Betting the 2022 Kentucky Derby on different budgets

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

May 7th, 2022

Speed. It’s been the dominant factor in recent editions of the $3 million Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs. But will Saturday’s renewal of the historic race produce a different outcome?

Since 2014, horses racing on or near the lead have dominated the Kentucky Derby. You might assume its testing 1 1/4-mile distance would lend an advantage toward late runners, but that hasn’t recently been the case.

For starters, California Chrome (2014), American Pharoah (2015), Nyquist (2016), Always Dreaming (2017), Justify (2018), and Authentic (2020) all won after setting or pressing the pace. Furthermore, Maximum Security (2019) and Medina Spirit (2021) both crossed the finish line in first place after setting the pace, only to be disqualified (Maximum Security for causing interference, Medina Spirit for a positive post-race drug test).

But will speed hold up again in the 2022 Kentucky Derby? Not necessarily. UAE Derby (G2) winner #4 Summer Is Tomorrow (30-1) has excellent tactical speed and figures to set the pace while breaking from post 4. But he’ll surely be joined by Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner #17 Classic Causeway (30-1), a pure pacesetter breaking from an outside post. #19 Zozos (20-1) has likewise shown frontrunning speed and figures to use it to avoid a wide trip. Gate-to-wire Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) winner #6 Messier (8-1) could also be aggressive early under jockey John Velazquez, who has led from start to finish in the last two Derbys aboard Authentic and Medina Spirit.

What if, after years of speed dominating the Derby, we see a different outcome in 2022? There’s enough pace in the field to suggest a closer might visit the winner’s circle for the first time since Orb in 2013. And that closer might just be #1 Mo Donegal (10-1).

Never out of the trifecta in five starts, Mo Donegal has been a force to reckon with against tough competition. In the 1 1/8-mile Remsen S. (G2) at Aqueduct last fall, Mo Donegal showed grit and determination to rally off a pedestrian pace and defeat future Blue Grass S. (G1) winner #10 Zandon (3-1) by a nose.

But Mo Donegal ran even better in Aqueduct’s 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial (G2) four weeks ago. After missing a scheduled start in the Fountain of Youth S. (G2) due to an illness, Mo Donegal could have been short of peak fitness in his final Derby prep. But Mo Donegal nevertheless produced an explosive rally from behind a respectable pace, rocketing the final three furlongs in :35.61 to win by a neck over runaway Withers S. (G3) winner Early Voting.

This impressive performance produced a 111 Brisnet Speed rating (tied for the highest in the Derby field) and a 121 Brisnet Late Pace rating (easily the best in the Derby field). Actually, Mo Donegal owns the two best Late Pace ratings in the field, having posted a 117 in the Remsen.

Drawing the rail would be a detriment for a speed horse, but it shouldn’t bother Mo Donegal, who can drop back off the expected fast pace before launching his rally around the far turn and down the homestretch. At 10-1 on the morning line, Mo Donegal is an exciting candidate to play on top.

The other horse we’ll strongly support is the above-mentioned Messier. After smashing the Robert B. Lewis by 15 lengths (earning a 104 Brisnet Speed rating), Messier ran deceptively well in a tough renewal of the Santa Anita Derby (G1). Making his first start off a two-month break, Messier pressed a solid pace, took command in midstretch, and stayed on to finish clearly second-best behind stablemate #12 Taiba (12-1).

Considering Messier did the dirty work of keeping speedy San Felipe S. (G2) winner Forbidden Kingdom honest up front, this was a solid effort. It looks even better when you check out the Brisnet ratings, as Messier posted triple-digit figures in all four categories: E1 (100), E2 (109), Late Pace (102), and Speed (108). It’s uncommon to see a horse post triple-digit figures across all four categories, which serves as a testament to how well Messier performed.

So if we view Mo Donegal as a formidable deep closer, and Messier as the best of the speed horses, we should be able to construct rock-solid Kentucky Derby tickets covering a couple of different pace scenarios. If the pace is hot, Mo Donegal can beat them all. If the speed horses play it safe up front, Messier can hold off everyone down the lane.

Underneath our top choices, we’ll support obvious contenders like Zandon, Taiba, and Louisiana Derby (G2) winner #3 Epicenter (7-2). We’ll also use a couple of longshots: Japanese raider #7 Crown Pride (20-1), fresh off a win in the UAE Derby (G2), and #13 Simplification (20-1), who arguably got burned up dueling for the lead through hot fractions when finishing third in the Florida Derby (G1).

Depending on the budget you’ve set aside for betting the Kentucky Derby, we’ve outlined three wagering strategies at costs of $40, $80, and $120. In each case, we’ll place win bets on both Mo Donegal and Messier, since their odds are high enough to yield a profitable return if either one prevails.

$40 budget

Betting exactas in the Kentucky Derby is a budget-friendly strategy, but one with the potential to produce solid returns. When 15-1 shot I’ll Have Another beat 21-5 favorite Bodemeister in 2012, the $1 exacta returned $153.30.

  • $12 to win on #1 Mo Donegal
  • $12 to win on #6 Messier
  • $2 Exacta: 1,6 with 1,3,6,10,12 ($16)
    Total: $40

$80 budget

Trifecta tickets are more expensive to play, but they significantly increase the potential for big payoffs. In 2012, 12-1 shot Dullahan rounded out the trifecta behind I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister, a reasonably logical outcome that nevertheless paid $1,532.80 for every $1 ticket.

  • $20 to win on #1 Mo Donegal
  • $20 to win on #6 Messier
  • $1 Trifecta: 1,6 with 1,3,6,10,12 with 1,3,6,7,10,12,13 ($40)
    Total: $80

$120 budget

Hitting a Kentucky Derby superfecta is one of the hardest betting challenges in racing. The minimum wager amount is $1, so ticket costs increase sharply with each additional horse you play. But the rewards can be massive, since it’s common for unheralded longshots to crash the Kentucky Derby top four. When 30-1 outsider Went the Day Well completed the superfecta in the 2012 Kentucky Derby, the $1 payoff was $48,046.40.

  • $24 to win on #1 Mo Donegal
  • $24 to win on #6 Messier
  • $1 Superfecta: 1,6 with 1,6 with 3,10,12 with 3,7,10,12,13 ($24)
  • $1 Superfecta: 1,6 with 3,10,12 with 1,6 with 3,7,10,12,13 ($24)
  • $1 Superfecta: 1,6 with 3,10,12 with 3,7,10,12,13 with 1,6 ($24)
    Total: $120

Good luck!