Although the Breeders’ Cup is nipping at its heels, without a doubt the Kentucky Derby is the biggest horse race of the year in the United States. This is a race that attracts many fans from the general public that typically don’t follow horse racing. A thorough understanding of horse racing, and which horses will win and why is a complex discipline that requires extensive specialized knowledge.
While understanding and predicting horse races is a very complex discipline, here are some basics that can help the amateur understand the Kentucky Derby. Back during the seventies, it was a race dominated by the favorite including three great Triple Crown winners”Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed”and a great horse that came close, Spectacular Bid. Since Spectacular Bid won the Derby in 1979, however, you can count the favorites who’ve won the race on one hand with fingers left over. If I was a serious horseplayer, I might not advise you to do this but since I’m just worried about predicting the outcome of this one race Im going to suggest that you forget about the favorite altogether. Not only will you not be flying in the face of recent history, but also it allows you to concentrate on the horses offering greater value.
In all fairness, it should be noted that the favorite has been a historically strong proposition. In the 135 Kentucky Derby races the post time favorite has placed in the money at a 69% clip over the history of the race. So why have the favorites been on such a money losing run in the past two decades? My personal theory is that it is a function of the growing hype surrounding the race”in other words, you get a lot of amateur horse racing fans that distort the notion of the favorite being the most likely to win the race. The most hyped horse becomes the favorite, but this is not always the best horse. In any case, though it could be argued that the anti-favorite bias could be due for a turnaround, for the purpose of understanding this particular race Im going to forget about the post time favorite.
Post position is also something that the horse racing neophyte should pay attention to. Obviously post position number 1 is an advantage relative to the outer ones, but it hasnt been a strong edge over the other inside positions. Twelve Derby winners have had the #1 position going into the race (the most of any position) but positions #4 and #5 have had ten winners each. In terms of percentages, positions #1 through #5 have yielded 49 winners (or just under 40%). On the other hand, the outermost positions (#11 through #20) have had just 16 winners (or just under 13%). It is important to note that theres not always that many horses in the race, which would obviously result in few higher posts winning. Still, concentrating on horses with favorable post positions is another way to pare down a field that you know little about.
A horse’s lineage and breeding is also an important factor in the race. While this may be the most complex and demanding area of horse racing, there is a simple rule of thumb that can help a novice for this race. Most high level race horses are born in Kentucky. Well over 80% of Derby winners have also been born in the Bluegrass State. So just eliminate all horses that weren’t born in Kentucky. Then consider a horse’s gender and eliminate any horse that isn’t an intact male (geldings and fillies). Over 90% of all Derby winners have been intact males, though a gelding did win the race in 2003 (Funny Cide). For the horse racing novice, however,this is another good way to pare down the field.
Also, take a look at dosage index numbers. For the novice, there’s no real reason to worry about what they mean or how they’re figured but the general rule of thumb is to look for a horse with a dosage index of 4.00 or less. Since 1984, over half of all Derby winners have fit this criteria.
For a more serious introduction to horse racing, check out the many books available on the subject at any large bookstore. For a casual fan who just follows the ‘big races’ these rules will help you get a decent grasp on the Kentucky Derby and understand who will win and why.
Ross Everett is a consulting handicapper for a number of offshore sportsbooks and an authority on horse race and CFL football betting . He’s a noted expert on sports handicapping and stock investing theory. He contributes to a number of online media outlets providing insight on how to bet on CFL football, MMA and boxing.