Brandon A. Quick | Fri 05/05/2017 - 08:12 EDT

2017 Kentucky Derby Betting Strategy

2017 Kentucky Derby Betting Strategy

Derby Betting: The Big Picture

With 20 horses and colossal wagering pools, the Kentucky Derby is one of the best money-making opportunities of the year in thoroughbred racing. Making things even sweeter is the reality that the pools - all pools - are greatly diluted by novice bettors. In theory this means those with an informed opinion are at a great advantage and that the one-day-a-year Derby bettor is ready to be fleeced.

But fear not if you are among the uninformed. Plenty of wagering experts on the web are ready to provide solid horse racing picks for a small fee or free of charge. There's a fundamental paradox to understand about horse racing for all those planning to invest.

Year after year, the betting favorite wins approximately 33% of the time, but those who bet only favorites are sure to lose money over a period of time. The key, obviously, is to determine which favorites to bet and which to dismiss in search of a horse with more generous odds.

Lukewarm favorites who go to post at odds of 2/1 or higher win less than a horse with shorter odds. Watching the odds is not a reliable wagering tactic, but it does provide an idea of who the sharp bettors like and who they are ignoring. A horse who is 7 or 8 to 1 in the program might open up at 3/1 and continue to take money until the horses reach the starting gate. This is usually a clear indicator of where the "smart money" is going. 

Now back to the Kentucky Derby itself. The post time favorite has won each of the last four Derbys. Of those four, each had impeccable credentials. Nyquist (2016) and American Pharoah (2015) were unbeaten, while Orb (2013) and California Chrome (2014) had not lost a race during their three year-old year. The 2017 renewal of the Run for the Roses lacks such a horse, although Always Dreaming is unbeaten in three starts this year (note that two were against vastly overmatched allowance fields). After Always Dreaming, Classic Empire, Irish War Cry and McCracken, none of the Kentucky Derby contenders sport resumes worth mentioning. 

So how do I bet?

Betting is a very nuanced affair that often undergoes many iterations in a serious handicapper's lifetime. For the sake of simplicity, we will focus on just three types of bets that can pay huge dividends on Derby Day: the exacta, the trifecta and the superfecta. As the names suggest, the exacta means to pick the top two finishers of a race in order, the trifecta adds the third-place finisher to the mix and the superfecta gets wild and wooly by adding a fourth-place horse. 

The exacta is a simple, but wildly popular bet at any racetrack that was introduced during the 1970's. The Kentucy Derby is a true bonanza for exacta players, but those who truly understand the bet may be in the minority. Most casual bettors think of the exacta as a simple two-horse "box." This means they select two horses from the field and wager that those horses must finish first or second in either order. So, an exacta box using the 4 and 12 horse means that the bettor would win if the race comes in 4-12 or 12-4. A "straight" or "cold" exacta would cover just 4-12 or 12-4. The bet may be played on a $1 minimum and boxing two horses doubles the cost. 

Kentucky Derby Odds 2017 at Bodog

To be clear, we do not recommend boxing. It's an overly simplistic approach that does not allow a bettor to cover very many combinations. Obviously, we also do not recommend playing straight or cold exactas as this is akin to playing a more limited version of the lottery. What we do endorse is the concept of "wheeling" the exacta. A wheel allows the player to isolate one or two runners in a specific slot while spreading in the other slot.

Let's say we think Classic Empire is a strong bet to run first or second in the 2017 Derby, but we are less sure about where others may finish. An exacta wheel can be built on such an opinion using multiple horses with Classic Empire as shown in the example below:

EXACTA WHEEL Sample For 2017 Derby

So let's address the obvious. This wagering strategy is based on a simple opinion and allows the bettor more chances to cash an exacta if that opinion is correct. 

Bet 1 Bet 2
1st: Classic Empire 1st: Always Dreaming, McCracken, Sonneteer, Hence, Irish War Cry
2nd: Always Dreaming, McCracken, Sonneteer, Hence, Irish War Cry 2nd: McCracken 
$2 cost = $10

$2 Cost = $10

If McCracken runs first or second in the example above, the bettor has five live shots to run first or second with his remaining selections. While the cost of such a bet exceeds the $4 cost of simply boxing two horses, it drastically enhances the chances of actually hitting the bet. If we were to box all six horses instead of keying McCracken in the wheel the cost jumps up to a whopping $60. It's simple: the wheel saves money while allowing more playable combos. 

In short, the trifecta and superfecta are also bets best played by keying or wheeling horses within the various rungs of the bet. The strategy is simple and effective. Pick a horse you like and build the ticket around this horse using multiple others. While hardly a secret, this simple strategy will give you a leg up on much of the amateurs betting the Kentucky Derby. 

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