We are aware that many SBR regulars and site visitors are not avid horse players, so we've compiled this wagering guide complete with Kentucky Derby tips and historical payouts to help you score a profit on the first Saturday in May.
A great deal of public interest, both nationally and internationally, make this America's most lucrative race with humongous pools and potentially life-changing payouts. In 2014, for example, 54 million dollars made up the mutual pool comprised of win, place, and show wagers. Coupled with more money and increasing field sizes over the last half century, and the average winner's betting odds have increased nearly 50% since the 1940s. Below are two tables listing the eye-popping payouts of the Derby's most popular wagering options going back to 2000:
Win bets are the simplest and most popular bet in horse racing. Many professional players favor this wager for its positive expected value in the long term, but one must be very selective in order to be successful, particularly when considering the post-time favorite and the prices of potential winners. An individual's success ultimately depends upon one's average strike rate, and at what odds one hits. For the most part, many horse players avoid betting on runners to win under 3/1 unless they're convinced the selection is a “sure thing.” The average winning odds for the Derby is 7.9/1.
History teaches us that one should probably bet against the favorite in the race. Factoring in track takeout and bookie “vigorish,” if a bettor placed a $2 win bet on every post-time Derby favorite since the race first ran in 1875, one would have netted a loss of roughly 5% on their investment. During this span, 82 winners (58.6%) have come home at 9/2 or less; 30 (21.4%) in between 5/1 and 10/1, and 28 (20%) at 11/1 or greater. Sloppier tracks tend to drop the biggest bombs (think Mine that Bird, 2009 or Giacomo, 2005), but avoid spending too much on a super long shot. A horse paying better than 20-1 has only won 14 of the 137 Derby races with an average payout of 34/1.
Do not underestimate recent form, and the whispers of a “live” horse when considering a winner. Since 1970, 80% of Derby winners have finished 1st or 2nd in their final prep race. Interestingly, since 1991, 70 horses have finished in 3rd place in their prior start, and none have taken the finish line first. Oddly, during this span, four out of 38 have come home fourth in their previous race and gone on to win the Derby (Mine that Bird, 2009; Giacomo, 2005; Thunder Gulch, 1995; and Sea Hero 1993).
If playing multi-race exotics, such as the pick-3 or pick-4, where picking winners is required for a series of races, set yourself a wagering limit and look to single a horse in one of the legs. Research has proven that positive expected value is gained in the long term when doing so. Cast your net wide for the Derby.
Single race exotics betting on runners to come in the money can yield huge profits in the Derby (see the chart above). I'll avoid opining on specific wagering strategies, but will share a few key statistics to help you zero in on those profitable in-the-money selections. Let's look at the favorite again. At your average American race track, he or she runs to second place or better 55% of the time, and to third or better 69%. Since 1875, the favorite has finished off the board 39 times (27%) in the Derby. This figure is a bit skewed, since the average field size was much smaller in the early decades of the race. From 1880-1920, for example, the average number of starters was 7.25. Since 1980, however, fields on average are well above 17 runners. During this time, the favorite has failed to come in the money 21 times, or nearly 60%.
Since 1992, horses who went to post with odds greater than 15/1 in their pre-Derby start are 3-58 finishing in the money, and 0-61 winning the Run for the Roses. Essentially these are runners who the public considered outsiders to compete in the Derby and a bit over-classed in the face of their peers, probably popping their career-best run to edge their way into the race. Danzig Moon (40/1), Tencendur (66/1), and Mr. Z (40/1) each qualify this year, and are undoubtedly on the outside looking in for a third place finish or better.
Derby specialist, Derek Simon, shares another angle for us to consider. Since 1992, 32 horses have lost position and ground traveled (lengths) to the leader between the first and second call of their previous race. None have won, only three have hit the board (Pioneerof the Nile, 2009, Bluegrass Cat, 2006; Menifee, 1999), and two others came home in fourth place to round off the superfecta (Normandy Invasion, 2013 and Personal Hope, 1993). The half mile in between these two calls, or what is considered the far turn of race, is a critical juncture in route trips where you want to see horses moving forward to ready themselves for the stretch run, rather than tracking backwards. The Carla Gaines trained Bolo (40/1) settles under this ominous situation this year. Another interesting angle dug up by the curator of the DRF Formulator is that since 2003, horses coming out of the Wood Memorial (Aqueduct) are 0-23 finishing show or better. This stat is hard to explain, and I suspect is prime to be corrected, since historically the prep is a key race which has produced 10 Derby winners overall. Perhaps rising purse sizes in other key races, or the new points qualification system has watered down the field. Frosted (16/1), Tencendur (66/1), and El Kabeir (33/1) all come out of this historic prep.
If you want to take home some money, and call yourself a winner on Derby day, than head-to-head matchup sports pick may be your best choice. Offered for select races throughout the year, they are an unorthodox wagering option in American horse racing. The traditional sports bettor may find this bet type appealing as it sets the odds of winning around a 50/50 split one is accustomed to. Line shopping is key. Books will share many of the primary match-ups, and one can find a lot of variance of price in the offerings. Some will also offer head-to-head opportunities unique to their operation and loaded with value.
My mindset when wagering Derby match-up bets is to favor stamina and success as a two-year-old runner, while virtually ignoring speed figures. One angle I use every year is to fade horses who like to be on or near the lead who are seemingly outclassed entering the race. They often burn out quickly in the last eighth of a mile of their longest event to date. Also, favor those conditioning themselves to run a mile and a quarter. Although the average bettor is not privy to the number and distance of morning gallops and jogs, tallying the lengths run and number of works in the weeks heading up to the Derby can give you a good clue.
Handicapping the Derby
Approach the Kentucky Derby as an outlier race. Asking a young three-year-old horse to run a mile and a quarter, versus 19 of their peers, against a demanding pace, and in front of 150,000 screaming spectators is abnormal in American horse racing. For many entries, the race is the greatest physical and mental challenge they'll face in their entire career. Not to beat a dead horse (no pun intended), but this is truly one of the deepest fields in recent memory. In my opinion, as a whole, they are the fastest group of three-year-old's to start the Derby in the last 20 years. But being fast isn't going to win you the race outright, and that's why horse players consider a myriad of different factors when handicapping the Run for the Roses. These include speed, breeding, pace, trips, trainer and jockey combinations, horse names, favorite numbers, post positions and any other superstitious rituals one may bring to the table. Below are some popular Derby angles for you to consider when handicapping your selections:
Whether one uses Andrew Beyer's figures, Brisnet, Thorograph, or some other metric to determine speed, this Derby is undeniably loaded with fast horses. I prefer Bris figures, and since 1996 when five or more horses have run a 102 rating or greater in their career, the winner has come from this group every time. War Story (40/1), Danzig Moon (40/1), Firing Line (16/1), Far Right (33/1), El Kabeir (33/1), and International Star (18/1) all have failed to hit this figure, and probably don't have enough speed to contend for the outright win.
Pace makes the race, right? Many trainers will opine that the speed event taking place in the first quarter to half mile of a race ultimately determines the outcome. Horses prefer a specific running style, whether on the lead, off the lead, in the middle, or closing from deep to get the most out of their abilities. I like using Quirin Speed Points (QSP), which is a position rating measurement ranging from 1-8 that determines a horses' propensity to run at or on the lead up to the first call, when forecasting the pace. Out of the last 15 Run for the Roses, horses with QSP's less than three are 2 for 76 to win (Orb, 2013 & Street Sense 2007). In total, five have spoiled the exacta bet (Aptitude, 2000; Commanding Curve, 2013; Golden Soul, 2014). Most of the horses in this group are closing types that may not have as much natural speed, or a longer stride, or other factors which prevent them from challenging the leaders to begin a race. In dirt route tests, like the Derby, this is sometimes a disadvantage, as young horses may have difficulty managing the large field, coping with dirt thrown in their face, and finding that final gear down the home stretch to pass leaders who may have had an easier trip. In fact, nine of the last 12 Derby winners were stalkers, meaning they ran a horse or two off the lead and were forwardly placed throughout the race. QSP's below three for the 2015 Derby include: International Star (18/1), Far Right (33/1), Danzig Moon (40/1), War Story (40/1) and Keen Ice (40/1).
Many horse players like using pedigree types and the dosage index (DI), a popular breeding classification system, to determine degrees of speed and stamina in a horse's bloodline when handicapping the Derby. Since 1940, only five horses with a DI greater than 4.0 (Strike the Gold, 1991; Real Quiet, 1998; Charismatic, 1999; Giacomo, 2005, and Mine That Bird, 2009) have won the Run for the Roses. Pre-Derby favorite American Pharaoh (5/2) and International Star (18/1) find themselves hovering above this mark with 4.33 and 4.09 ratings, respectively.
One of the more interesting tales surrounding this year's race is the curse of Storm Cat. Arguably the most influential pedigree horse in the last 25 years, his descendants' record at long dirt route races is abysmal. In April 2014, his line's runners were 2 for 139 in winning Grade 1 dirt races at one mile and a quarter or more since 2000. Moreover, Storm Cat's descendants are a futile 0-44 winning the Derby. What makes this hex a major talking point this year is his huge influence on the 2015 field, and the fact the two consensus favorites, American Pharaoh (5/2) and Dortmund (4/1), are related. Horse Racing Nations blogger, The Dark Horse, compiled this list of eight Storm Cat descendants vying for this years Roses: American Pharaoh (Dam Side); Carpe Diem (Sire Side); Dortmund (Dam Side); El Kabeir (Sire Side); Firing Line (Sire Side); Mr. Z (Dam Side); Stanford (Dam Side); Tencendur (Dam Side)
Speaking of curses, not since Apollo's victory in 1882 has a horse not started a race as a two-year-old and won the Derby. Since 1937, 58 horses have tried—three placed second, and three came home in third. Personally, I believe this record will fall in the near future, as it's becoming more commonplace for owners and trainers to keep freaky fast young horses fresh for their three-year-old campaign, where arguably more prize money awaits, and potential titles are more lucrative for future initial stud fees at sire—where the big money lies. In the past, trainers may have held two-year-old horses back for more developmental reasons, albeit physical or mental. Keep in mind the Todd Pletcher trained Materiality (12/1) is stricken with this jinx.
I hope you find this guide useful, and best of luck with your wagers in this year's 141st running of The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports!