How to Bet the Kentucky Derby | Betting Guide

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How to bet the Kentucky Derby

A simple guide in how to place a bet on the Kentucky Derby.

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How do I bet the Kentucky Derby?

We've all heard the caveat "past results are not indicative of future performance."

That's certainly true in horse racing, but to a large degree horseplayers tend to side with those horses that have demonstrated the ability to win a race like the one they're running in today.

The Kentucky Derby, on the other hand, is an altogether unique event. Generally comprised of the 20 best three-year-olds in the country, virtually none will have previously participated in a race with this depth of talent nor over 1 1/4 miles. Picking the winner and betting the Derby correctly doesn't exactly require a leap of faith, but does involve basing your opinions proportionately more on, for lack of a better term, potential.

In any given Derby, many bettors will try and eliminate from consideration for a top-four finish as many entrants as they can and go from there. 

Unfortunately, that often still leaves a lot of horses and exotic combinations to deal with and, in the cases of 50-1 shots like Giacomo (2005) and Mine That Bird (2009), sometimes without the ultimate winner on your ticket(s).

A copious amount of words could be written on how to attack wagers like the Exacta, Trifecta, and Superfecta in the Kentucky Derby, some of which generally require a significant amount of capital to cover every base. For the purposes of this piece, though, it might be more helpful to look back over the past quarter-century of the Kentucky Derby to glean clues and insight on what not to overlook from a Win betting perspective.

After a two-decade drought that ended in 2000, betting favorites have done quite well in the Derby since then, with eight winning favorites in the past 17 years. That's a clip of nearly 50 percent, which is well above the typical racing average of one-third. The Derby has actually been won by favorites four consecutive years (2013-16), a statistical anomaly not seen since the 1970s.

While few serious players like betting favorites, keep in mind that the lowest payoff on a Derby-winning favorite since 2000 was $6.60, shared by Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) and Nyquist (2016). Knowing what we know now about horses the quality of California Chrome ($7, 2014) and American Pharoah ($7.80, 2015), their starting prices look like steals. Favored winners like Smarty Jones (2004), Street Sense (2007), and Orb (2013) all paid between $10-$13. The point is if the favorite looks legit and ticks all your boxes, don't worry about the price.

It often pays to respect the form of all last-out prep winners, regardless of which race they won and when. 

Good current form is good current form, and Charismatic ($64.60, 1999), War Emblem ($43, 2002), Barbaro ($14.20, 2006), Animal Kingdom ($43.80, 2011), and I'll Have Another ($32.60, 2012) were all last-out winners overlooked, from a small extent in the case of Barbaro to a great extent with the others.

There is no particular edge to be had differentiating between contenders using speed figures/ratings that are common currency, but do give credit to horses that have run fast enough in the past but perhaps didn't do so in their final preps. Thunder Gulch ($51, 1995) and Monarchos ($23, 2001) are both examples of horses that were already more or less ready after winning a Grade 1 prep (in their cases, the Florida Derby), but perhaps weren't totally cranked to win their final one.

Although some of the famous "Derby Rules" have fallen by the wayside recently, ones that have persisted include not backing a horse unraced at two (Apollo was the last one to win the Derby, way back in 1882). Another is to steer clear of horses stuck in post 1. Lookin at Lucky, the beaten favorite in 2010 but who went on to be champion that year, lost all hope after a rough opening quarter-mile. And for what it's worth, post 17 has never yielded a Derby winner.

Perhaps most importantly, keep your antennae up and read as much as you can about every contender's preparations in the two weeks leading up to the Derby. A Derby winner's preparations are typically flawless, and rare is it for a horse to overcome a missed or less-than-stellar workout, or a minor injury/illness and still wear the roses. Examples of favorites who saw their path interrupted by one thing or another were Arazi (1992), Unbridled's Song (1996), and Empire Maker (2003).

The Derby is the most-wagered on horse race in the country by a wide margin. Remaining cognizant of recent trends and up-to-date developments with every entrant is your best bet in approaching the Kentucky Derby and betting it through