BettorIQ’s Tips for Handicapping the Kentucky Derby
The first Saturday in May brings us the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby, hosted by Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. This horse racing festival draws interest from the most astute handicapper to people who aren’t even fans of horse racing and are genuinely just looking for a reason to dress up and wear an outrageous hat. While the common Derby fan is trying to find the name of a horse that means something to them (always a good strategy), experienced players are taking advantage of this event that provides unique opportunities for bettors.
While most of the coverage focuses on the Kentucky Derby, there are actually two days loaded with great stakes races. On Friday, the focus is on the Kentucky Oaks. The Oaks is basically the fillies’ version of the Kentucky Derby. The $1.25 million purse is second highest at the spring meet only to the Kentucky Derby. Besides the Oaks, there are five other graded stakes races that day ranging from a five and a half furlong turf race for three year olds to three races that go a mile and a sixteenth. The Kentucky Derby highlights Saturday’s card at race #12 with a purse of $3 million. Prior to that is the traditional Turf Classic, a grueling one and an eight mile race that brings the best turf horses in the world. But before those two get started there will be five more stakes races that day, bringing the two day total to twelve stakes races. Also, gaining in popularity is the Thursday card of races called Thurby. Opportunities to profit are prevalent.
Whereas the average fan is mostly playing the basic Win-Place-Show bets, money pours in on “exotic wagers” pushing the pools to huge amounts. The reason this is important is takeout. The takeout is what the track takes out of each specific betting pool and how they make money. Let’s look at an example. On Saturday, starting with race #8 and ending with race #12 (Kentucky Derby) is the Pick5. The goal is to pick the winner of five straight races. Obviously, the more horses you use, the more expensive the cost of the ticket. The pool for this specific wager last year was nearly $3 million and the takeout was 15%. That’s a profit of $450K just for that specific wager on that race for the track. A handful of bettors won a whopping $620,827 for having all five winners correct. So, while the track is making more money as the pools grow higher, there is also more money to split up among the winning bettors. In fact, Kentucky Derby Day in 2018 had a handle (amount of money taken in wagers) of $225 million. The overall handle for horse racing in North America for 2018 was $11 billion. That means nearly 2% of money wagered on horse racing last year was wagered on Derby Day at Churchill Downs! Let that sink in.
The Kentucky Derby itself has two unique built-in advantages. First, there is a twenty horse field. You won’t find many situations in parimutuel wagering where there are twenty betting opportunities. In fact at Santa Anita you can regularly find a race that has four horses entered, all at very low odds. In the Derby, however, the favorite is likely to go off at odds of 5-1 or better. There is a ton of value when the favorite pays that well. The second advantage is huge: uninformed bettors. I would guess that no sporting event in America, maybe the world, has as many bettors that look no further than the name they like. Some may even watch some Derby shows and find an interesting story they like, making the bet for sentimental reasons. Meanwhile, more serious players are studying pedigree, past races, current workouts, bounce factors, etc.
My favorite example is a horse named Patch in 2017. Patch was in serious pain from a mysterious ailment and his left eye was removed. In his third race he finished second in the Louisiana Derby earning him enough points to qualify for a starting spot in the Derby. Early odds had Patch at a reasonable 40-1 during Derby week. On Wednesday, during the draw for post position the worst happened as the colt drew the 20th starting spot, all the way outside and to the right. This meant that for at least the first stretch, the horse would be blind to all other nineteen horses. Now we have an average Derby horse in the worst possible position he could be in against twenty other horses. Surely his odds would plummet. Nope. NBC decided to push this story really hard and Patch became the darling of the day. Tons of uninformed money was wagered on this Todd Pletcher trained colt, who closed at odds of 14-1, making him the sixth betting choice and easily worse than his actual odds of winning the race. Patch was ninth about halfway through the race, fading to an nonthreatening 14th place finish. There are many other examples of “dead money” in the Kentucky Derby. Experienced and informed bettors can take advantage of the uninformed money that pervades this race and this day, year after year.