The Risks and Rewards of Early Kentucky Derby Betting

The first Saturday in May and the annual Run for the Roses still is more than a month away but Kentucky Derby betting fans might want to endure some risk in hopes of a reward and bet now rather than waiting until the starting gate is loaded for the first jewel in thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, at Churchill Downs, in Louisville, May 3. 

About 27,000 thoroughbred foals were born in 2011, of which, a maximum of 20 will start in the Kentucky Derby and only one, of course, will win. Talk about a difficult task for horse racing betting devotees!

The dilemma is whether to bet now, when there is less information but future book prices still are ripe with value, or wait a couple of weeks until the major prep races for the Derby are concluded, the field is pretty well settled, a pecking order has been established, but the odds have been diminished.

If you wager now, you run the risk that your horse performs poorly in the run-up to the Kentucky Derby and his odds at post time are even higher than when you bet on him in futures or, worse, he doesn’t even start in the race. Remember, this isn’t NFL, NBA or MLB futures where every team, no matter how dreadfully it performs in the pre-season, gets to play. With the Kentucky Derby, there’s no guarantee your horse qualifies for a spot in the starting gate. 

The alternative is to wait until the major prep races—the Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial, each run four weeks before the Kentucky Derby, on April 5, and the Blue Grass Stakes and Arkansas Derby, each contested three weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby, on April 12—are run and then make a decision. Two other prep races, the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby, were run Saturday, March 29.

The advantage to waiting is that you get to see how these 3-year-olds compete at a mile and one-eighth, a distance just an eighth of a mile shorter than the demanding mile and a quarter of the Kentucky Derby. A strong finish at nine furlongs often (but not always) is an indication that a horse will have the requisite stamina to “get the distance” of 10 furlongs in Louisville. That said, savvy handicappers understand that races run at a mile and an eighth often have a different pace component than the Kentucky Derby and not every horse that comes charging down the stretch in his prep race will do the same thing three, four or five weeks later at Churchill Downs. 

So, what to do? Well, there’s no reason a Kentucky Derby betting wagering wonk can’t bet early and late. Some sophisticated gamblers like to make a play or two into the future book now, anticipating a strong prep race, hoping to catch a prime contender at odds that will qualify as an overlay on Derby day. If you have a live horse at a good price on May 3, fine, there’s nothing preventing you from diversifying with another thoroughbred. On the other hoof, if your future book equines look like the only reason they’re wearing horse shoes is for luck, you’ll still have the opportunity to venture into futures with a bit more information--admittedly at a reduced price--or even wait until post positions are drawn and bet into the pari-mutuel pools.

That said, and with the best odds we could find from outlets that are taking future book action, let’s look at the main contenders:

Constitution (12/1): Comes off a gritty performance in which he rallied up the rail to win the Florida Derby, March 29, and that was off an 11-week layoff to boot. Three starts and three wins but questions regarding his stamina linger.

California Chrome (12/1): Won the San Felipe Stakes by more than seven lengths while earning an impressive Beyer Speed Figure of 107 at Santa Anita, March 8, and looks like the horse to beat in the Santa Anita Derby, April 5. Has the ability to race on the lead but doesn’t have to have the front, a trait which augers well for a Run for the Roses.

Cairo Prince (16/1): Finished fourth in the Florida Derby when his bid at the top of the stretch fizzled. The excuse will be that, since he hadn’t raced since winning the Holy Bull Stakes, January 25, he needed the race. All horses are different but you have to notice that Constitution came off an even longer break between races with no ill effect.

Vicar’s in Trouble (16/1): Down from 25/1 after capturing the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, March 29. Seems to be rapidly improving.

Tapiture (20/1): Beaten a half-length after a rough trip in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, March 15, he’s the likely favorite to win the Arkansas Derby, April 12. If you like him, the value is in betting him now, before a big win.

Hoppertunity (20/1): Won the Rebel Stakes on a wet track. Connections unsure whether to run him in the Santa Anita Derby, Apr. 5 or head straight to Louisville.

Candy Boy (20/1): Won the Robert B. Lewis with a perfect trip but the true test comes in the Santa Anita Derby, Apr. 5.

Social Inclusion (20/1): Talented but inexperienced, he’ll be tested for staying power in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, Apr. 5.

Wildcat Red (25/1): Beaten a nose by Constitution in the Florida Derby, he’s willing but, like many, there are questions regarding his stamina.

Samraat (25/1): Still unbeaten after hard-fought win in the Gotham and headed to the Wood Memorial, Apr. 5, to impress the doubters.

With a wide-open race and value still available in futures, Kentucky Derby betting enthusiasts certainly have their options.