Everything you need to know about betting on the Kentucky Derby

May 2

It’s time for the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby, “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” It’s the best excuse to dress up, wear a fancy hat and get sloshed that doesn’t require an invitation from the queen. Who are you betting on? The 5-2 favorite California Chrome? Wicked Strong from post 20?

What do you mean you aren’t betting?

$184.6 million was wagered on last year’s Kentucky Derby race card, with $150.6 million of that returned to bettors by Churchill Downs. Are you intimidated by the 13-race program? The fast-paced betting counters? The confusing lingo?

We’ve got you covered for this year’s race. You don’t have to be a degenerate gambler to sound like a betting pro this year. Pick a race, place a wager and have fun cheering on your horse. You might even win some money in the process.

Types of bets

Let’s start with the basic bets you can make on a race. These are all straight bets on a single race. Nice and easy. All the other types of bets are built on these first basic concepts:

  • Win – you’re betting that your horse will win the race. Plain and simple. This is also called betting “on the nose” if you want to sound like a real pro. If the horse finishes first, you win money.
  • Place – a bet to place means you think the horse will come in first or second. The payout for a place bet is lower than a win bet, but you have a greater chance of winning.
  • Show – your horse can finish anywhere in the top three and you’re cashing in. This is the safest bet you can make, so the resulting payout is less than a place or win bet.
  • Across the board – if you bet across the board, you’re actually placing three bets. You’re betting the horse will win, place and show, and it’s known as a combination straight bet. (Win, place or show bets are straight bets. The other combo straight wagers are win/place and place/show.) If you hit on any of your bets, you win. If you hit on multiple, you win more. Minimum bets are usually $2, so for an across-the-board bet you have to bet at least $6.

If the basic bets aren’t doing it for you, try an exotics bet. These are next-level bets that require you to pick multiple horses correctly. If you pick right, your payout potential is higher than on the single bets above, but the odds are against you with these:

  • Exacta/Perfecta – you must pick the exact order of the first-place and second-place horses. It’s hard to pick these, so the payoff is higher than a basic bet. Like the above straight bets, this is a $2 minimum bet.
  • Quinella – this is just like the exacta, but you don’t have to pick the exact order, just which two horses will finish in first and second place. It pays out less than the exacta, but higher than a basic bet.
  • Trifecta – you may have been able to guess what this one was. It’s the exacta, plus one. Pick the top three finishers, 1-2-3, in order and you win. This is a 50-cent minimum bet.
  • Superfecta – the superfecta takes it one step further. In order to win, you must pick, in order, first, second, third and fourth. Pick right, win big. Superfectas are a $1 minimum on Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby days.

If you’re feeling really lucky, multi-race bets take it a step further, but they’re incredibly hard to pick right. There is nothing more heartbreaking that picking the first two of a pick three just to watch your horse fade down the homestretch. Here are a few of the types:

  • Double – this is the simplest multi-race bet, and most tracks offer this bet twice in a day. Usually, there is a Daily Double, which may also be called the Early Double (race one and two) or Late Double (last two races on the card). During Derby weekend, you can also place a Oaks-Derby Double, which is where bettors pick the winner of the Kentucky Oakes on Friday and the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. The Daily Double at Churchill Downs is a $1 minimum bet.
  • Pick-3/Pick-4/Pick-5/Pick-6 – just like the double, but with more races. There are limited offerings of these in a day, and they are usually for a specific stretch of races. At the Oaks and Derby, the pick six bet is on races 6 through 11. (Pick-3, Pick-4, Pick-5 have 50-cent minimums; Pick-6 is a $2 minimum). Sometimes, if there is no winner, the track will pay out for those who got five of the six races correct. This is called a consolation, and it won’t be the full payout for a pick-6. But hey, it’s something, right?
  • Parlay – a multi-race bet in which all winnings are automatically wagered on each succeeding race., i.e. “let it ride.” The benefit is a much higher payout if you win, but your chances of winning are slimmer. There are all sorts of parlays you can make, and it can get really complicated if you don’t know what you’re doing. For example, you can place a $10 show bet on a horse in the third race and parlay that with a win bet in the fourth and a place bet in the fifth. That means, if your horse shows in the third your winnings are automatically applied to your win bet in the fourth. If your horse in the fourth wins, your winnings then are placed on the show bet in the fifth. If any any point your horse doesn’t hit, you lose everything. But if you hit all the way through, you’re probably buying your friends’ drinks at the bar that night.

Placing a bet

Now that you know what bet you’re making on which horse, it’s time to place your bet. Skip the automatic tellers. They have huge lines and can be confusing, and half the fun of placing a bet is being able to say the words out loud like Jay Trotter in “Let It Ride.”

First, when you approach the counter, be ready. Betting counters are move fast — a cross between your K Street Starbucks at 7:59 a.m. and the trading floor of the NYSE at 3:59 p.m. Numbers are being called out and money is exchanging hands. Don’t be the person who grinds your line to a halt because you forgot which race you were betting on.

Here’s the simple order to remember: race number, bet amount, type of bet and your horse’s program number, e.g., “Race four, $2 to place on the No. 5 horse” or “race six, $5 trifecta on one-three-seven”.

Give the teller the money and hang on to that ticket. No ticket, no winnings.

Betting away from the track

  • You can bet online through the Kentucky Derby Web site, but only in certain states (sorry D.C. residents).
  • If you can’t make it to Louisville and can’t bet online, there are off-track betting (OTB) locations you can visit to place your bets. These are sanctioned establishments where you can bet on horse racing outside of a track, sit have a drink and watch the races live. Most casinos also have OTB rooms to bet on and watch the races. The odds should be the same no matter where you decide to bet, at the track, OTB or in a casino.

How much does this pay out?

Understanding betting odds is easy. If the odds are 5-1 and you bet $2, the result is $2×5/1+$2, or a $12 payout.

Picking a horse

How do you pick a winner? Who knows. That’s why it’s called gambling. But you can start by picking up a race program and a copy of the Daily Racing Form. These are usually only a few bucks each. Between these two, you’ve got more than enough information to keep you occupied.

[READ: Andrew Beyer's Kentucky Derby analysis.]

Deciphering a race program can be daunting, especially after you’ve had a few mint juleps. Lucky for you, every race program in the U.S. is created by the same company,Equibase, and they have created a nifty interactive to help.

Play around before heading to the track. There is a lot of great information on these sheets, including trainer record; placings by year, by track and at race distance; and details from the horse’s recent races. Have fun debating the merits of each piece of information with your friends.

Does it matter that the horse won his last few starts? What about past performance on current track conditions? Has he never raced this distance before? How much weight is the horse carrying? Has this jockey won a Triple Crown event before? Has the jockey ridden this horse before?

Also, consider the odds. They do matter. The odds are picked by the race handicapper based on the horse’s ability and how people are betting. More importantly, the race favorite wins 33 percent of the time, places 53 percent of the time and shows 67 percent of the time.

You can also take a stroll down to the paddock and take a look at the horses before the race. If you’re having trouble deciding between two horses, seeing them pre-race could go a long way in determining which one you bet on. Is your horse spry and alert? Are they jittery?

Every horses has its day, but maybe the horse you liked in the program looks like it hit the town last night and is far from ready to run.

[READ: Andrew Beyer makes his Kentucky Derby pick.]

Type of tracks

There are two tracks at Churchill Downs. The main track is the dirt oval track, on which the Derby is run. It is one mile in circumference. Inside of the main track is the turf track, which is seven-eighths in circumference.

The two track types have different track conditions.

For dirt, tracks can be fast, good, cuppy, muddy, sloppy and slow. For turf, tracks can be firm, good, soft or heavy. Horses run differently in different conditions. Some horses can win in muddy conditions, but never place on fast tracks. A horse’s history in different track conditions can be found in the Daily Racing Form with the rest of the horse’s racing history.

A few extra terms

  • Furlong – one-eighth of a mile, 220 yards or 660 feet. (panel: A slang term for a furlong.)
  • Declared – a horse withdrawn from a stakes race in advance of scratch time.
  • Pole(s) –  distance markers around the track designating distance from the finish line, e.g., the quarter pole is a quarter mile from the finish.
  • Stretch call – position of horses at the eighth pole.
  • Tote board or totalizer board – display in the infield which reflects up-to-the-minute odds.
  • Fillies – a female horse younger than 5. Friday’s Kentucky Oaks is a race for 3-year-old fillies.
  • Colt – a male horse younger than 5. The Kentucky Derby stakes race is a race for 3-year-old colts or fillies.
  • Sophomores – Three-year-old horses. They’re called sophomores because this is their second year of racing eligibility.
  • Washed out – a horse that is sweaty or “lathered up” before the race because nervousness
  • Tight – a horse that is ready to race.​
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