How to Bet on the Kentucky Derby

by Big Al Staff

When we're talking horse racing, we have to discuss the Kentucky Derby.  Some might know it as the “Run for the Roses,” others as the “Super Bowl of Horse Racing.”  But, regardless, it’s by far the most famous horse race in the United States.  There's so much anticipation, media attention, as well as an influx of novice sports fans.  So, it’s no surprise that the Kentucky Derby is the most-wagered-on horse race in the United States.  Thousands of people attend the race every year, and millions of people view it through television and the internet.  Sports fans, industry professionals, casual bettors, professional bettors, and bookmakers all gather at Churchill Downs to watch the contenders try their hardest to win.

Not only is winning important to the ownership groups, but it’s also a big concern for those wagering their money.  Sources indicate that the total amount bet on the Kentucky Derby in 2019 was close to 165 million dollars.  That's a lot of money.  And since horse racing uses a pari-mutuel system, there's a lot of money to be made.  Unlike the conventional betting system, there's not a cap on the odds.  So, with horse racing, it seems like the sky is the limit.  It’s possible for an ordinary punter to turn a $2 wager into thousands of dollars.

So you might be wondering how I make those bets, and how can I be successful at predicting which horse wins the annual Kentucky Derby?  Instead of always dreaming away at the racetrack, hoping for that big payout, we'll show you how to get started properly in horse race betting. We can't guarantee that you'll win, of course, but we can give you some proper information to make sure you feel confident when putting your money on the line.

Getting started with Kentucky Derby betting

In most years, the Kentucky Derby is the first jewel of the Triple Crown (with the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes following).  In 2020, however, the disruption caused by the coronavirus changed things greatly, as the Kentucky Derby became the 2nd of the three races, while the Belmont Stakes moved into the first position.  Regardless of when it’s run, it's already clear who the contenders are, and which jockeys will ride them. That means, bookmakers and sportsbooks already share the current odds for the early birds.  This is referred to as the Kentucky Derby futures wager since you're betting far into the future.  The odds for the Kentucky Derby futures change as time passes, but do come into focus within a fortnight of the race.

The week of the race, the post positions are drawn, and thus the odds can change, based on whether a horse is starting on the rail, or on the outside.  The advanced wagering options will be available the night before the race starts. These are the exotic bets like the exacta bets and others. Now, before we dive into the logistics further, let's see what types of bets you can make at the Kentucky Derby.

Different types of bets at the Kentucky Derby

Each bettor or handicapper has his preferred bet.  You could take a conservative approach, and wager on a horse to show (finish in 3rd place or better), or you can put it all on the line and take greater risk.  There are some basic types of bets anyone should know -- these are the straight bets.  When you master the straight bets, you can then dive into the exotic bets. The exotics are more complicated, but the payouts will generally be much greater.

Straight bets
A straight bet is a wager on a single horse in a single race.  They are the easiest bets you can make, and a perfect way to introduce yourself to horse race betting.

Win bet
With a win bet, you pick the winning horse for the race.  You only win if your horse finishes in first place.  It's really hard to predict a winning horse, but that's why the payouts for a win bet are appealing.

Place bet
​With a place bet, you pick a horse which will be in the top-two finishers.  Thus, you only win if your chosen horse ends in first or second place.  There's a bigger chance of winning a place bet than a win bet, but the payouts can still be rewarding compared to other bets.

Show bet
With a show bet, you pick a horse which will be among the top-three finishers.  You only win if your chosen horse ends in first, second, or third place. The exact position doesn't matter, so long as your horse finishes among the top three.

Exotic bets
When you want to spice things up and start building up some confidence in horse race betting, it's time to explore the exotic bets. The difference between exotic and straight bets is that you're wagering on multiple horses instead of a single horse. The risks are greater, so the chance to win is smaller, but that means the rewards are higher as well.

Instead of betting just a single horse, why not bet a second horse, right?  With the exacta bet, you put your faith in two horses that you believe will end up in first and second place.  The catch here, though, is that you need to pick the exact order of the two horses.  That means you only win if you select the exact horse which ends in first place, and the exact horse which ends in second. Any other outcome, and you lose your money.

The quinella bet is slightly different from the exacta bet.  You also pick two horses that will end up as the top-two finishers, but the order does not matter.  Thus, you just pick the two horses that you believe are the best bets in the race, and you win no matter if horse A or horse B ends first, so long as the other manages to take second place.

The trifecta name might already give you an indication of how the bet works.  You pick three horses that you believe will finish among the top three.  The catch here is that the order must be precise.  That means you must pick horse A in first place, horse B in second place, and horse C in third place.  Any other outcome, and you have a losing ticket.

When you want to really take things up a notch, you go for the superfecta.  It's a really difficult ticket to cash, but the payout is very rewarding.  You win if you manage to pick the top four finishers in the exact order.  It's hard, there's a ton of risk involved, but if you win, it's all worth it!

Special bets
There are some other bets you can make when you're really into horse racing.  You have the Daily Double, where you not only bet on multiple horses but also multiple races.  These types of bets can take on many different forms as you could go for a pick four and pick the winning horse in four consecutive races.  Again, the chances are really small, but the rewards are high.

Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing
Since we're talking about the Kentucky Derby all the time, we must mention the Triple Crown bet.  The highest rank a thoroughbred horse can reach is the Triple Crown winner.  This particular horse has to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.  If a horse manages to win these three races, it has achieved the highest level a racing horse can ever achieve.  Because of this occurrence being so rare since 1919, there have been only 13 horses that became Triple Crown winners.  Some legendary horses that have attained this pinnacle include Whirlaway, Citation, Secretariat, Affirmed, and American Pharoah.

How to read the Kentucky Derby odds

Horse racing works with a pari-mutuel system, which means bettors bet against each other.  All the money that's wagered is collected in a giant betting pool, and eventually, the final odds come up the moment the race starts.  However, when you're an early bettor who wants to slip in some bets at the current odds, there are some opportunities. We'll share some examples of previous winners like American Pharoah to show how the odds work.

In the 2015 Kentucky Derby, American Pharoah won.  The odds were +300, which means a $2 bet (this is the standard wager size in horse racing) would give you a payout of roughly $8 (including your $2 stake).  However, behind these odds, there's a whole system that we can better explain with another example.  We'll take the case of the 2019 winner, Country House.  Let's say 100,000 bettors all placed a $2 wager on a win bet.  All this money collects in a betting pool.  Afterward, Country House wins and there were 1,515 bettors who had a win bet on Country House.  Those bettors would receive their portion of the prize pool. This brings the following formula:

  • 100,000 x $2 = $200,000
  • $200,000 / 1,515 = $132

As you can see, anyone who took Country House for the win walks away with $132.  After deducting the initial $2 stake, that leaves a $130 profit (or 65-1 odds). In reality, the bookmakers also take a small portion of that $132 payout to cover things like taxes, but this gives you a general overview of horse racing payouts.

Where to bet the Kentucky Derby?

When you want to get down to business and start wagering on the Kentucky Derby, you have a couple of options.  You could wait until the day of the Derby, and head over to the bet shop itself to place your bets.  There you can also peruse the racing form with all the past performances of the contenders.  You head over to the counter to place your wagers, and wait till the races finish.  You watch the races while adrenaline rushes through you, and hope that you can head over to the counter again to cash your tickets.  Everything is done on-site at the bet shops, or at the track, but there are also other options.

Betting sites

The other place to bet is where everything happens these days:  the internet.  There are hundreds of betting sites that will gladly take your Kentucky Derby bets.  These are the places where early birds can already fill in their bet slips and make Kentucky Derby futures wagers.  The beauty of betting sites is that you can sit in a country house anywhere in the world while betting, so you don't need to be present at the racetracks.  Everything happens off-track, and you can just put on the TV and watch the race on NBC or any other channel.

The other bonus of betting sites is the competitive odds.  As we mentioned before, the house takes a small cut of your payout to cover their costs.  Now, that cut could be a little bit bigger at one betting site in comparison to its competition at another betting site.  We always advise to keep your options open and shop around for the best odds.  One of our favorite horse racing sites is MyBookie, whose racebook offers up to an 8% rebate on losing tickets.  And another great option is our #1-rated sportsbook, BetAnySports, which offers 10% bonus payouts on winnings at major tracks, as well as a 9% rebate on losing tickets.  Good luck at the track!

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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