You can learn a lot in a little time in horse racing, and at the same time, you’ll never stop discovering new strategies and techniques as a horse racing bettor.
While I’ve watched the Kentucky Derby (G1) each year since the time I was born in Louisville, Kentucky — fun fact, my birth date fell on the Wednesday before Derby in a year I will not mention — it wasn’t until I began working at Churchill Downs in March 2019 that my handicapping (and winnings) experienced dramatic improvement.
Below are four lessons I have learned in four years of working in horse racing at the home of the Kentucky Derby.
It may seem like common sense, but weather does in fact impact the performances of racehorses. Thus, when they are left to race over an off track, it can be beneficial to know which horses have run well in the mud.
For example, in the 2019 Kentucky Derby, 19 horses were sent off over a sloppy track, as it had rained throughout the day leading up to the Run for the Roses. If you had looked at each horse’s prior history over an off track, you might have discovered 65-1 longshot Country House was no stranger to running in the slop.
The Lookin at Lucky son had placed third over a sloppy Oaklawn track in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby (G1) while recording a 103 Late Pace Brisnet Speed rating, indicating the horse may have more to give when stretching out to 1 1/4 miles in the Derby.
That turned out to be the case, as Country House again showed a late kick to finish second to Maximum Security, who was ultimately disqualified for interference, which elevated Country House to first.
Had you looked at Country House’s race record over a sloppy track, you might have been more inclined to back the longshot in his stretch-out to 10 furlongs.
Maximum Security had also won over a muddy track earlier in his career, so he appeared a good candidate to win the roses on a rainy day. And third-place finisher Code of Honor (a 14-1 shot) went on to win and place in his two other career tries over a wet surface.
Dating back to 1908, the favorite has won the Kentucky Derby 40 times. From 1980 to 1999, not one post-time favorite claimed the garland of roses, but Fusaichi Pegasus broke that streak in 2000, and in the next decade, three more favorites crossed the finish line first.
Once the Road to the Kentucky Derby points system was introduced in 2013, it appeared a new trend had emerged, as the favorite won every year from the start of the points system through 2018 with Justify.
But since 2019, favorites have failed in the first leg of the Triple Crown, though not by much. Improbable, the 4-1 favorite, finished fourth in 2019, then 0.70-1 favorite Tiz the Law was beaten by Authentic for second in the COVID-delayed 2020 Derby. In 2021, 2.90-1 favorite Essential Quality finished third, and in 2022, 4.10-1 favorite Epicenter came home second to 80-1 longshot Rich Strike.
The first time I ever wagered a Pick 6, I was granted a bit of beginner’s luck, as I turned a $4 wager into $540 when playing a mandatory payout at Charles Town. The following week, I decided to play a Pick 5 at Parx and cashed my ticket for a sizeable profit again!
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I thought I was on to something, so I started playing Pick 5 and Pick 6 wagers with frequency, but I soon learned in horse racing — as is the case in life, in general — you have to pick your battles.
My early success led me down the temptation of building Pick 3, Pick 4, and Pick 5 tickets at tracks I hardly followed, or I’d build a Pick 3 ticket where three heavy favorites looked like excellent chances to win, and thus the payout was hardly worth it. Suddenly, I found winning big was much harder to come by.
I have since learned through the help of some colleagues how important ticket structure and ticket selection is. There’s little point in playing a Pick 3 if you believe the heavy favorites in two of the legs should win. Chances are most other handicappers are playing those horses too, and in pari-mutuel betting, that means you’re going to be splitting the winnings with a lot of people.
Now I reserve my horizontal wagers for tracks I regularly follow and when the fields give me better opportunity to turn a profit.
Speaking of horizontal wagers, I learned the hard way to be careful with first-time starters when I watched a 7-1 shot beat the post-time favorite by a nose to close out the final leg of a Pick 5 at Parx. In hindsight, I should have had the horse on my radar.
My uncle Ray and I decided to go in on a ticket for the mandatory payout at Parx that day, and as we discussed the last leg of the sequence, he noted the horse Husky Spirit.
A descendant of Sea The Stars — a champion Irish Thoroughbred considered one of the greatest turf racehorses of all time — Husky Spirit was an unraced three-year-old facing a field of 11 in a 7 1/2-furlong maiden claiming race on turf.
None of the maidens in the field that had raced before had recorded a Brisnet Speed rating close to the par winning figure for that day’s conditions, so the race was wide open. We ultimately decided to side with three other runners with decent Speed figures or solid trainer stats and left Husky Spirit off our ticket.
Sure enough, we watched Husky Spirit pull off a surprise win, getting up in the final stages to beat the post-time favorite in the last leg of the Pick 5. From that day forward, I’ve paid way closer attention to pedigree in maiden races.