How to bet the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

April 25th, 2018

While some bettors might be excited or confident enough to have their exact selections and wagering plans mapped out more than a week ahead of the Kentucky Derby, for the vast majority this is a time to take a more general outlook at the race from these perspectives.

So much can happen in the final 7-10 days before the race. An injury, illness, or change of heart can cause one or more horses to defect by entry time, meaning others may take their place and change the race's complexion. A seemingly minor problem might arise that doesn't affect a horse's participation, but even the slightest hiccup can be a potential cause for concern. Physical assessment, post position, and track condition are all important factors you simply have to wait to become evident before incorporating them into your analysis.

By now, most serious handicappers will have formed general opinions on each of the current 20 horses in the field. At this stage, it's not too early to answer two questions regarding the field: What do I think of the favorite? Which horses do I not like at all for any wager I might make?

The Kentucky Derby has been won by the post-time favorite for five consecutive years, an unprecedented streak of success in the race's long history. There have been two instances when the favorite won four years in a row, most recently 1972-75. One good thing is that with up to 20 individual betting interests instead of 14 or less in the 1970s, the average odds of these winning favorites has been around 7-2 rather than the 8-5 of four decades ago.

While it might be tempting to think that the cyclical nature of racing will somehow prevent a sixth consecutive favorite from winning, the horse is best judged on his own merits. Bettors that remember the long drought of favorites from 1980 through 1999 and didn't eventually adapt can tell you it's not good for the pocketbook to be against the favorite simply because he's the favorite. Perceived value is a different matter, but 7-2 or higher is perhaps worth taking if you really like the favorite and it's available.

Winnowing the field down is also something that can be done relatively early in the process. A handful, likely more, simply have little chance of hitting the board or crashing the lower rungs of the more exotic exotics like the Superfecta and Super High 5. Eliminating a quarter or more of the field ultimately will save time and also remove any temptation to later find some reason to include them in your wagering plans. Better to take a firm stand now rather than waste betting capital later.