Betting on the Kentucky Derby is really hard. Actually, betting is easy – it’s winning that is hard. In fact, I say without qualification that it is the hardest single race to bet on successfully all year. It’s full of very young horses running further than they ever have – and probably further than most are really ready for – in the biggest field they will ever face in front of the biggest, loudest crowd in the sport. It’s total chaos, and that chaos creates far more uncertainty than you would normally accept when looking for a bet to make. This isn’t just any bet, though – it’s the greatest two minutes of sports in the world. There’s no way you want to miss out on the action whether it makes total sense or not. All you can do, then, is to give yourself the best chance of success possible. Here are six mistakes to avoid on your road to Kentucky Derby betting success:
Don’t ignore the surfaces – I’ll put this simply – when it comes to the Kentucky Derby synthetic tracks are the devil. Horses that have prepped on synthetic tracks instead of dirt have not shown that they can make the effective transition to the dirt at Churchill Downs. Some horses have done okay, but few if any have lived up to their hype after shining in a synthetic prep race. I won’t go so far as to say that you should never bet a horse that has prepped on synthetic tracks – though I likely won’t – but you need to be aware of the times it happens and adjust accordingly. Thankfully, this is less of a concern now that Santa Anita has gone away from synthetics, but it’s still an issue to keep at the front of your mind.
Don’t bet too many horses – I attended the Kentucky Derby for the first time in 1996 when Grindstone came out on top. I really liked that horse and his breeding, and I tabbed him to have a good day. By the time I cashed my win tickets and tallied up what had happened, though, I was horrified. I had Grindstone to win, and in an exacta box, but I still managed to lose money on the race. I’d gotten so carried away by the excitement of being at the event that I had spread myself too thin and made it almost impossible for me to come out with a fatter bankroll. With the number of horses in the race and the number that seem like possible winners this is a problem that is far too easy to have – especially if you are betting on some of the favorites.
Don’t get sucked into the hype – Every year there are a few horses that get the lion’s share of the attention. This is an unscientific statement, but I am all but certain that bets on those horses would not be profitable through the years. The problem with the hype in the media leading up to the Derby is that many people who write or talk about it don’t follow the sport closely the rest of the year. That means they are either talking about horses they just picked randomly, or they are just repeating what they heard elsewhere. Neither is a good foundation for one of your picks. Unless you know the source of the information and you can be confident that they have worked hard to come to the conclusion they have – and that they know how to pick winners – then you are better off ignoring all that you hear.
Don’t overlook distance concerns – A mile and a quarter is further than every horse in the race will have run, and further than most will ever run again. It’s a real challenge, and too much for a lot of horses these days since we focus so much more on breeding speed than stamina in North America these days. Before you pick any horse, then, you need have to at least some sense that they will be able to handle the distance. Some of the easiest ways to get that comfort is to look at breeding and how they ran their longest race. Simply, if a horse’s sire or grandsire was very successful at the Classic distance or beyond then there is a chance that the son will be successful as well. If they were closing strong in the last furlong of their longest previous race – gaining ground when others were faltering – then it’s a sign that they could have enough gas to get to the end of the Derby.
Don’t ignore the longer shots – in 1999 Charismatic paid 31/1 to win. War Emblem was 20/1 in 2002. Giacomo is 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009 both paid over 50/1. That’s four pretty serious longshots that have come out on top in the last 12 years. That’s as many longshot winners as favorite winners. In a race as chaotic as the Derby anything can happen, so don’t ignore a horse just because the oddsmakers have. I’m not suggesting you do this, but you could actually have made a tidy profit by betting every horse at higher than 20/1 to win over the last 12 years – a $2 bet on the 115 horses would have cost you $230, and would have generated a return of $313.40, which is a ROI of better than 36 percent. Betting the favorites over that same time stretch creates an ROI of just 14 percent.
Don’t take yourself too seriously – Like I said, betting on this race is really hard. If you place a winning bet and made some money you have done some good handicapping, but you have also gotten lucky. There is so much that can go wrong in this race, and so many ways that a great horse can have a bad day. Instead of killing yourself trying to find the perfect horse just make sure what you are betting on makes sense then sit back, relax, and enjoy the spectacle.