Kentucky Derby Betting Tips for Horse Racing Newbies

Fans watch races from the rail on Kentucky Derby day in 2015. (Eclipse Sportswire)

There is an old Vegas poker adage that goes like this. When you sit down at the table and can’t figure out who the sucker is, then it’s probably you.

In horse racing, gamblers use the term “recreational money” to classify novices who typically bet a lot of “dead” money into the pari-mutuel pools. It’s one reason why veteran horseplayers look forward to Kentucky Derby day. The betting pools are huge and buoyed by dead money from novices that makes those payoffs overly generous.

But fear not newcomer on Derby day, when I wrote “Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies,” one of my goals was to prevent newbies from turning into road kill for professional horseplayers.

I think a good starting point is to know the betting menu and understand your limitations. Exotic pools like the Pick 6, Pick 5, and Pick 4 are promoted by racetracks because of potential life-changing scores. But the ease of winning one of these is difficult, at best.

If you want to get involved in one of these exotic pools, I suggest this strategy: be an investor in a team ticket. You will need to know and have faith in a group of horseplayers who are betting a much larger ticket than you could ever afford. My mantra is, “I’d rather own 10 or 20 percent of a winning ticket than 100 percent of a losing one.”

By knowing your limitations, it’s accepting the fact that the most fun you can have on Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve day is by cashing tickets … and winning money. The easier bets to win are win, place, and show plus 2-horse (exacta) or 2-race (Daily Double) wagers.

If newcomers focus on those bets, they will be playing into the right kind of pools for their skill level. And if things go well, there is also a Pick 3 bet which usually has a $1 or a 50-cent minimum.

Another factor I run across with novices on Derby day is since they are betting smaller amounts; they feel they must play bigger longshots to win any kind of return.

That is one reason why in the Kentucky Derby, you rarely see horses going off at higher than 50-1 odds anymore. Bettors chase supposed value in longshot horses. It goes without saying some Derby longshots should be 100-1 or higher.

The key is the Derby day card is made up of full fields in high-class stakes races. You will find many Grade 1-quality horses going off at odds of 6-1 on up. Value to me is not betting on a 20-1 price who should be 30-1. It’s betting on an 8-1 horse who should be 4-1. You can find them in every race on Derby day.

Also keep in mind the bet minimums. For example, it is usually $1 for the exacta. Thus a three-horse exacta box costs on $6. A four-horse exacta box is $12. This will give you a lot of bang for your buck.

Using four horses will allow you to mix a couple price horses with a couple logical ones. Hit a few exacta boxes on Derby day, and you’ll gladly be buying the beers.

Richard Eng is the author of “Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies”, an introductory book for newcomers to the sport of horse racing.  For two decades, he was the turf editor and handicapper for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He still handicaps the Southern California tracks and his picks are for sale at You can email him at and follow him on Twitter @richeng4propick and on

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