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A beginner’s guide to betting on the 142nd Kentucky Derby.

By Erin Flynn
May 06, 2016

At Saturday's Kentucky Derby, 20 horses will race for the $2 million purse. Thousands more dollars will exchange hands as spectators place bets on which horse they think will wear the roses.

If you want to get in on the Derby wagering game, but are intimidated by terms like superfecta or exacta box, check out our guide to betting on horse racing. 


Start by looking at the odds. Nyquist is the betting favorite, which means most people are betting on him to win the race. His odds are at 3–1, so if you bet one dollar on him, you will get three dollars in return.

Horses with longer odds are given a lower chance of winning, but will provide a larger return if they do (At 10–1 odds, you will get $10 for every $1 you bet on Creator, Gun Runner or Moyahmen).

The morning line odds are set by the handicappers at the track before people placing bets can affect the line, and are a better indication of which horse the experts think has the best chance of winning.

• ​Day drinker's guide to picking a Kentucky Derby winner

Types of bets

There are many different ways to wager, so you’ll want to know what type of bet you’re making before you throw your money down.

Win: Just what it sounds like. If you bet on a horse to win, it must finish in first place for you to collect.

Place: Betting on a horse to place means you think it will finish as the race’s winner or runner up. You can collect if the horse finishes in first or second, but your earnings will be less than on a win wager.

Show: Wagering that a horse will show means you think it will finish in the top three. This offers a lower payout than a win or place bet, but also gives you a higher chance of winning.

Across the board: You can bet on one horse across the board, which means you are placing win, place and show bets on the same horse. This type of bet requires a larger investment, but could also offer a tidy reward if you feel confident about a particular horse.

Exacta: Betting on the two horses you believe will finish in first and second place is an exacta bet. The horses must finish in the order you predict in order for you to collect, unless you box your bet. An exacta box allows you to collect if both horses finish in either first or second. Exacta box wagers pay out more than a win, place or show bet, but less than a straight up exacta bet.

Trifecta: You win a trifecta bet if you accurately predict the order of finish for the top three horses. You can also place a trifecta box bet, in which you pick the top three horses but not the order of finish.

Superfecta: The next level up from the trifecta bet is a superfecta. You must correctly predict the top four finishers in order. As with exacta and trifecta bets, you can also place a superfecta box bet. The straight up superfecta is the most difficult wager to correctly predict, so it has the largest payout.

What to say to the teller

Nervous about sounding silly when it’s your turn to speak to the teller? Don’t be. It’s simple, as long as you have a race program and follow these instructions.

Example win bet: “At Churchill Downs in race 12, I’ll take $10 to win on the 11 horse.”

This gives the teller all the required information to place your bet. The Kentucky Derby is the 12th race of the day at Churchill Downs (the name of the track), and you are betting $10 that Exaggerator will win (Exaggerator will start from gate 11, which will be listed in the program). Hand the teller $10 dollars, and he will give you your ticket.

An exotic bet (or multi-horse bet) is placed similarly.

Example trifecta bet: “Churchill Downs race 12, $2 trifecta on the 11, 13 and 5.”

In this bet, you are wagering that Exaggerator will win, Nyquist will come in second and Gun Runner will come in third. Give the teller $2 to receive your ticket. If you decide to box your bet, you will need to give the teller $18 because there are nine possible winning combinations.

• ​Name your own racehorse with our random generator

Handicapper’s pick

Now that you understand the types of bets you can make, you need to pick which horses to bet on. Handicapper Michael Dempsey (who is also the editor-in-chief of TurfNSport.com) said he looks for which horses will offer the best value for the money.

At 3–1, Nyquist doesn’t offer much opportunity for profit, so Dempsey suggests looking further down the odds chart for a horse who still has a shot at running in the money (which means it will be one of the top three finishers).

But which bet is smartest for a beginner to make? Dempsey offers his advice:

“For a beginner who might have a limited bankroll, they might bet a horse across the board...because the place and show prices are going to pay really well because it’s such a large field and it’s a wide open race.

“To make a profit for a beginner I might say take two horses and bet them across the board, win, place and show. If one of those two run in the money, you’re probably going to show a profit. If one of them wins you’re going to show a pretty nice little profit.”

Dempsey’s suggestions for horses to bet on: Creator at 10-1, Gun Runner at 10-1, Mor Spirit at 12-1, Brody’s Cause at 12-1.

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