Experienced race bettors know that the Kentucky Derby is truly the greatest two minutes in sports. It’s also the day that a lot of casual bettors make their only horse racing bets of the year. That makes sense in that it’s the biggest race in the world, but it’s also the hardest race of the year to handicap. To make money on the race you need more luck than anything else. Here are five tips that can help horse race handicappers have the best shot at coming out ahead:
Ignore the experts – There is no shortage of insight and analysis from experts in the week before the race. There is a big problem with that, however. Most of the people who are willing to tell you who to bet on don’t actually follow the sport closely the other 51 weeks of the year. That means that they are forced to base their opinions largely on what they are hearing and reading in other places. That means that opinions can be amplified and strengthened – one guy starts to talk about a horse and soon everyone is. Unless you can be sure that the opinions you are reading are from people who really and truly know what they are talking about and that they have studied the race and the races that led to it closely then you are much better off ignoring the advice and coming up with your own opinions. The other problem is that some people will just pick a couple of horses and write something that sounds good because they want to have something to say. You can make pretty much any horse sound good if you try to, but that doesn’t mean that it’s good advice. If you are going to get questionable advice anyway then you might as well just rely on your own questionable advice – you’ll feel even smarter if you are right.
Look for a base of experience – Horses are running less and less as a two year old these days, and are running far fewer prep races as three year olds than they were in past decades. We are also seeing thoroughbreds – like Big Brown, for example – winning with far less experience than we are used to. With all that being said, I am still very unlikely to back a horse that doesn’t have a sound base of experience under them. That means that I want them to have run a stakes race as a two year old, and hopefully have won a race at two as well. I want them to have run around two turns, to have traveled to a couple of different tracks, and to have raced against horses at least as talented as they are. If a horse doesn’t offer all of those things then they aren’t worth a gamble in my eyes.
Pay close attention to trainers and jockeys – Bettors know that winning this race is incredibly hard. Even getting a horse to this race is very hard. Any trainer with any horse theoretically can win if they get in the gate – and Mine The Bird certainly proved that to be true. Guys who have had some success in this race in the past, though, are automatically more attractive than someone who hasn’t succeeded, and especially over someone who has never been there before. There is nothing like the Derby – it’s an absolutely ridiculous experience in every way. If you have never been there before then the noise, the chaos, and the history are a lot to take in. If all other things are equal between two horses then I’ll take the more experienced trainer and jockey every time.
Think about the distance – It might not seem like much, but a mile and a quarter is a long way for a three year old. It’s really probably too far for most three year olds at this time of year. There are a lot of horses – including some that will be at low odds – that are just not going to be capable of getting that distance. Before you bet on a horse, then, you need to be reasonably confident that they are going to survive. You can’t look directly at the past because no horse will have run that far before. You have to get clues in other ways. The best starting point is to look at the breeding – if the sire could run the classic distance effectively then there is a better than average chance that the son will be able to as well. Another clue is if the horse was feeling good at the end of his longest previous race. If he gained ground in his final furlong last time then there is a good chance he had enough gas in the tank to run the Derby distance.
Don’t overthink it – Ultimately, it’s almost impossible for bettors to handicap this race effectively. There are just too many factors to try to deal with – these are young horses running further than they have ever run in a field of horses that is much bigger than they will ever see again in front of the largest, loudest crowd in the sport. If you have never been to the race then you absolutely have to go because there is no other way to get a true sense of just how insane the race is, and how hard it is to win. It’s not good enough for a horse just to be fast. It also has to be incredibly lucky because it needs to get a good trip as well. You can look at the race as closely as you want, but there is a very good chance that something will surprise and frustrate you. You absolutely should handicap and study the race all you want, but you have to remember that if you win you’re at least as lucky as you are good. Instead of killing yourself on the race, don’t take yourself too seriously. Make a pick that makes sense to you, make some bets, then sit back, enjoy a mint julep or three, and have a great time watching the most perfect single event in sports.