The Kentucky Derby is a bettor’s paradise. The race features 2o of the country’s best three-year-old thoroughbreds — horses that have beaten out thousands of others to win spots in what is often called the most exciting two minutes in sports. And this year’s contenders might be the strongest crop Churchill Downs CHDN +0% has seen in years.
“In my opinion, there is a deeper field of potential winners in this year’s Kentucky Derby,” Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen told Forbes in an interview last month. Normally, he went on, there are a handful of horses who seem primed to win. This year, he said, “it’s more than a handful. You just have to throw your hands up and say, ‘I’m just not sure who will win!’”
Horse-players sometimes like to say that “money win money,” meaning the more you bet, the more you’ll win. But you also can’t bet on every horse in the race. So, to cut through the confusion and help you narrow your options, Forbes spoke with betting experts Nick and Julie Tooth. The Tooths are a husband-and-wife team of “BETologists” at Keeneland Racecourse, which sits just an hour away from Churchill Downs in Lexington, Kentucky. They work the track to help regular racing fans — i.e., those of us without Ph.D.s in handicapping — learn which horses are worth a trip to the parimutuel window.
Here’s what they say are some of the smartest ways to deploy your betting dollars, assuming the track is dry and fast on Saturday. But if the course is muddy from lots of rain, they warn, you might want to consider throwing out some of the below names in favor of My Boy Jack, Flameway and Enticed, three horses that have “proven wet track form,” the Tooths say.
The bet: $10 to win and $10 to place on Mendelssohn.
This wager will put money in your pocket if Mendelssohn comes in first or second place on Saturday. While you could do this for any horse that you like best, Julie recommends Mendelssohn based on his commanding performance in the U.A.E Derby: the horse won the mile-and-three-sixteenths race by nearly 19 lengths ahead of the second-place finisher. With 5-1 morning line odds for the Run for the Roses, he’s not going to generate the biggest return — but if you want to cash a ticket, there are worse ways to go.
What to say/do: If you’re lucky enough to be at Churchill Downs on Saturday and want a real ticket to hold, head to a parimutuel window and say, “Race 12, $10 to win and $10 to place on the 14.” If you’re watching from any other track, indicate that your bet is for “Churchill Downs, race 12” before making your wager.
If you’re betting online — through TwinSpires or NYRA, for example — make sure you’ve chosen the right track from the respective drop-down menus. Under “bet type,” click “win” and enter $10; then do the same thing for “PLC” or “place.”
Total cost: $20
The bet: $1 trifecta box with the five favorites: Justify, Mendelssohn, Good Magic, Audible, and Bolt D’Oro.
Placing this bet means that you will win money if any three of these five horses comes in first, second, and third place — in any combination. You’ll win money if Justify comes in first, Good Magic places second and Bolt D’Oro comes in third. Ditto the possibility of seeing Mendelssohn first, Audible second, Good Magic third; etc., etc.
This works because while a trifecta is a wager on three specific horses coming in one very specific order, betting more than three horses and “boxing” them — basically, paying for every possible combination of horses — is a hedge that can help you win a very nice payout. (Last year, a 50-cent trifecta bet at the Derby paid $4,148.60.)
“It’s pretty chalky there,” Nick says, using the preferred term for betting on the favorites, “but I really think on a fast track, with these horses, three of them will run their races and not fold.”
What to say/do: At Churchill Downs? “Race 12, $1 trifecta box on 5, 6, 7, 11, 14.”
Betting online? Same rules from above — make sure you’ve clicked through to Churchill Downs’ 12th race, then click “TRI” or “Trifecta” under “Wager Type.” Enter your amount ($1), and then — again, this is key — to the right of your amount, there should be a column of options. Find the option for “box” and click that.
Total cost: $60
The bet: $1 exacta on Justify and Mendelssohn with the rest of the field.
An exacta is a bet where you’re wagering on two horses to come in first and second place, in that order. But you can hedge your exacta wager by putting the favorites as options for first place and “the field” in second. This means that Justify or Mendelssohn has to win the Derby in order to win money, but betting “the field” means that literally any horse can come in second place, and you will win the exacta payout. It’s a nice way to account for a 50-1 shot (like Lone Sailor or Bravazo) making a surprisingly good trip and eking out a second-place run.
What to say/do: At Churchill Downs? “Race 12, $1 exacta on 7, 14 with all.”
Online? Find “exacta” or “EX” under “bet type.” Then, you’ll see two columns of boxes to click next to each horse. The columns are labeled “1st” and “2nd” in some betting platforms, meaning “1st place” and “2nd place.” Under “1st,” click the 7 and the 14. Under “2nd,” find the button that lets you select the whole field.
Total cost: $38
The bet: $1 superfecta with Justify or Mendelssohn taking the top two places Good Magic, Audible, Hofburg and Vino Rosso as options for third and fourth place.
A superfecta is wager on the horses that come in first, second, third and fourth place — in that exact order. But, like all of the above bets, you can hedge this wager by giving yourself multiple options in each spot. To win money on this specific wager, a recommendation from Julie, Justify or Mendelssohn has to win the Derby. Then, whichever doesn’t win outright has to come in second place. Then either Good Magic, Hofburg, or Vino Rosso has to run in third, and one of the remaining two has to come in fourth.
“Last year the superfecta paid $75,000. I try to go after a little of that,” Julie says. “But the key to this bet is not changing [or adding] too many horses because if you do that, you’re creating more combinations to pay for.” (Remember: you pay for every possible outcome you are wagering on. Since Justify can’t come in first AND second, you save money by slotting him in the first and second place. That’s why Julie kept the same three horses in the third and fourth spots, too.)
What to say/do: At Churchill Downs? “Race $12, $1 superfecta on 7, 14 with 7, 14 with 5, 6, 9, 18 with 5, 6, 9, 18.”
Online: choose “SPR” or “superfecta” under “bet type.” Key in a $1 wager. And then click the boxes next to the 7 and 14 for the first and second positions, and then do the same for the remaining four horses for the third and fourth positions.
Total cost: $24
How to limit yourself to $100: You’ll notice that the above betting options total more than the $100 promised in the headline of this post. There are, in fact, many combinations to get you to $100, but here’s my favorite: because the field of horses is so strong, I like the $1 trifecta box. Then, to account for a 50-1 pulling a Mine that Bird and outrunning his odds, I like the $1 exacta option — both Justify and Mendelssohn with all. That brings you to $98. To get to a round $100, place a $2 win bet on the horse of your choice. Go by color, name, number, odds — whatever speaks to you. (As for me, I’m looking at Noble Indy for my extra $2. His 30-1 morning line odds seem longer than his pedigree and racing record merit.) You are, of course, never guaranteed to win — but hopefully, you’ll have fun trying.