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Betting the Kentucky Derby

Each year on the first weekend of May, the racing fraternity of America gathers at Churchill Downs, Kentucky for the annual Run for the Roses. The hype, the build, the hopes and fears of all the runners’ connections are laid bare for the upcoming two minutes that have changed so many lives and built the reputations of equine legends.

The race is run over 10 furlongs and typically attracts 15-20 runners. Since Aristides won the very first Derby in 1875, the race has become the focus of the American racing season and is the first leg of the fabled Triple Crown. Placing bets on the Kentucky Derby is a traditional for many in the United States, and even brings together friends for Kentucky Derby parties.

Race Trends

Typically the fancied runners will have run well or won the previous autumn’s Breeders Cup Juvenile. Few have landed the double though and it’s not the best guide to finding the winner. The horses need a subtle blend of speed and stamina as it is always run at a breathless pace, so keep an eye out for horses who won at least 7 furlongs as a 2 year old or over a mile when they begin their 3 year old campaigns.

Few winners have run less than 6 career races but less than 3 as a 3 year old. Horses need to be battle hardened but fresh for the big race. This is becoming a factor in the modern era and more and more horses are being kept away from the track as they are prepared for the big race.

Do not be put off if your fancy didn’t win last time out. Since 1980, no less than 11 winners were beaten in their prep race and only 4 of the last 9 were successful in the last race prior to The Kentucky Derby.

The choice of race before The Derby gives us some clues also. This is where the most recent runners had their prep race before the big race:

Wood Memorial 4
Arkansas Derby 4
Blue Grass 3
Santa Anita Derby 3
Florida Derby 2
Lexington 1
Illinois Derby 1
Sunland Derby 1

So it’s clear that four races dominate the recent stats, so be watchful of runners who participated in these key races last time out.

Experience of running on dirt is vital. Overwhelmingly the history of the race is dominated by horses who have won on dirt before coming to Kentucky.


Calvin Borel has an astonishing recent record in the race, winning in 2007, 2009 and 2010. The tough Louisiana pilot has had good rides but is a master round the tight bends of Churchill Downs. His 2009 victory aboard the unfancied Mine That Bird was a prime example of his confidence and refusal to believe that his horse couldn’t win. Win it did, at a jaw dropping starting price of 50-1 and by almost 7 lengths.

Another three time winner is Kent Desormeaux. Wins in 1998, 2000 and 2008 aboard the much loved Big Brown saw him firmly ensconced in racing’s Hall of Fame. Always a man to watch on the biggest stage and like Borel, a native of Louisiana, he is tough, patient and a renowned strong finisher.

Starting Prices

Favorites do fairly well but there are times when a big outsider can upset the form book. The aforementioned Mine That Bird and also Giacomo in 2005 have come in at huge odds. Interestingly Giacomo was one of the 3 who competed in the Santa Anita Derby before The Derby. (See “Trends” above)

It’s an open race most years, so try and avoid the hype over the “next big thing” in racing. Many bubbles have been burst in the hustle and bustle of The Run for the Roses by less fancied runners. In 1992 the French trained Arazi was a red hot favorite and carried massive confidence from his connections after a quite amazing display in The Breeders Cup the previous season. He floundered and was never to reach that level again.

So whilst the market is a decent guide to finding the likely winner, it’s not definitive. Be brave if you check the trends and form and the one you are left with is a fancy price. Stick with your judgement and look for the value in the race.

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