How to Bet the Kentucky Derby: A Beginner's Guide

How to place an "exacta" bet and more for this weekend's Run for the Roses.

May 2, 2014— -- You've got your mint julep and your fancy hat ready for the Kentucky Derby, but are you ready to place your bet on the horse you think will win?

Like all sports, horse racing has its own language that can be confusing to casual watchers. What's a superfecta anyway, and how do you bet one?

Here's our guide to making sense of the Run for the Roses. You can place your bet anytime up until about 20 minutes before the race goes off at 6:24 p.m. Saturday. If you're not going to be in Louisville for the big day, you can head to your local racetrack or off-track betting outlet and place a bet there.

  • There are 20 horses in the field for the Kentucky Derby, though as of now only 19 will be running Saturday (#11 Hopportunity was "scratched.") All the horses are 3-year-old male thoroughbreds, which means they're young horses with lots of talent that is still developing and not a ton of experience.
  • Many casual bettors will pick a horse based on name or looks, but there are better ways to judge the odds for whether a horse has a shot at winning. Each horse will have a record of recent races he's run, what place he finished, and how far ahead of the other horses he was. Give that a good look to see who's done well recently.
  • Look for a horse that has won most of his races by a good length. The Kentucky Derby is one and a quarter miles long, longer than any race these horses have run before, so the winner will need stamina.
  • When you look at a race form there will be a number in parentheses after each horse's name. That number shows what the odds are that the horse will win. It looks something like this: Vicar’s In Trouble (20-1).
  • Horses with a high first number (like 20-1 or 50-1) are considered unlikely to win the race. Horses with lower first number (10 and down) are considered top contenders.
  • Betting on a horse with good odds will not pay out much money if they win. Conversely, betting on a horse with bad odds will pay out a lot of money if they do win. A horse that goes into the race with 50-1 odds but comes in first place will pay out the most money to the bettor. You're trying to hit the sweet spot: a horse with okay odds who you think has a shot at winning.
  • The favorite going into this weekend is California Chrome, with 5-2 odds. He's dominated all the races he's run so far and all eyes will be on him. Therefore, betting on him won't yield a big payout. If you're in it for the thrill of victory alone (and not the money), he's a good bet.
  • In horse racing, you need to bet on what place the horse will come in. The words "first, second, and third," are replaced by "win, place, and show." If you think your horse is pretty good but not going to come in first, you can bet that he will "place," -- that is, come in first or second. Or you can bet that he will "show," -- that is, come in first, second, or third. If your horse comes in any of those positions, you'll get money.
  • If you're sure you've got the winner and you only want to place a simple bet for him to come in first, go ahead and bet your money that way. Say, "I'll bet $2 on (horse's name or number) to win."
  • If you're done with the beginner stage of betting, you can up your odds of winning by doing more complicated bets that yield bigger payouts: exactas, trifectas, and superfectas. Here's a quick guide:
  • Exacta: You pick the two horses you think will come in first and second, in that order.
  • Trifecta: Pick the three horses you think will come in first, second, and third - in the right order.
  • Superfecta: You guessed it. For a superfecta you pick the top four finishers in the right order. Like it's name implies, the superfecta pays out big bucks if you manage to get it right.
  • Now it's off to the races. Good luck racing fans!