A rookie's guide to betting the Kentucky Derby

A rookie's guide to betting the Kentucky Derby
Posted at 3:25 PM, Apr 30, 2015

Horse racing and betting go together like the Kentucky Derby and oversized hats.

Bettors wagered $124.66 million at Churchill Downs racetrack for the 2014 Kentucky Derby. But putting hard-earned money down on a race can be intimidating, especially for people who’ve never done it.

We reached out to horse race handicapping experts and here’s what they told us about understanding the betting system at a racetrack, why it’s better than gambling on casino games and how to make the most on a small bet.

How does horse race betting work?

When gamblers line up to place bets on Saturday’s big race — or any horse race — the wagered money is combined into pools, based on the type of bets being made. When the race ends, anyone with a winning ticket splits the pool money with other winners, after a percentage of the pool is taken by the track.

The payout amount on any given bet decreases with each person who makes that bet, which is why if a single horse is a heavy favorite in a race and a lot of people bet on it, winning bets for that horse won’t pay as much as a longshot.

The pros at Today’s Racing Digest — a daily publication that’s been scouting races since 1970 — explained that betting on a horse race can be safer than playing games at the local casino.

“Unlike betting in a casino, where the house has an advantage and the odds are stacked against you, in horse racing, you can actually beat the odds,” we were told by a handicapper from <em>Today&rsquo;s Racing Digest</em>.

What separates the various kinds of bets?

According to Kevin Bradley, sportsbook manager for, a top online gambling website, below are the most commonly placed bets on horse races:

  • Win - The bettor picks a single horse to finish first in a given race.
  • Place - The bettor picks a single horse to finish in the top two.
  • Show - The bettor picks a single horse to finish in the top three.
  • Exacta - The bettor picks two horses to finish in the top two spots, in exact order.
  • Trifecta - The bettor picks the top three finishers in exact order.
  • Superfecta - The bettor picks the top four finishers in exact order.
  • Super High-Five - The bettor picks the top five finishers in exact order.


Which bet is best for a first-time gambler?

The answer to this question depends on a number of factors including how much money the bettor is willing to gamble and how comfortable they are with risk.

For casual bettors who want a low-risk wager, Bradley suggests picking the favorite horse to show. This is a bet that has high odds of paying off but the payout will likely be very low. In terms of a low risk bet with potentially high reward, Bradley said, “Bet to win on a horse between 10-1 and 20-1 odds who has a reputable trainer and jockey who has shown he can win races on the biggest stage.”

“If you are going to bet more than $50, invest in some kind of handicapping information … where they provide you with information about each of the horses and why they may be a good bet or not,” one of the experts from <em>Today&rsquo;s Racing Digest</em> suggested.

Perhaps the ultimate low-risk bet that could potentially offer a huge payoff on Derby day is the Super High-Five. Last year’s payout on a $1 Super High-Five bet at the Kentucky Derby was $149,764.70 — and that was with the favorite horse winning the race.

For people who enjoy a risk and hope to walk away with life-changing money after a day at the races, the staffers at <em>Today&rsquo;s Racing Digest</em> agreed a Pick-6 bet is the best choice. To win, a bettor must pick the winning horse in six consecutive races. In 2013, a man at Florida’s Gulfstream Park racetrack took home $3.591 million on a Pick-6 wager of $3,118.50.