The Basics: How to Bet the Kentucky Derby

Gambling
Fans watch the action on Kentucky Derby day in 2016 at Churchill Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire)

If you’ve landed on this story, you very likely have an interest in betting the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 1 at Churchill Downs but either don’t know how, where, what, or who to bet. Maybe it’s a combination of all four, but we’re here to help.

It’s never been easier to place a bet on the Kentucky Derby.


HOW: You can visit your local track on the big day or you can bet from home using what is called an advance-deposit-wagering platform. Using an “ADW” requires signing up for an account and depositing money in advance that can be used to bet online. Sometimes, it can be a bit of a process to start up, so don’t wait until the last minute if you are hoping to place some bets on Kentucky Derby day. Set up the account at least a few days in advance.

WHERE: At the start of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, America’s Best Racing’s Dan Tordjman put together a story with instructions on starting an online account to bet on horse races. If you sign up for an online account with our friends at 1/ST Bet, they will give you a $10 credit and a bonus up to $500 when you use promo code ABR500. We’re also big fans of NYRA Bets, which offers a match on your first deposit of up to $200 when you use promo code Match200. It never hurts to have a little free money when you’re just starting out! Other popular ADWs in the United States include TVG, TwinSpires, and Keeneland Select, which all also offer a new-account bonuses. Additional ADWs include 123bet.com, 4njbets.com, amwager.com, betamerica.com, betptc.com, capitalOTBbet.com, dayatthetrack.com, drfbets.com, fingerlakesbonusbets.com, hollywoodraces.com, horseplayerinteractive.com, ibetmohegan.com, oaklawnanywhere.com, usofftrack.com, and watchandwager.com.

If you are more of a Daily Fantasy Sports player and want to try something different, visit StableDuel or Horseplayers.com and play in a game/tournament. StableDuel offers free weekly games.

WHAT:  The team at America’s Best Racing put our heads together to provide some Dos and Don’ts for betting online. We even have the leading tool in the sport for figuring out how to make your bets and what they’ll cost: ABR’s Gambling Calculator, presented by 1/ST Bet.

If you are reading this story in particular, however, you might be looking for just the basics and we can help there, too. We have a whole post called “Betting on Horse Racing, Explained” with a focus on bettors just like you with limited experience. Below is small section as a sample:

The Basics

Win bet – A bet on a horse to finish first.

Place bet – A bet on a horse to finish first or second.

Show bet A bet on a horse to finish in the money; third or better.

In the money – A horse that finishes first, second, or third.

Across the board – A bet on a horse to win, place, and show. If the horse wins, the bettor collects three ways; if second, two ways (place, show); and if third, one way, losing the win and place bets. It's actually three bets.

Morning line – The odds that the track handicapper predicts a horse will be to win the race when it starts.

The simplest and (typically) best bet is the win bet. Pick one horse to win and if that horse wins the race, you cash your bet. The formula for figuring out how much money you will make is to multiply the amount of the bet times your horse’s odds, then add back in the amount of your original bet. So, if you bet $2 to win on a horse whose odds are 10-1, you would get 2x10, plus the cost of your bet back for a total of $22 (2x10+2). If you bet $5 to win on a 20-1 horse, you would win $100, plus your five bucks back for a total of $105 (5x20+5).

If you are more cautious with your money, you can bet to place or show. Sometimes in the Kentucky Derby with a 20-horse field, the return on investment can be pretty good on those bets.

As a rule of thumb, the win bet is the top option, and it’s best to bet just one horse to win so that one or more of your bets isn’t a guaranteed non-winner before the race even starts. If you want to pick a couple of longshots to win in the Kentucky Derby, go for it, but in races with smaller fields (and on a daily basis) betting more than one horse to win is a losing proposition.

Of course, there are always gamblers looking to make a bigger score. If you are more of an all-or-nothing, lottery-type bettor, horse racing has what are called exotic bets, like the exacta, trifecta, and superfecta, which are harder bets to hit but the reward can be huge. Many regular horse-racing bettors prefer what are called multi-race wagers, which challenge the bettor to pick the winners of several races in a row in bets like the Pick 3, Pick 4, Pick 5, Pick 6. The payouts for Pick 4, Pick 5, and Pick 6 bets can be four, five, and sometimes six or seven figures, but those bets are extraordinarily difficult to win and can be really costly to play.

We have much more detailed stories on these types of exotic bets as well as two helpful videos below, and check out this post for Kentucky Derby-day betting tips for newcomers.

My advice if you are new to betting for this year’s Kentucky Derby: stick to win bets.



WHO: That is the question, isn’t it? Which horse do I bet?

In the coming weeks, we’ll have a Kentucky Derby Cheat Sheet, a slideshow of the Kentucky Derby contenders, an “At a Glance” look at the Derby field, and analysis pieces such as which horses finish the fastest, longshots to bet, who would benefit from a wet racetrack, using history as a guide to betting the race, and much more. We’ll add links to those stories here as we publish them, but bookmark our Triple Crown page and our Gambling page for a steady stream of analysis of the first jewel of the Triple Crown.

Authentic at 8.40-1 odds offered value in 2020 Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

When it comes to betting horse racing on Kentucky Derby day, or on any day really, the simplest advice is to bet a horse whose odds are better than you think they should be.

In other words, if you’ve put in the research and the horse you pick to win a race is 6-1 odds and you believe he should be the favorite, you are getting good value (click here for more information on value). If you’ve found a Kentucky Derby horse who is 15-1 to 25-1 odds and you believe he has a serious chance to win, you are on the right track. In racing, horses whose odds are better (higher) than you think they should be are called “overlays,” and betting overlays is key to making money betting on horses.

However, if you landed on a 15-1 longshot on the morning line but your horse’s drop to 7-1 by the time the race starts because other bettors also are picking him/her, it’s smart to reevaluate. For example, was the main appeal the big price on a solid contender to win? Is that horse so much less appealing as a betting proposition at reduced odds that it makes more sense to look elsewhere?

Horses whose odds are significantly lower than they should be are called “underlays,” and consistently betting underlays in horse racing is a fast way to a lighter wallet.

Just because a horse you picked dips below his odds set by the morning-line oddsmaker does not mean you should ditch the pick, but it is worth setting a minimum value you would accept in advance and sticking to it.

One final note on this, don’t be scared away if the odds for the horse you picked are significantly higher than the morning-line odds. Horse racing is a parimutuel betting game, meaning you are betting your money against other people’s money. In instances like this one, fewer people than expected think are betting your horse to win, so the odds increase. There is significant value in having a different opinion. If the horse you picked at 9-2 odds on the morning line is 8-1 at the start of a race, that is a good thing ... especially on big-race days like Kentucky Derby day with big fields filled with elite racehorses.

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