New To Derby Wagering? A Bettor’s Primer To Picking Winners

By Ray Wallin

The Kentucky Derby is full of traditions. There’s the Twin Spires, the hats, the Mint Juleps, and the garland of roses, to name a few. Twenty 3-year-olds and their connections hope to capture the first leg of the coveted Triple Crown.

While it is another day at the office for those that make their living playing the races, it can be sensory overload for the new bettors looking to cash a ticket on a historic race. With a rare 20-horse field going to post and a variety of betting options, the new horseplayer faces a monumental task. What horses should they play and how should they play them?

What to look for in a Derby horse


Every horse that starts in the Kentucky Derby earned the right to start in the race by accumulating points through prep races. The better the finish and the closer the race is to the Derby – for the most part — will earn the horses more points. While all the horses earned their spot in the starting gate, there are several factors that can help you narrow your list of contenders.

Finishing in-the-money in last 2 prep races


Since 2000, only two horses have won the Kentucky Derby and finished out of the money in their final prep race — Mine That Bird in the 2009 Sunland Derby and Giacomo in the 2005 Santa Anita Derby both finished fourth. Fourteen of the last 21 Derby winners won their last prep with four finishing second, and one finishing third.

Of the last 21 Derby winners, all but one finished in the money in their second-to-last prep (Country House was fourth in the 2019 Louisiana Derby). Of those 21 winners, 13 won their second-to-last prep race.

Why is this important?

Prep races run closer to the Derby have a higher level of competition. If a horse hits  the board against tougher competition, this shows that the horse is in good or improving form and can handle an incrementally longer distance.

Tactical running style


In the 146 previous runnings of the Derby there have been 23 horses that have gone gate-to-wire. “Need the lead” style horses haven’t fared well in the last two decades. Only War Emblem in 2002 and Authentic in 2020 were able to win in gate-to-wire fashion.

Early speed horses will have a hard time getting loose on the lead with 20 horses breaking from the gate. Post position and more importantly who they break next to will impact their ability to get over to the rail to set the pace. They may have another speedster to their inside or break next to a horse that pinballs out of the starting gate.

The Derby is also not the day to find out if a horse that has been untested on easy early leads can handle pressure while setting the pace. The average half mile call has been 46.20 seconds with an average 6-furlong call of 1:10.80. Chances are that the early pace setter doesn’t take the race gate-to-wire.

Look for horses who have won some way other than gate-to-wire in the past. Horses that have shown early speed and the ability to duel or come from off the pace will have the advantage.

Closers suffer

Like one dimensional early speed horses, true closers are also at a disadvantage. This by no means says that a horse can’t win with a big closing run considering the average lengths behind the leader at the second (6-furlong) call is a shade under five lengths. Orb made the last big run coming from 14 lengths off the lead at the second call to win the 2013 Kentucky Derby, but his running style was more of a presser who likes to be just a few lengths off the lead.

Why do true closers have trouble winning?

If a horse is near the back of the pack, they will need to navigate through a dozen or more horses to get to the wire first. They’ll encounter the fading horses and likely need to go wide in the turn to stay clear of them. If they elect to try to run up the rail or through the middle of the pack, it gets tight and there will be bumping and no room to make a move. It is no surprise that almost half of all Derby entrants encounter some sort of trouble during the race. The horses who can break clean and settle for a good trip early near the front of the pack have the advantage over their foes who need to make up a lot of ground late.

How to bet the Derby

The Derby offers win, place, show, exacta, trifecta, superfecta, and super high-5 wagering. On Derby Day, exactas are a $2 minimum straight bet with $1 on boxes and wheels; trifectas are 50 cents minimum on straight bets, the superfecta is a $1 minimum wager, and the super high-5 (top five finishers) is a $1 minimum on a straight bet.

With 20 betting interests it can be difficult to construct a winning ticket without your wager getting too deep and expensive. All these horses are trying something new for the first time so there is some risk.

You can never go wrong with a win bet or playing a horse or two across the board (win, place, and show) if the odds are right. You can box a couple of horses for a small exacta or trifecta as well, but with so many talented horses in a race where some are likely to get bumped around, it is almost anyone’s guess who might finish third.

The superfecta can be tempting but keep it to four horses for a $1 box ($24 bet) or key your top horse and keep to the same number of combinations while included more horses for the lower spots, otherwise a five-horse box for $1 will cost you $120.

My advice to a new player is to play small, dream big, and enjoy the experience and thrill of the “most exciting two minutes in sports.” There is always value to be had, even when the favorite wins or hits the board. Longshots always find a way to sneak into the bottom of trifectas or superfectas even when you are faced with a strong favorite.

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