How to bet the Kentucky Derby: It's all about value

May 1, 2011 |
The beauty of the Kentucky Derby is the unknown, which doesn’t exactly make it an easy race to handicap.

In most horse races, you can look at the form and see horses that have raced at a certain level multiple times, have tried the distance more than once, and/or have multiple starts over the track. With the Kentucky Derby, there are so many unknowns that anyone who tells you they have the “lock” probably doesn’t have much of a lock on reality.

Picking the winner of the Derby is easily the best bet and there are a couple of reasons for this.  I think it’s probably the most bragged about win bet going.  No one cares if you hit the pick-3 at Finger Lakes in March, but if you pick a winner on Derby day you’re immortal. 

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s a great value. The average payout over the last 40 years is a shade over 10/1 while favorites are regularly 5/2 or greater. 

Sure, you can brag about hitting the exacta, trifecta, pick-3 etc, but it all comes back to having that winner and knowing there is value in every bet associated with the Derby.  This value comes mostly from the casual fan, who tune in very rarely to watch horse racing and even more rarely to wager.

Some might say this causes a lot of “dead” money in the pool - money bet on horses based on neighbors’ pet names, or people betting their birthdays. Sharp gamblers will say dead money makes horses who should be at 100-1 end up being 50-1 in the Derby but talk to those people who had Mine that Bird or Giacomo. 

About those long shots, in the Derby there is no poor reason to bet a horse. The Derby is 20 improving 3-year-old horses doing something they’ve never done, in front of a crowd they’ve never seen, so you have to expect the unexpected.

You can’t be too hard on a guy betting a favorite number, the horse with the nicest silks, or the one with the clever name in the field because crazier things have happened. Remember Eight Belles and Closing Argument?

Betting on a horse to win is easy, but when you start thinking about all the other bets possible betting the race can become daunting. The best advice I’ve heard about these big day events like the Derby and Breeders’ Cup is to keep it simple. 

If you’ve never bet or done well betting a pick-4, Derby day is probably not the time to start.  If you’ve never put together a superfecta wheel before, put down the pad and pencil. 

The Derby provides so many options that you can feel like a kid in a candy store. Plan your bets early, and leave a small amount of money as a slush fund for those last minute epiphanies. There’s nothing wrong with a last minute bet, but if you spent all weekend coming up with four horses, don’t let 10 minutes of NBC coverage sway you. 

Also, all bets on Derby day pay out extremely well so you don’t need to hit the pick-6 to feel wealthy. A nice exacta can go a long way.  With so much money bet, there will be plenty of losing bets to go around, so don’t panic thinking your payout won’t be good enough. 

Really, there is no bad bet in the Derby.  It’s one of those races where it’s nice to have a rooting interest, and in the end there will be giant group of people formed from fans of 19 different horses that all have a “if only” story.

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