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Understand the Kentucky Derby Day Betting Menu

by Jeremy Plonk

April 30, 2018

The Kentucky Derby gives you 20 options of which to choose, making it a purely unique race on the calendar. But its wagering format is rather every-day. You’re quite familiar with each choice on the menu, but should you be betting the Derby like you do every other day?

Let’s look at each wager type and how it may or may not fit your plans this – or any – first Saturday in May.

Win: The game’s oldest standby remains your best friend for sustained success as a horseplayer; but in this one-shot deal, it serves a more subdued purpose. You see, 4-to-1 still pays $10 here as it does in the sixth this afternoon at Anytrack USA in a 6-horse field. True, you may get $10 on a horse who should pay $6 and that’s value. But how much are you betting on the nose to make any real hay out of that value? A $100 win bet gets you $500 vs. $300. That additional $200 isn’t going to sustain you past Sunday in your wagering, and you had to beat 19 other horses to unearth said “value.” Unless you like horses 20, 30, 40 or 50-1, my advice is you have to do better than this pool.

Place: You’re much better off doing an exacta back-wheel with all key contenders (or a total wheel) than to bet any serious amount of money to place. A $1 exacta averages about $400 the last 25 years and even about $150 in the current chalky era. You’d need to get $15-$20 to place on your pick to net the same thing as a full back-wheel, and the latter gives you the chance for a whopper that the place never will.

Show: Leave this to the amateurs. Even big bettors should shy from confident plunges with 19 rivals. You can find easier ways to hit $5-$6-$7 returns in your gambling life.

Exacta: Remains an excellent and affordable step into the exotics realm. It obviously marries the handicapping talents of win and place assessment while expanding the value greatly if you’re willing to accept some additional risk. The big mistake people make here is trying to cash the exacta instead of cashing out on the exacta. That is, don’t play a bazillion $1 combos and wind up hitting a $450 exacta with $45 in plays. That’s only 10-1 on your money and, again, a successful Derby should not be something that only sets you up for a few days of wagering with a modest profit.

Trifecta: The trifecta has become the most popular Derby exotic in terms of handle, surpassing the amount bet on exactas in recent years. That’s not true on a regular card, where exacta handle nearly always trumps tris. The 20-horse field attracts jackspot seekers, and the trifecta has the ability to cover a decent amount of combinations on a more reasonable budget than supers and super high 5s. Consider a key horse on top with 6 horses underneath is just $30 for a buck. Taking your top pick on top, 3 horses in second and ALL in third is $54 for $1. A less-confident 5-horse box is 60 combos. When you see an average return of $11k since 1995 and last year’s paying $16k even with a favorite on top, this is the pool where you get the most bang for your buck and the public now sees that.

Superfecta: Because of field size and an additional row of combinations, costs escalate quickly here vs. the trifecta, but so, too, do the rewards. It paid $75k last year with Always Dreaming on top as the chalk, and has averaged $81k throughout its history. And there have been some lobsters - $860k in 2005 if you had the right house number or clairvoyance. If you are the kind of horseplayer spending $400-$500 or more on the Derby, the superfecta could fit into your plans. Definitely you’re encouraged to take at least one swipe of your leading ticket here because you might be walking around lucky and not know it.

Super High 5: With an unwieldy amount of combinations and a pool size remarkably about 1/25th of even the superfecta, there’s not enough going for this wager to accept any significant risk. There are more than 1.8 million combinations in a pool that totaled only $400k last year. Skip this.

Daily Double: This can be a good alternative to the win bet, a one-race parlay in essence. Consider the race before and after the Derby if you have a strong opinion, or the Kentucky Oaks on the Oaks-Derby double. Here you might be able to compound some additional value, but do so with a weighted wager appropriate of returning more than just a good day at the track. You’re looking at $10-$20-$50-$100 double-type bets where you pound an opinion. If you’re going to play a series of $1 and $2 doubles, you might as well be betting on the win nose and take the short-term overlays.

Pick Three: The two-day bet linking the Oaks-Turf Classic-Derby is a bit gimmicky and really depends on the strength of your opinions in the turf race and if there could be any weather changes day over day. Whether the two-day or traditional pick threes including the Derby, keep your combinations limited and this can be a good value play; but spread thinner and you’re better off playing the daily doubles with more weight each.

Pick Four: This wager handles twice as much as the pick five traditionally and ends with the Kentucky Derby. It’s really about your feel for the race that precedes the pick four and starts the pick five. If you have a single in that race, you have to try the pick five and its much larger return possibilities. If there are multiple horses in that opening pick five leg, you lean to the pick four instead.

Pick Five: See the pick four, the preferred play, unless you have a very strong feel for the first leg of the pick five.

Pick Six: If you’re into jackpot bets, you can probably do better in the superfecta in the Kentucky Derby race itself. Pick six handle last year was $1.1 million, less than one-third of the pick four ending in the Derby and 1/13th of what was in the Derby race superfecta pool. There are better days to play the pick six. The only silver lining is that usual pick six sharks may not be in the pool as much as you’d think.