Kentucky Derby Preparation for the Bettor

1906 ProgramOnce again the opining I do in this article will likely put me in the minority. Fortunately, when it comes to horse racing, that’s a place I generally prefer to be. There are not many who do more Kentucky Derby wagering preparation than I do. I put a lot of work into my handicapping and preparation. I just do it a little different than most when it comes to the Run for the Roses.

Apparently, I must be doing something right. In the past 12 years, my top choice has won nine times — those would be Smarty Jones in 2004, Giacomo in 2005, Barbaro in 2006, Street Sense in 2007, Big Brown in 2008, Animal Kingdom in 2011, I’ll Have Another in 2012, Orb in 2013 and American Pharoah in 2015. I did not like Mine That Bird in 2009, Super Saver in 2010 or California Chrome in 2014. That’s nine out of the last 12 and, but for some bad luck, two would have been life-changing scores. In 2011, I played the two-day pick-3 involving the Kentucky Oaks, the Woodford Turf Classic and the Derby. I singled and bet big on Animal Kingdom. I hit it with Plum Pretty winning the Oaks, but also used St. John’s River, who was much longer odds and just a few jumps away from winning.

I also hit the triple in the Derby, keying Animal Kingdom on top. Yes, I was alive to him at 20-1, singled, and I did not hedge — I keyed him on top. If you follow me on Twitter or are a regular reader of Past the Wire, my weekly column, you’d know that’s how I bet and structure wagers. An earlier article for US Racing (Win the War, Not the Battle) outlined the same strategy. I was expecting much more than $3K for that triple. Maybe I was wrong, but I thought it should have paid $10K or thereabouts.

Giacomo was worse. I used Afleet Alex for second in the superfecta multiple times. I used all in the third and fourth slot so I had Closing Argument in the third but not the second slot. That nose cost me a lot of money and contributed to having a huge-priced Derby winner and not capitalizing. That’s not the point, however; I’m just illustrating that, with the proper work and preparation, the Derby can be won.

Now to be fair, going back, I did not have Funny Cide, War Emblem or Monarchos. I did have Fusaichi Pegasus, Silver Charm and Grindstone. I missed Go For Gin, Thunder Gulch, Real Quiet and Charismatic. That takes us back to 1994, and gets me to 11 for the last 22. Not quite as good as 9 for 12, but not bad at all.

Ok, the purpose of the article is not my Kentucky Derby record, but rather preparation or how I suggest readers should handicap the Derby — what’s important and what’s not; what matters and what doesn’t.

First off, in the past 22 years, I knew who I liked prior to race day just four times. Those four were Barbaro, Street Sense, Animal Kingdom and Orb. One of my most important handicapping angles is not to go into a race with a bias. I try to have no preconceived opinion or “pick” before I actually handicap the race. That can’t be done until the field is actually drawn.

You need to know final entries and post positions to properly handicap the race. If anyone knows that in March or April, please share how. It is hard enough to pick the Kentucky Derby winner the day of the race when you know who is running, what post and how they are training and later-known factors like weather, track bias (if any) and other things. While I realize it is fun to make early Derby picks, and I do have my own Derby radar, I don’t lock onto any horse. The four I cited were all exceptions, based on factors outside the norm.

Barbaro was a beast I had seen up-close a few times and knew he was special. Street Sense was the perfect example of a horse trained to peak on a certain day, something the point system has all but eliminated. Animal Kingdom was a monster and sitting on a freak race. Orb was simply better than anyone else leading up to the race. American Pharoah would have made the list, but I was looking for a way to bet against him as the favorite. There just wasn’t one come race day. The rest and all those that preceded them were picked race day.

Obviously I am not a fan of the future wager. While it’s fun, and I will occasionally partake in one for fun, I take betting seriously, play to win and would demand much larger odds than usually offered if I am going to bet on a horse who may not even be running, let alone starting, in a 20-horse field from a post position I don’t know.

You’ll hear a lot about rules and statistics. How you need a 102 Beyer, or certain amount of preps, or how in so many years nobody has done this or that. It all makes for interesting reading, and all information in handicapping merits consideration, but I don’t live by any of those rules. Each race and year, as well as each crop, is different in a game constantly evolving. Do you remember when you couldn’t win The Kentucky Derby without the right dosage index profile? The Daily Racing Form used to devote a whole section to it in The Derby edition and it had a strong record… until it didn’t.

Today, it hardly gets a mention and I’d bet many have never heard of it. This should come as no surprise. The ‘70s gave us three Triple Crown winners; then, we waited 37 years for the next. We went from “it’s too easy, let’s make it harder and change the rules” to “it’s too hard, let’s change the rules.”

Rules are made to be broken and the Derby demonstrates that year after year. You don’t want to be locked out because of a rule keeping you on a shorter-priced horse.

People will talk about the number of preps you need and how far apart they should be. You’ll hear about the Apollo curse. It’s just a matter of time until a horse that didn’t race at two wins the Kentucky Derby. You’ll hear about The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and how winners of that race don’t win the Derby. Street Sense didn’t believe it. Sure, he’s just one horse, but if you were betting that year he was the right horse.

Being on the opposite of the masses is an advantage in pari-mutual wagering. Recognizing when a stat or record will go down is an edge. There is always value to be had on Derby Day. And seeing what others don’t, increase your chance of finding it. Don’t lock into rules or records is my suggestion. Look at them, but don’t rely on them for automatic throw-outs or inclusions. Instead, look for reasons this may be the year they don’t hold up. That’s where you find a Giacomo or an Animal Kingdom. It only takes a few of those to turn your Derby success around.

This year seems like a wide-open affair to me. I’m not sold on anyone and even have a hard time separating pretenders from contenders. Accordingly, I look at a horse like Lani, a son of Tapit from Japan, who won the UAE Derby in Dubai, and say this may be the kind of year this horse can win. The UAE Derby and coming in from Dubai, especially with a horse from Japan, is not exactly a high-percentage play. But this year, who knows? I won’t make up my mind until I do my final study of the race, but he is not an automatic toss in my book.

One thing I do think is crucial in advance preparation for the first Saturday in May is replays. I like to see horses who look like Derby winners and have shown they can either run a field off their heels, can handle a rough trip or adversity in a race, or are on a steady improve and coming to a peak. The point system has changed how horses are trained up to the Derby and finding a horse coming to a peak or new top has become more challenging. I welcome that challenge, as fewer people will spot it.

So, my suggestion is: know the rules, the records, the streaks and determine which may be vulnerable. Try not to have a bias and be in love with any starter before you actually handicap the race.

There will always be value… and you don’t get paid more for early picks.

Jonathan Stettin
Jonathan has always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings, as he practically grew up at the racetrack. His mother, affectionately known as “Ginger,” was in the stands at Belmont Park the day before he was born as his father, Joe, worked behind the windows as a pari-mutuel clerk.

As a toddler, Jonathan cheered for and followed horses and jockeys, knowing many of the names and bloodlines by the time he was in first grade. Morning coffee in his household was always accompanied by the Daily Racing Form or Morning Telegraph.

At the age of 16, Jonathan dropped out of school and has pretty much been at the races full-time ever since. Of course, he had some of the usual childhood racetrack jobs growing up — mucking stalls, walking hots and rubbing horses. He even enjoyed brief stints as a jockey agent and a mutuel clerk (like his dad).

His best day at the track came on August 10, 1994 at Saratoga, when he hit the pick-6 paying $540,367.

Jonathan continues to be an active and successful player. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanstettin or visit his Web site at

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