Betting the Favorite at the Derby – A 15 Year Look

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I have a story: My junior year of college, myself, along with 8 or so of my friends, boarded a Greyhound bus charted by one of the fraternities at Northwestern University to go to the Kentucky Derby. My only experience betting on horses came the previous year when I went to Arlington Race Track for the Derby, so, needless to say, I had no idea what the fuck I was doing or talking about. The year before California Chrome had won the Derby and I lost all the money I brought with me to the track betting on various long shots and random races earlier in the day. As the curious young man that I was, I started thinking and developed a theory that betting the favorite at the Derby was the right move. The logic was sound enough: relatively there are less variables in horse racing than other sports, meaning favorites will typically do better and at the Derby you will get the best value on the ‘best’ horse as the public has no idea who anybody is yet. So, fast forward a year, and I proudly walked around the tailgate telling everyone who asked me who I was betting on (and those who didn’t) that you should bet the favorite. I drunkenly preached to anyone who would listen about my reasoning and felt as though I was the Northwestern tailgate’s personal tout. Fast forward another 3 or so hours, I got too drunk bet on all long shots and lost all my money as American Pharaoh cruised to victory. So, as the curious not-as-young man that I am today, I decided to actually look into the numbers and see if you put $100 on the Derby favorite every year, for the last 15 years, would you make money. I busted out the ol’ excel sheet and took a look:

Race day morning odds

Derby

If you bet $100 a race on the favorite in the Derby dating back to 2003, you would have made $1,550 or +15.5 units. 

So, am I a genius horse handicapper or are we simply going through a historic stretch of chalk in horse racing? While, the latter is obviously at least partly true, I do think looking at the numbers grants credence to my drunken theory. It is clear that there is value in who the odds-makers determine is the strongest horse in the field before the public falls in love with them. For example, after being listed as 5 to 2 and 13 to 5 favorites respectively pre-Derby, California Chrome and American Pharaoh were listed as heavy 5 to 8 and 10 to 13 favorite for the Preakness. Both were clearly the best horses in their respective fields, but were listed at very reasonable prices leading up to the Derby. I am not claiming to have cracked some mystical code where limitless profits are now to be had, however, betting the favorite at the Derby, at least recently, is a profitable strategy. When you are thinking about who to bet this weekend, it no doubt something to consinder…or drink too much Jack Daniels Honey Whiskey (its fire don’t @ me) in the Churchill Downs parking and bet on all long shots, trifectas and superfectas and lose all your money. Either way.

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