The Kentucky Derby

Ed Reinke/AP
Friesan Fire

How to Bet the Kentucky Derby: Picking the Winner

May 02, 2009
by Mark E. Moran
Today is the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby. With a well-matched field of 20 horses, picking the winner is even harder than usual. We explain where to find news about the Derby, what factors to consider in selecting your horse, and our own analysis of who we think may win. 

Consult the Racing Experts

Twenty 3-year-old colts will break from the starting gate today in the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby.

Post time for the Kentucky Derby is 6:04 p.m. EDT. It will be televised nationally by NBC.

With an evenly matched field, a lot of solid contenders, and no clear-cut favorite, selecting a winner this year will be harder than usual.

Basic information about each contender is available on the official site of the Kentucky Derby. It lists the entrants, and provides information about recent races, including video replays, plus information on the pedigree of each horse, and the owners, trainers and jockeys.

The Daily Racing Form’s Kentucky Derby section includes news stories and analysis from its racing experts. If you are serious about your selection process, you must read the Racing Form’s free “Past Performances,” which provide crucial details on every race each horse has run. Though they appear daunting at first, a free tutorial is available that will have you reading them like a pro in no time.

There are hundreds of other Web sites and blogs that contain useful information. A good way to make sense of it all is to visit Equidaily, which is the single best source of horse racing news on the Internet. Publisher Seth Morrow scours the Web to find links to the most insightful articles about horse racing, and to expert Derby selections from all over the Web.

Below, we suggest several criteria for you to consider when analyzing the race, point out which horses best meet these criteria, and finally offer one man's analysis of who might win the race.

What to Look for in a Horse

As you read and consider the experts’ opinions, many of the same important factors will come up again and again. Here are some key points to consider.
How well the horse finishes. Review the videos of each horse’s last race. Was he running strongly and in a straight path at the end of the race, even if he did not win? Or was he weaving in the stretch and looking leg weary? The Derby is longer than any of the prep races for it, and a horse must finish strongly to win it.

Analysis: Of today's entrants, the ones who have finished the strongest in recent races are I Want Revenge, Friesan Fire, Chocolate Candy, Summer Bird and Musket Man.

The company they keep.
Many horseplayers like to ask, “who'd he beat,” when assessing the quality of a horse's prep race. 

Analysis: Quality Road would have been favored in the race had he not suffered a minor injury that forced him out; Dunkirk's narrow loss to Quality Road makes him look good by comparison. Friesan Fire soundly defeated Papa Clem in their only meeting, which is flattering because Papa Clem competed effectively with many of the race's leading contenders in his other efforts this year. Conversely, some experts question the quality of the horses that I Want Revenge defeated in his two wins in New York.

Running style. Horses with good tactical speed and the ability to stalk tend to do better than horses who charge to the lead or come from way behind late in the race.

Analysis: This angle may be less important this year, as many of the top contenders stalk the pace; in 2005, a furious battle among stalkers on the far turn set up the race for a deep closer, 50-1 shot Giacomo. This year, Papa Clem, Friesan Fire, I Want Revenge, Pioneerof the Nile, Desert Party and Mine That Bird all fit squarely the stalker criteria.

Morning workouts.
If a horse has good morning workouts at Churchill Downs this week, it suggests both that he is in good form and likes the racing surface.

Analysis: Daily Racing Form clocker Mike Welsch says he has not seen a truly standout workout this year, but on Wednesday night he said he has been most impressed with Desert Party, I Want Revenge, Pioneerof the Nile and Chocolate Candy. Friesen Fire had a fast workout early in the week, but Welsch was concerned that he pulled up slowly.  On Thursday, Papa Clem had a very impressive workout.

Post position.
A horse who starts from an inside post position may be caught in traffic. A horse drawn outside may have to go wide on the turns. The best posts are between No. 5 and No. 16. While plenty of horses have won from the other posts, a poor post has to be factored negatively into your analysis.

Analysis: Of the horse mentioned often in this section, only Musket Man (No. 2), Summer Bird (No. 17) and Desert Party (No. 19) fall outside the preferred posts.

Jockey experience. The media glare during Derby Week is overwhelming, and the large field gives ample opportunity for an inexperienced rider to compromise his horse’s chances. An experienced jockey who has been to the Derby before is less likely to crack under pressure.

Analysis: I Want Revenge is ridden by 19-year-old Joe Talamo, who has been riding very successfully on the competitive Southern California racing circuit. He cooly steered the horse out of trouble several times in the Wood Memorial, evoking memories of legendary 16-year-old Steve Cauthen, who won the Triple Crown with Affirmed in 1978. Yet others say the Derby will be a severe test of Talamo's experience. Of the others mentioned here, only Summer Bird also has an inexperienced rider in Chris Rosier.

Trainer experience. The road to the Kentucky Derby is long and arduous, and it takes a skillful trainer to bring a horse to the race healthy and in peak condition.

Analysis: Much is made of trainers Lukas, Baffert and Zito, who collectively have won this race nine times. But none of them have won it since 2002. Todd Pletcher, who has been the leading trainer in America for several years, has three horses in the race, including Dunkirk. However, he has yet to win in 18 tries, although he has finished second twice. Larry Jones, trainer of Friesan Fire, has finished second in the past two years. None of the other trainers have significant Derby credentials.

Track condition. Rain on Derby Day can turn the dirt track into mud; some horses will fare well on it, and others will do poorly. The Racing Form’s “Past Performances” will offer some clues about how each horse will do.

Analysis: Friesan Fire, Papa Clem, Desert Party and Nowhere to Hide all did well in their only race on a wet track; Flying Private did poorly. None of the others have raced on a wet track, but the pedigrees of General Quarters and Dunkirk suggest they should do well in the mud.

Pedigree. Some horses run well at short distances, while others thrive at longer distances. Until recently, pedigrees provided strong clues about how a horse would run at the Kentucky Derby distance. But while still an important factor to consider, a questionable pedigree by itself is no longer reason to eliminate a horse from consideration.

Analysis: The pedigrees most suitable to distance racing belong to Regal Ransom, Atomic Rain, I Want Revenge, Papa Clem, Pioneerof the Nile and Nowhere to Hide.

Parting Advice

Now that we’ve explained the “science” of selecting a winner, we’ll also let you in on an inside secret: selecting a the winner of the Kentucky Derby winner is more art than science, and many of the best professional handicappers have miserable track records at it. So, in the end, your selection should be made by you alone, and don’t be afraid to let your gut feelings play a role.

So how is this writer approaching the race? Cautiously; I consider half the horses in the field to be plausible winners. While I really like the two horses below, given the many open questions and potential for traffic jams, I will bet five horses in various combinations and hope for the best.

Friesan Fire is my top pick, based on the way he finishes his races, his pedigree, his fast workout this week and my great respect for trainer Larry Jones.

Dunkirk showed a tremendous turn of foot on the turn in the Florida Derby in only his third race, and if he matures off that effort he could be unbeatable on Saturday, particularly if the early or middle pace of the race is fast.

Papa Clem has been unwisely overlooked this week. His fast workout on Thursday answered questions about his readiness. When ABC shows him in the post parade, the music playing should be Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere Man."  He split Pioneerof the Nile and I Want Revenge in California, ran second to Friesan Fire on a muddy track in Louisiana, and then beat Old Fashioned, one of the early favorites for this race, in Arkansas. He has a flexible running style and may lay just off the cheap speed but ahead of the contenders, and get first jump on them turning for home.

Chocolate Candy has been finishing well in all his races on Santa Anita’s polytrack, a much different surface than that of Churchill Downs. The morning workouts suggest he will adapt well to the Churchill surface and once again, he should finish well and be in the picture at the end.

And for my gut decision, I am including Summer Bird. Aside from his strong finishing kick, he fails on every single criteria set forth above. And yet his move on the turn in the Arkansas Derby was as visually impressive as Dunkirk’s move in Florida. Given the possible pace meltdown scenario, he could be this year's Giacomo who closes from the clouds to win at a huge price.

As for the favorite, I Want Revenge, I am not impressed by the company he has kept and believe his inexperienced rider creates too much risk for a favorite. I likely will include him for 2nd or 3rd on some tickets. I will likely do the same with Desert Party, who is difficult to gauge based on his races in Dubai, but who has made an impressive appearance at Churchill Downs this week.

Where to Bet The Kentucky Derby Online

  • Most racetracks that are open for live racing, and most off-track betting outlets in the United States, offer betting on the Kentucky Derby. Click here for a calendar of live racing at all racetracks in the United States.

  • For those who cannot make it to a racetrack or other wagering outlet, legal betting on the Kentucky Derby is available to residents of most U.S. states through several online betting account providers. Legitimate online wagering services that allow you to set up an account online, fund it through a credit card on a same-day basis, and that accept wagers from residents of most states include YouBet, TwinSpires, TVG and XpressBet.

  • Autotote is another legitimate online wagering firm, but does not enable you to open your new account online.  Some racetracks also offer online wagering accounts, but most do not offer same-day opening and funding options.

  • Be wary of any other online wagering provider, other than the four on the list above; they may be located offshore and may not be legally permitted to accept wagers from U.S. residents. Most search engine searches will generate results for illegal offshore wagering providers.

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