America’s Day to Wager: The experts weigh in on betting the 2022 Kentucky Derby

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Betting is a big part of the Kentucky Derby annually and this year’s Run for the Roses is no different. Visit NBC Sports EDGE for a full breakdown of the 1st Leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, including actionable information, the definition of betting terminology, and odds for each horse.   

The Kentucky Derby presents what could be the most complex and difficult wagering situation in the American landscape. Think of all the unknowns:

  • It is the only time these horses will run in a 20-horse field
  • It is the first time they will run a mile and a quarter, and for many, it is the only time they will ever run that distance
  • Not only do horses go through a rapid maturation process from age 2 to 3, but they can also show major leaps forward or backward from start to start in their early 3-year-old season

We have little to no idea of how these horses will handle adversity. About the only thing we know is that with a large field, it is likely that some of the field will have to cope with bumping and other forms of bad trips.

Despite all this complexity, around $300 million in all-sources money will be wagered on Oaks Day and Derby Day combined. Some of the money wagered doesn’t even count into that total.  For example, people who are holding house parties to watch the Derby might have a pool where people put up ten bucks each to pick a horse number out of a hat, with the winner getting all $200 in the pool. It’s a fun bet that requires no expertise and gives everyone a rooting interest in the most important race in the country.

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For serious handicappers, however, the Derby represents a chance at a big score, in great part due to the field size. Their attraction to this race is underscored by some numbers uncovered from the past 25 runnings of the race:

  • The average $2 Win payoff was $30.70. 12 of the 25 winners paid under $15, while 6 paid at odds of 20-1 or more
  • The average $1 Exacta payoff was $494.08. 10 of 25 paid $90 or less, but 5 paid $500 or more.
  • The average $1 Trifecta payoff was $930.37. 8 of 25 paid $500 or less, but 6 paid $5000 or more.

In order to properly tackle the Derby betting situation, I’ve consulted with some of the best handicappers I know. They’ve provided some great stories and some solid advice.

Matt Bernier: Swing for the Fences
I’ll begin with one of the best longshot players I know in NBC’s Matt Bernier. He made two memorable scores on the Derby, but he didn’t bet them on Derby day, as both were bets he made in future pools. In 2012, I’ll Have Another won the Derby at 15-1 odds, but Matt had him locked in several weeks before at 85-1. After a score like that, the following year he went to the Derby in person for the first time. Given his success with a future bet the year before, he topped himself with his 2013 selection. Orb won as a 5-1 shot that year, but Matt had zeroed in on him as early as January. His future bet was at 75-1 odds, and from his vantage point at Churchill Downs, he didn’t see the horse making his move. Then, one of his friends spotted the mud-covered silks of Joel Rosario and hit Matt with an elbow in the ribs and the words “he’s running”. Matt says he will never forget those words and what they meant at that time.

Matt’s advice for Derby bettors is to swing for the fences (like a superfecta bet covering several horses) or go with basic win-place-show betting, where the large field size tends to inflate prices. For example, Orb paid $12.80 to win, but he paid $7.40 to place and $5.40 to show. The larger prices for place and show are definitely a factor of the 20-horse field.

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Randy Moss: Bet on the Best
For a historical perspective, I went for sage advice from Randy Moss. He pointed out that from 1970 to the present, the best horse won the Derby about 80% of the time. As examples, he pointed to two extreme longshot Derby winners in Canonero II (1971) and Mine That Bird (2009). Canonero II went off at 19-1 that year, but only because he was part of a 6-horse mutuel field, as betting machines at that time could not handle more than 12 betting interests. If he had been an individual entry, experts say he could have gone off as high as 100-1.

After winning the Derby, he went on to win the Preakness and finished 4th in the Belmont Stakes, proving that he was the best horse in that year’s Triple Crown. Mine That Bird was 50-1 in the Derby, but he followed that win with a 2nd in the Preakness and a 3rd place finish in the Belmont Stakes, proving that he was the best horse in the 2009 Triple Crown races. Once again, young 3-year-olds can change quickly in their abilities, and a longshot on Derby Day can emerge as the best of his crop. Randy says that the relative inexperience of these 3-year-olds and their first experience going a mile and a quarter sometimes makes it difficult to identify the best horses, but history has proven that most Kentucky Derby winners, even if they are longshots, are not flukes.

Kenny Rice: Go With Your Gut
Lexington-based Kenny Rice is a reporter for several sports, including horse racing. One of his closest friends is the former University of Kentucky and NBA star Rex Chapman. Kenny covered him as an athlete since his high school days, but most of their discussions are usually about horses instead of hoops. Each year, they exchange their Derby picks, and at 6 am on Derby day in 2005, Rex called Kenny to let him know that he was going with a longshot by the name of Giacomo. Kenny liked the eventual 3rd place horse (Afleet Alex), who went off at 9/2 odds. As handicapping buddies often do, they supported each other’s picks at the windows.  When Giacomo paid $102.60 to win, they both made a nice score. Afterward, Rex told Kenny that he noticed him smiling as he was conducting his post-race interviews.

Kenny’s advice to people wagering on the big race it to go with your gut instinct, as he’s seen too many people change from their original selections on Derby day and end up regretting it. He also says to pay attention to established trainers who don’t send horses to the Derby unless they think they have a chance. As examples, he points out Charlie Whittingham with Ferdinand in 1986, Mack Miller with Sea Hero in 1993, and Art Sherman with California Chrome in 2014.

RELATED: Kentucky Derby: Explaining a Win Bet

Eddie Olczyk: Don’t Forget Your Straight Bets
Next up was the man of hockey and horses, Eddie Olczyk. He feels that one of the factors that led to his being hired on horse racing for NBC was something he did on a hockey telecast. The great Mike Emrick was doing a promo for the Derby on a hockey telecast in 2013, and they put up a graphic showing the Derby field.  He asked Edzo who he liked, and Edzo named 4 horses in the field of 20. If you boxed them, you would’ve hit the win ticket, the exacta and the trifecta. With the 34-1 shot Golden Soul running 2nd to Orb, there were some very large payoffs at the windows. He says that one of the camera guys on the hockey telecast followed his advice and had a large 5-figure payout.

Edzo’s advice for bettors is in sync with his handicapping pal, Matt Bernier. He says that win-place-show wagering is an “under-the-radar” value in the Derby. He says that some serious players that he knows only bet win-place-show on the Derby because of the generous prices.

RELATED: Key Storylines to Watch as 148th Kentucky Derby Comes Into Focus

Peter Rotondo: Pace Makes the Race
The last of the people I spoke to had the greatest story of all. Peter Rotondo has been an executive for the Breeders’ Cup, and he currently works for the 1st corporation, which owns several race tracks, including Santa Anita and Gulfstream. Pete is a whiz on social media and he has lots of friends. For the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he posts approximately $100 worth of bets for his friends to follow and wager on. He made a lot of people very happy when Country House was put up on a disqualification to win the 2019 Derby at 65-1 odds. If you followed him to the letter, you cashed on a $10 win and place bets on Country House, as well as a $2 Exacta and a $1 Trifecta. The $100 investment returned $15,429.90. One friend of Pete’s multiplied each of the suggested bets by 10, investing $1,000 and returning over $154,000. Pete estimates that between the people he knew of that cashed on his wagering strategy and the people they passed it on to who made the same bets, they all cashed for somewhere between a half-million and a million dollars.

Betting Strategy
Pete Rotondo’s betting strategy for the 2019 Kentucky Derby featured the #20 horse, Country House, who paid off at 65-1 odds

Pete says that in the Derby, pace makes the race. He points out that in some runnings of the Derby, there are only a couple of legitimate front-runners, and they could run 1-2 around the track. In 2019, he felt that there were several horses with front-end ability, and if a horse like Country House made a late run, he had a legitimate chance to close into the pace and hit the board, even at odds like 65-1. He took a swing for the fences, and he hit a home run for himself and a lot of his friends. Remarkable!

Country House
In 2019, $10 win tickets on Country House returned $662

Finally, a personal note. I have two examples out of my past that represent the extremes of wagering strategy on the Derby. In 2000, I knew that the favorite, Fusaichi Pegasus, was the dominant horse in the race. I also was impressed by the closing finish of a horse named Aptitude in the Wood Memorial. I only made one bet on the race, and it cost me $42. It was a $1 key superfecta that had Fusaichi Pegasus in the first hole, Aptitude in the second hole, and boxed 7 different horses for 3rd and 4th.

My two big horses ran 1-2, and I managed to nail 3rd and 4th from the 7 horses I had boxed in those positions. The payoff was $1635 for a $42 investment. The other example comes from the same 2019 Derby that Pete and his friends got rich on. I was asked on a broadcast outlet for a relatively inexpensive bet that would give novices a good run for their money. I suggested a $1 exacta box of ten horses, a bet which would cost $90. It was a bet on half the horses in the field, but I also had to eliminate 10 horses. The last horse I eliminated was Country House, as I proved that even with a bet involving 10 of the 20 horses, I couldn’t hit the exacta.

So, if you’re wondering who I like this year, the answer is Epicenter, who will be my key horse in a lot of different types of wagers. I’m targeting Zandon, Messier, Taiba, Charge It, Zozos and Smile Happy as the horses I will place underneath the favored Epicenter. The Kentucky Derby only happens once a year. Wagering on this race is not really gambling…it is participating in an American tradition.