The Sports Bettor’s Guide To Betting The Kentucky Derby

 The Sports Bettor’s Guide To Betting The Kentucky Derby

Jason Scavone
The Process
May 3, 2024


You can’t not bet the Kentucky Derby. It would be, frankly, un-American. But if you don’t want to dive into past performances, race replays, pace, class, speed figures and all the rest, what’s the best way to play the Kentucky Derby for sports bettors?

You don’t have to fully handicap a 20-horse field and lean into Pick 6 ticket construction to have a little action, and apply some of your sports betting skills along the way. 

There are some things that will set a sports bettor’s teeth on edge. The takeout in straight bet pools at Churchill Downs is 17.5 percent. It’s like betting into the same hold you’d get in a retail shop’s AFC/NFC conference futures market. 

Plus, it’s a hard market to get signal from.

“A lot of horse racing is such a bottom-up game,” Emily Gullikson said. Gullikson is an analyst and partner at OptixEQ, a data-driven platform for analyzing horse races. “Some morning lines are just really bad.”

“But I’ve done a lot of talking with players who are looking at it as a gambling (rather than handicapping) game. Matt Miller, who’s a good contest player, uses a top-down method in betting. He might look at two horses in a race that are taking money. The public has decided these are the two horses I’m structuring my wagers around. I can tell by the betting and I’m going to let the market do the work for me, and leverage my bankroll.”

The Kentucky Derby, though, is different than your average Friday allowance race at Gulfstream. Sportsbooks offer some props on the race, and there’s more information out in the market earlier than you’d get in other races.

Here are a couple of ways for sports bettors to approach the Run for the Roses.   

Top-Down Through Doubles Pools

Quick refresher: horse racing is a pari-mutuel game. The payout on any bet is the amount of money in that pool, divided by the dollars on any individual horse’s (or combination of horses in the exotics) pool for that bet, minus the takeout. 

If there’s $1 million in a win pool, the track takes its $175,000 cut and distributes the remaining $825,000 among bettors who had tickets on the winning horse. That’s why odds aren’t set until betting is done. As more money comes into the pool, it changes the odds. 

You can see why it makes taking a top-down approach such a headache. Typically you’re not going to get much in the way of advanced information about how much money is in any given pool. 

For the Kentucky Derby, though, you can find that information updating in the days before the race. Advance deposit wagering sites (racing’s equivalent of online sportsbooks) will show current odds based on the pools. 



As of Thursday afternoon, morning line favorite Fierceness, which opened at 5-2, is now at 3-2. Second choice Sierra Leone moved from 3-1 on the morning line to 6-1. 

The moves in here can give you some sense of how money might be coming in on certain horses, but early on, larger bets can have an outsized effect. The win, place and show pools had about $765,000 in them on Thursday. Last year’s final WPS pools totaled more than $89 million. 


Double Up

Some pools that can tell you more than others about what the final odds of a horse is going to when the gates open.

On the day of the race, you can use will pays in the doubles pools in the current race to give you a bit of way to take a top-down approach. On Derby Day, that’s race 11, the Turf Classic ahead of the Kentucky Derby in race 12. 

“You can get some idea looking at the doubles,” Gullikson said. “You can start to see this horse is the second choice 5-2 morning line, but they’re betting that this horse is going to be favored. Or this horse is 10-1, but they’re looking like they’re going to be the third choice.”

There’s advanced wagering open on Friday’s Kentucky Oaks, with a double to the Kentucky Derby, that can sometimes help you get a feel ahead of time. 



Remember that 6-1 price on Sierra Leone and 3-2 on Fierceness? Oaks 7-2 morning line favorite Tarifa is showing a will pay of $26 to Sierra Leone and $19 to Fierceness. It indicates something of a closing price of around 5-1 and 3-1 for the two Derby top choices at post time, respectively. 

This is a bit of a simplification, but it should give you an idea of how to approach it on race day when you have more information. 

Be Wary of the Casual Bettor

On Derby Day, where horse racing gets bet like the Super Bowl – with a surplus of public money in the pools – you do, though, have to consider some factors beyond the raw numbers.

“It’s tough on those days because there are so many options and there’s so much money you have to decide what the public is doing,” Gullikson said. “Is it something that’s real or are they latching onto a  big-name trainer or something? Last year, one of the Brad Cox horses, Verifying, just had no chance. The was second or third choice in some of the will-pays and ended up going off 14-1.”


Calculating Fair Odds

Try to bet top-down in horse racing and you’ll quickly find there’s a source-of-truth problem. Some industry folks take a shot at it and post their own estimation of the fair odds. OptixEQ publish its own estimation of fair odds. Maybe you can become buddies with Bill Benter before post time. Any way you do it, it’s a tough nut to crack.  

“Doing a fair odds line is a good way of going about it but I think you also have to have some level of flexibility within that as well,” Gullikson said. “You’re not going to have all the information on that day how the track’s playing. If you thought the race was going to set up for a closer but on the track that day you can’t close, it doesn’t matter what the pace is. You don’t have access to information about all the pools, and which horses are taking money.”


The Beauty of Two-Way Markets

There’s one source you can look at from the lens of a sports bettor to help you get an idea: Circa’s fixed-price odds menu. They offer a yes/no market on each horse in the race.



Favorite Fierceness is +235 on the yes, -295 to the no. You can use our No-Vig Calculator to get a fair price of +263, with the horse having a 27.55 percent implied probability to win the race.

Second choice Sierra Leone is at +380/-490, or fair of +431 or 18.84 percent. You can go down the full 20-horse field this way. 

It’s not foolproof. You’re paying a premium on the “no” side. But at 3-2, the implied probability on Fierceness is 40 percent. You might look at that and conclude if the Circa probability is directionally correct, 3-2 is too much of an underlay. But maybe there’s a play if his odds drift up to 4-1.  

If you think you have a reasonable source of truth despite the incomplete information available to you before race day, you can wait for public money to roll in closer to post time and pick off value spots as odds shift.

(Honor Marie and Mystik Dan, for example, might be overbet by casual bettors for no other reason than they’re named Marie, or  have a sister or mother named Marie. Overbet horses are great for bettors fishing in the rest of the pool.)


Head-to-Head Matchups

One of the main ways sports bettors can play to their strengths is in head-to-head matchups. South Point, Circa and Pinnacle are among the books offering head-to-heads in the Derby. Holds in those props are a much friendlier 3-5 percent. 

This is where you can put your most vital skill as a sports better to work: in line shopping.

In the battle between the two favorites,for example, South Point has Fierceness -150/Sierra Leone+130, Pinnacle has it -153/+125 and Circa lists it -135/105. There’s a 1 percent synthetic hold market there.

There’s a ton of variance in a 20-horse field, but this is another spot where having a rough set of fair odds can help you get a sense of the strength or weaknesses of a horse relative to any single other one.

Triple Crown Yes/No

One of the most popular props every year is whether or not we’ll see a Triple Crown winner. This is another one you can line shop around. Several books will offer this prop. Pinnacle, for example, is +824 to the yes, -1550 to the no. 

There’s some intrigue here with the Belmont Stakes being contested at a shorter distance than its traditional mile-and-a-half. Due to construction at Belmont, the race will be run at Saratoga Race Course at a mile-and-a-quarter. The final leg of the Crown would be somewhat less challenging than in a normal year.

Still, this year’s different Belmont dynamic isn’t enough to get Gullikson to bite.

“Plus-824 doesn’t seem nearly high enough to me, she said. “I don’t know if either (Fierceness or Sierra Leone) can even win this race, and if they do, I would be very hesitant that they could pair up another two sets of races. Sierra Leone, this will be only the second time in his career that he’s run two races less than 30 days apart. He’s a horse that needs that extra little bit of recovery. Fierceness is the same, is the same way. Regardless of raw ability, he’s just not a horse that can run races back-to-back.”

Keep it Rolling

If you have a strong read on a Derby horse, it’s likely it will be more profitable to roll over the bet into the next two races than to take the yes price on the prop. Even Justified in 2018 at short odds of 3-1 in the Derby, 2-5 in the Preakness and 4-5 in the Belmont, paid a little better rolling over than the return on the +850 Triple Crown prop that year.

Plus, by rolling over you get the added benefit of being able to pick up your marbles and go home if a horse can’t start a subsequent race for any reason. I’ll Have Another won the first two legs of the Crown in 2012 but had to withdraw days before the Belmont with an injury.

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