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How to Bet on Horses at the Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Festivals
by Matthew Meltzer May 2, 2019

Among my friends, I am Horse Racing Guy. I’m the one who, when someone suggests Sunday Brunch, counters with, “Or how about we go to the track?!”

Say what you will, but this is definitely better than being Strip Club Guy. Still not as cool as being Boat Guy. But for one weekend a year, being the guy who knows how to bet horses makes you at least a few notches cooler — if only because you can answer the handful of questions that inevitably pop up every time a muggle watches a horse sprint down a track.

The Kentucky Derby is the one day every year when pretty much everyone wants to bet on a horse. Never mind if you don’t know a Superfecta from the SuperFriends, the Derby is infinitely more fun when you’ve got some money on the line. The problem is, it’s not 1926 anymore, so the only people who really know how to bet on horses are me and other Horse Racing Guys. Most of them are over 90. All of them head to Kentucky the first weekend of May.

Since horse tracks are about as tough on IDs as a Cancun liquor store, I’ve been betting on horses since the third grade. It’s been part of my life for long enough that I want the gig to keep going, and as such, I’m always happy to educate any and all novice gamblers during Derby weekend. Though you won’t find any picks for winners here — or (likely) on any of my tickets for this weekend — what follows is all you need to know about how to make a bet on the Kentucky Derby. Or any horse race, for the rest of your life.

Picking your horse

Horses and jockeys racing at the Santa Anita Race Track

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When I said I’d been betting on horses since I was tall enough to reach the window, that doesn’t mean I got any good at it. Horse playing isn’t tennis — you don’t necessarily get better the more you do it. Poorer, yes. But not better. So I’m not going to even pretend to tell you how you should pick a horse. My 14-year-old niece likes to look at their noses. She and I have similar winning percentages.

But you will need to know who the horses are, and, more importantly, how much they pay if you win. You’ll find the horses listed by their post positions — numbered one through 20 — in the Kentucky Derby program.

Next is the horse’s name. The next number is the odds the horse wins, expressed as a ratio of dollars made on a winning bet to dollars wagered. So if you bet $2 on War of Will, and he pays 20-to-one odds, you’ll get about $42 back ($40 plus your original $2 investment).

Generally, better horses pay less. So if you bet $2 on Omaha Beach, who at the time of publication was the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, you’d only get $10 back if he wins. You’ll probably have a better chance of winning, but you also will make less money. The more times you work through this process, the more you learn that life is full of important choices, and this is among its most essential.

Odds change right up until the race starts depending on how much money is wagered on a particular horse. So you may bet on a horse that has 20-to-one odds, but by the time the race starts the odds have dropped to four to one. Guess what? If it wins you only get paid at four to one, no matter what the odds were when you bet. Is it heartbreaking to see your 75-to-one longshot only pay three-to-one odds when it wins? No. Heartbreaking is seeing odds drop to three to one, then still watch the horse finish dead last. This happens to me at least once a week.

Types of bets

Dollar coins spread out over a horse racing form

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If this is your first time betting horses, you might think horse wagering is simply picking the horse you think will win the race, betting on it, and jumping up and down for a few minutes and asking someone near you who seems a little more sober than you, “Did we win??”

My friend, that’s just the beginning.

This is the simplest form of wagering, called making a WIN bet. A WIN bet is betting on one horse to win the race. If it wins, you’ll collect based on its odds.

If you like a horse, but want to make money if it finishes first OR second, you can make a PLACE bet. It will pay less than a WIN bet, and you won’t know exactly how much until the race results are declared official, usually five minutes after the race.

A SHOW bet pays if your horse finishes first, second, or third. Only little old ladies and eight-year-olds make show bets.

The people who make money* betting horses, however, don’t just bet WIN, PLACE, or SHOW. The real money, especially at the Kentucky Derby, is made by picking the top two, three, or four horses in the order they will finish.

Exactas, Trifectas, and Superfectas

Three racehorses speeding around a track

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An EXACTA bet is where you pick the horses you think will finish first and second in the race. So if you think Omaha Beach (Horse 12) will win and Roadster (Horse 17) will finish second, you would make a 12-17 EXACTA bet. If you like both of those horses but aren’t sure who will win and who will be second, you would make an EXACTA BOX bet. This means you win if they both finish in the top two, regardless of order. This bet costs double what an exacta would, so a $2 EXACTA would be a $4 EXACTA BOX.

Extending that another place, you can bet a TRIFECTA and pick the horses who will finish first, second, and third. You would make the bet in the order you think the horses will finish, so if you like Omaha Beach (12) to finish first, Roadster (17) to finish second, and Game Winner (16) to finish third, you would bet a 12-17-16 TRIFECTA. Typically the minimum bet on a TRIFECTA is $1. Since picking the order of three horses is a little harder, many people opt to make a TRIFECTA BOX bet, which means you pick three horses and if they finish in the top three, in any order, you win. This bet costs $6. You can bet this in any order since it doesn’t matter where they finish. So, in this case, you’d bet a 12-16-17 TRIFECTA BOX. Or just “Tribox” if you wanna sound like a salty old railbird.

Finally, if you wanna go for the BIG bucks you can try betting a SUPERFECTA, which is picking the horses that finish first, second, third, and fourth. There is about as much strategy in picking SUPERFECTA as there is in picking Chinese penny stocks, and they’re typically only bet by people who also spend a good portion of their income on scratch tickets.

That said, the minimum bet is often only 20 cents, and boxing four horses in a SUPERFECTA (meaning they can finish in any order so long as they’re all in the top 4) costs a fat $2.40. This is a fun option if you want to throw it to the wind and see what happens. Plunk down $24 on a SUPERFECTA box and win, and you might legitimately have to visit the IRS window before collecting your winnings, making the track the only place in the world where your best day involves seeing the IRS.

Beyond these options, you can also bet things like the Pick 6, where you pick the winner of six consecutive races. Or the Daily Double, which is picking two straight races, which in no way involves answering any racing trivia in the form of a question or referring to the guy at the betting window as “Alex.”

Making your bet

Crowd of spectators at the Kentucky Derby

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Once you’ve picked your horse or horses and decided how you want to bet, it’s time to make your way to the betting window. I encourage you to have a drink before you do this. Not to diminish the fine, fine people who work our nation’s betting windows, but some of them may have actually worked at the first Kentucky Derby. That is to say, things tend to move a bit slowly.

The smallest bet you can make is $2. This may be confusing, as I earlier said you can bet a $1 trifecta or a 20 cent Superfecta. But you must make enough bets to spend at least $2, or you’re going to be part of the problem holding up the line. The good news is that this number does not change with inflation as I was making $2 bets when it was my whole week’s allowance. I make almost double that now as a travel writer and still make $2 bets.

All bets are made in the following order: Dollar Amount, Type of Bet, Number (or numbers) of horses. If you like Omaha Beach and want to bet him to win, you’d confidently stride up to the betting window and say, “I’d like $2 to WIN on 12.”

If you want to bet Omaha Beach and Roadster to finish first and second, you would say “I’d like a $2 Exacta 12-17.”

This formula stays the same no matter how you’re betting. The people at the betting window don’t care about the horse’s name, even if your betting strategy is the tried-and-true “prettiest name.” Tell them you want to bet $2 on Omaha Beach and they’ll look at you like you just asked them for a mint julep.

You may make as many bets as you like. Theoretically, you could just bet on every horse in the race to make sure you win one bet, but just remember that you could also bet on red and black every time a roulette wheel goes around. Neither is going to make you any money.

Armed with this info, you’re now ready to embark on a full day of wholesome family fun. Or an entire life of smoking cigars and cursing at animals who can’t understand you. Either way, knowing how to bet on horses will make you look cooler, smarter, and more worldly to all your non-horse-playing friends — at least for one glorious day a year.

*Nobody ever, in the history of horse racing, has MADE money betting horses. They’ve had a few good days. And they’ve lied.

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