The Kentucky Derby is, for my betting bankroll, the greatest single day sporting event of the year. It’s practically perfect. I’ve been to the race in person twice, and would go back every year if I could – there’s no better spectacle to be a part of. As a fan it’s a great day. As a handicapper, though, it’s a challenge. There is nothing more satisfying then cashing a big winner on the Derby, but there are few things harder as well. You can’t pretend that this race is just like every other because for so many reasons it really, really isn’t. Here’s a look at six factors that make the Kentucky Derby unique for bettors:
Field size – It is very rare for most races to have more than 12 horses, and single digit fields are more the rule at most tracks. When a field of smaller horses all have room to move, and they stand a good chance of being able to run the style of race that they would like to. In the Derby the maximum field size is 20 horses, and in recent years it has been full or close to it. That many horses is sure to create total chaos. There is a mass of horseflesh looking to get to the rail out of the gate, and several horses vying for each spot around the track. When the runners turn for home, chaos is an absolute certainty and room to move is hard to find. In most races it’s possible for a horse to not have room to move, but it doesn’t happen in the majority of races in a significant way. In the Derby it’s a certainty that several horses will have to check their progress and figure out a new way to get to the finish line. That’s tough on any horse, but especially on one as young as these horses are. This is the only time a horse will ever see a field like this, so there is no way to know in advance how they are going to like it, and how it is going to affect them.
Distance – The Derby is run over a mile and a quarter. That’s the longest distance that every horse in the field will ever have run, and the longest that most of them will ever run. It may not seem like a long distance compared to the typical distance these horses run, but the extra eighth or quarter mile makes a big difference. Horses in North America are increasingly bred for speed over stamina, and the classic distance is a major test of endurance, so a lot of horses just aren’t capable of handling it. Even horses that can handle it are going to be pushed harder than they have ever been, and they are going to feel it. Until we see how they respond we can’t be sure that they will dig into their extra reserves instead of just quitting. There isn’t a single horse that we can be absolutely certain of their ability to get the distance. The other problem the distance presents is that tired horses become unpredictable. They don’t necessarily run in a straight line, and that can cause problems for horses coming up behind them.
Crowd – There are as many as 160,000 people at the Derby. They are absolutely everywhere – packed into the infield, and filling every square inch of the grandstand. By the time the Derby starts late in the afternoon, people have been there all day and they have probably enjoyed several mint juleps. In a word, the crowd is insane. These horses are edgy at the best of times, so when they are surrounded by that chaos it’s hard to know how they will like it. It’s far from uncommon to see a horse so worked up by the time the race starts that they have nothing left for the race itself.
Jockey intensity – In most races jockeys want to win, but if they don’t have enough horse under them they aren’t going to go the extra mile to try to get to the wire. There isn’t a jockey alive who doesn’t dream of winning the Kentucky Derby, though. That means that they are going to do anything to try and get it done. We see far more aggressive riding in this race than we do most days. Jockeys will try to get through small gaps, or make gaps where they don’t exist. They’ll push their horses very hard down the stretch, and won’t give way easily when they probably should. Combine that intensity with the size of the field and the distance and you have a recipe for chaos.
Lack of comparisons – In most races, horses have run over the track before – often several times. They may have run against some horses in the field, and they have likely run at the distance. Because of that we are able to draw meaningful conclusions about how horses compare and who is likely to win. In the Derby horses come together from all across the country, and many have never run at Churchill before. They have run at different distances on different surfaces. Some have been off for five or six weeks, while others are coming back after just two or three weeks. Some horses even come over from Europe once in a while. In the Derby you have to compare apples to oranges and lemons and try to figure out which one is best. It’s extremely hard to do.
Public money – In most horse races, the amount of public money is limited. The majority of people at the track on a normal day – especially a weekday – are relatively serious horseplayers, and their action is joined by other serious bettors through simulcast facilities and online betting. That doesn’t mean that everyone is making good decisions, but there is at least a predictable reason for a lot of bets and bet movement. The public bets like never before on the Derby – it’s the only day of the year that a lot of people bet. Public money is harder to predict, it’s unpredictable, and it can act in unexpected ways. It can create real opportunities if you like a horse that the public doesn’t, but it provides some real issues as well. You need to be more aware of where the money is in this race than any other.