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Derby Betting 101

In Brief:

The True in-house handicapper gives a primer on betting the Derby. The People’s Horse won’t be racing there this year, but click here to join True Stables and become a part of our dream — you can even try to give it a name. Read our full Stables series here.

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I watch races all day, every day. But I still get giddy over the Derby.

My family used to vacation up in the Adirondacks. We would stay a week, and one day every week on that vacation, my dad and a few other family members would spend the day at Saratoga. Just being at such a venue like that got me hooked.

Each time we would go, I would buy a racing form. Picking up little things here and there. I got serious about it late in high school, buying every handicapping book I could get my hands on. I started going to the track more and more. By college, I was betting 3, 4 days a week. From there it kept escalating. At the beginning of this year, I was an on-air racing analyst for NYRA. Since then, I’ve been making a run at being a professional handicapper.

The Derby’s extremely difficult because there’s 20 horses, which is double what you’d ever have to handicap on an ordinary day. They’re young horses too, because they can only be three years old to enter the Kentucky Derby. You’re dealing with younger horses who maybe haven’t had the experience that older horses have had. They’re also going a distance that none of them have ever been before, so between the field size, which is massive, and the unknown quantity as far as the distance goes, it’s a really tall order to handicap.

The Derby is a mile and quarter. The final round of prep for the derby would be a mile and an eighth, so it’s only an eighth of a mile farther they have to go, but in the scope of racing it makes a huge difference. You want to look for cues in prior races of how they might handle that stretch out in distance. Also, pedigree is something more so than any other race you got to lean on in the Derby. All of them have been on dirt before, so that’s not something you’d have to decipher.

Photo: Bookie figuring out bets for Kentucky Derby, via Library of Congress

The advantage of a modern handicapper is the superior technology out now. I used the Daily Racing Form formulator, which is online. You can pull up any race, free play, write in the path performances, you can pull up the the sire of the horse, the dam of the horse, and see their path performances. You can pull up the trainer of the horse and see every conceivable stat, for every situation that that trainer has saddled the horse in. TrackUs is also very useful. It works through a chip planted in the horse’s saddle cloth tracking the horse’s speed throughout the race.

It really pays to just look at races, too. You can see if a horse had trouble or something happened in the race. Sometimes the rider has to pull up on the reins because the horse is running on another horse’s heels. Another subtle sign: if you’re going around the turn, and you’re out in the four or five or six path, you’re losing ground on that turn. And that’s a pretty big deal.

For this Kentucky Derby, it does seem to be totally wide open.

Photo: 1921 Derby, via Library of Congress

I really like Mohaymen. Until his last race, he was supposed to be the shoo-in to be the favorite in this field, but his last race was not good. It was not good to the point that it was totally uncharacteristic and not a representative effort of him. He should be much more generously priced now. If he was the favorite in this race, I don’t think I would love him. He should be in that 10-1, 15-1 range.

As far as long shots go, I’m intrigued by My Man Sam. His style just fits the profile of this race. He’s a deep closer, and in his last race, he actually closed very well but had to go extremely wide around the final turn. That really would impact the horse’s late run, but not for My Man Sam.

The best thing a beginner can do is keep it simple.

There’s so many different bets. The allure of maybe hitting that that big score is tempting, but if you’re just starting to learn the ropes, keep it simple: play/win. I don’t really advise play for show. But if you like a horse and you’re doing some rudimentary handicapping, just play them to win.