12 ticket.
Advocating the place bet is a little like asking a guy to look at a picture of a nice, conservatively dressed girl when a world famous supermodel is standing 10 feet away doing a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue shoot. He will not pay any attention to the picture, even though she is likely to give him at least the time of day. The place bet will always be ignored by the more sexier payouts such as the pick four. But which one is more likely to be cashed in at the end of the day?
There is nothing wrong with betting on the 1st loser when the end result is the same: Cashing a ticket.