Racing News

Wanna bet? The unique world of wagering on the Kentucky Derby

| | 05/05/2013 #
  • Photo by: Logan Riely

Forget baseball for a minute; on the first Saturday in May, betting on the Kentucky Derby is the national – and international – pastime.

Last year, more than $187 million was wagered on the Derby, and only about 13 percent of that was generated by the 165,307 fans who shoe-horned into Churchill Downs to see I'll Have Another charge to an upset victory. The remaining $163.2 million was bet off-track.

These days, a bettor in London can visit one of the more than 1,200 international simulcast wagering outlets that co-mingle betting into Churchill's pools. Or a Rosie Napravnik fan in Anytown, USA, can access one of the many advance-deposit wagering sites such as, all of which make it ridiculously easy to “get down” on the Derby.

Because the Derby starting gates can accommodate 20 horses, the potential payoffs are astronomical.

Betting on the Derby is a purely democratic process. After Churchill Downs, the state of Kentucky and the horsemen take about 18 percent off the top, the rest – $153.3 million in 2012 – is distributed to those holding winning tickets. Everyone who wagers on the Derby has an equal shot at a chunk of that very large change.

The Derby wagering menu is extensive. In addition to the old standbys – win, place, and show – the options include exacta, trifecta, superfecta and Derby High-5 wagering. The latter requires the bettor to select the first five finishers in exact order. Good luck with that.

One can also make multiple-race wagers that include the Kentucky Derby as one of the legs – daily double, Pick 3, Pick 4, Pick 5, and on Derby Day, a Pick 6 with a $1 million guaranteed pool.

And because the Derby starting gates can accommodate 20 horses, the potential payoffs are astronomical. To cover every $2 exacta combination, for example, a player would have to cover just 380 different combinations. But in the trifecta – the first three horses in order – that number soars to 6,840. There are 116,280 possible superfecta combinations, and the number of possible High-5 outcomes is off the hook: 1,860,480.

In 2005, when Giacomo rallied from far back to with at 50-1, he triggered a record $1 superfecta payoff of $864,253. For a buck.

Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr. once said that “any horse can win on any given day” and those can be words of wisdom – or blind luck – when it comes to playing the Kentucky Derby. In 2005, when Giacomo rallied from far back to with at 50-1, he triggered a record $1 superfecta payoff of $864,253. For a buck. And the $2 Pick 4 ending with the Derby returned $164,168.

Handicapping the Derby can be extraordinarily difficult. Even the best in the business, like Andrew Beyer, the man who invented speed figures, can go decades without having the right horse on top. For others, the task is as easy as playing one's favorite numbers.

A bettor born on May 13, 1939, for example, might have realized a $91,764 superfecta windfall at the 2002 Kentucky Derby by betting the 5-13-3-9 combination.

Still others make their choices in ways that compute only to them. From horse and jockey names, to pre-race mannerisms, to colors – gray horses are quite popular with hunch bettors – to the truly nonsensical, there are countless ways to bet the Derby. Post time is fast approaching.

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