How to Bet the Triple Crown

How to bet the three jewels of the Triple Crown

Before getting into the “how-to” of betting the Triple Crown, it might be appropriate to explain “why” betting the Triple Crown is such an enticing proposition. The simple answer is that these three races – the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes – attract vastly more play than any other single races run in the U.S. every year, indeed more than most any other sporting event.

by Vance Hanson

In 2016, wagering on the Kentucky Derby in the straight pools (Win, Place, and Show) and vertical exotics (e.g. Exacta, Trifecta, etc.) was more than $111 million, according to the race chart.  There was an additional $13 million bet in the four Kentucky Derby Future Wagers and in horizontal exotics (e.g. Pick 3, Pick 4, etc.) that ended in the Derby.

Straight and vertical pool wagering on the Preakness was more than $55 million, and more than $45 million for the Belmont Stakes. Horizontal wagers that ended on the Preakness and Belmont was an additional $6 million-plus on each race. With so much money up for grabs, it makes sense to apply any handicapping wisdom you might have and partake in these popular and exciting events.

How you bet the individual races will vary from player to player based on budget, comfort level, and the strength of your opinion(s). The good news is that the standard straight and exotic wagers are available on all three races, so there are ample ways to participate.

With a full field of 20 horses having become the norm in the Kentucky Derby, the potential for a monster score, especially in the exotics, is higher than in any race you might encounter. After all, we’re talking about 380 different Exacta combinations, 6,840 Trifecta possibilities, and 116,280 Superfecta outcomes (not including dead heats). Granted, not all combinations are equally likely to occur from a handicapping perspective, but it’s when a longshot does win or place in the top three or four that the winning ticket-holders will be handsomely rewarded because of the immense pools.

The recent success of favorites in the Kentucky Derby (2013-16) is a bit of an historical anomaly

The recent success of favorites in the Kentucky Derby (2013-16) is a bit of an historical anomaly (it hasn’t previously happened in four successive years since 1972-75), but even when the public choices do prevail, all is not necessarily lost for the Win bettor. Winning favorites Street Sense (2007, $11.80) and Orb (2013, $12.80) were sent away at odds of 9-2 or higher, and 6-1 post-time favorites have popped up in more contentious renewals.

The typical field size and pool size of the Kentucky Derby has also ensured impressive payoffs even on the most logical of results. The 2016 Derby, for example, was very much a rarity as the top four betting choices finished 1-2-3-4 in exact order. The $2 Exacta still returned $30.60, the $2 Trifecta was $173.40, and the $1 Superfecta came back $542.10.
Unless you’re only betting the minimum $2 to Win, Place or Show on short-priced horses which ultimately perform as expected, the Kentucky Derby is, generally speaking, the best of the three Triple Crown races to get the most bang for your bucks because of the aforementioned factors. If the favorites figure, aim for the higher payoffs in the exotics. If there’s a longer shot or two you like, don’t forget to cover them in the straight pools in case your “big score” doesn’t quite come in.

The Preakness is a different animal from the Kentucky Derby, and is widely considered the most formful of the three Triple Crown events. In the last 25 years, the race has been won by the favorite or second choice 18 times.

The field is comprised of Kentucky Derby starters and the so-called “new shooters,” who generally find themselves outclassed against those coming out of the Derby. Only three horses in the last 25 years, Red Bullet (2000), Bernardini (2006) and the filly Rachel Alexandra (2009), won the Preakness without having run in the Derby.

However, the Preakness “new shooters” are often ones to consider if you’re playing wagers like the Exacta and Trifecta. Since 1992, 11 of these “new shooters” finished second in the Preakness behind Kentucky Derby participants. A number of these were big prices: Oliver’s Twist (1995, 25-1), Magic Weisner (2002, 45-1), Midway Road (2003, 20-1), Scrappy T (2005, 13-1), Macho Again (2008, 39-1), First Dude (2010, 23-1), Tale of Verve (2015, 28-1), and Cherry Wine (2016, 17-1).

Six times in the last 25 years, the top three slots in the Preakness been filled by horses that all ran in the Kentucky Derby.

Six times in the last 25 years, the top three slots in the Preakness been filled by horses that all ran in the Kentucky Derby. Those Trifectas paid well (an average of more than $514), but it often takes a big investment to cover all those combinations on an outcome that happens so sporadically. It’s seemingly more worthwhile to find a “new shooter” or two to link with the top choice(s) in your vertical exotic plans to get the most out of your Preakness betting experience.

Recent Belmont Stakes trends to note are the underachievement of favorites and the success of those going off at double-digit odds. In the last 25 years, only five favorites have won the Belmont Stakes. A number of those who missed were horses unsuccessfully attempting to sweep the Triple Crown: Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown, and California Chrome. Even with the success of American Pharoah (2015), you’d have been much better off in the long run taking a pessimistic view betting against a sweep occurring.

Perhaps due in part to the unique 1 1/2-mile distance, which most will never run again, the Belmont has often become the domain of longshots. Twelve of the past 25 winners (and seven of the last nine) started at double-digit odds.

Another noteworthy trend is that, since 1999, only the exceptional three-year-olds Point Given, Afleet Alex, and American Pharoah have won the Belmont after competing in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Fresher horses, or those that have taken a seemingly less taxing path to the Belmont, have generally held the cards.

More so than the Kentucky Derby of late and definitely more than the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes has been a good race in which to attack the Win pool, especially if there are double-digit longshots you might find favorable. This, of course, generally leads to very healthy exotic payoffs.

The best tip of all in betting the Triple Crown is that it can all be done easily and conveniently through