Kentucky Derby

John Clay: Dream big, trust gut when placing Derby bet

Golden Soul, with Emerson Chavez up, worked out Tuesday at Churchill Downs. Golden Soul is a 50-1 long shot in the morning line for Saturday's 139th Kentucky Derby. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Golden Soul, with Emerson Chavez up, worked out Tuesday at Churchill Downs. Golden Soul is a 50-1 long shot in the morning line for Saturday's 139th Kentucky Derby. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — For all the pomp and pageantry, for all the heartwarming anecdotes and sentimental story lines, a fair amount of the general public will watch the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby for one simple reason. They hope to win a little money.

Last year, a record $133.1 million was bet on the Kentucky Derby alone. That marked an increase of 18.8 percent over the year before and a 12.4 percent increase over the previous high.

Consider this: At the 2011 Breeders' Cup, there was $97.6 million wagered on the entire Saturday race card at Churchill Downs. That was almost $36 million less than was bet on the 2012 Kentucky Derby.

Taking those numbers into consideration, knowing Derby Day is the only day some people put money on a horse race, we went in search of some advice for the casual bettor.

"Stay within your means, for starters," said Kenny Mayne, the ESPN broadcaster who has loved horse racing since growing up near Longacres Racetrack in Seattle. "You don't have to bet all your life savings to have a great day."

For someone who has never spent a day at the track, Mayne recommends something called a "Show Parlay" in which you bet a horse to show, then take your winnings and put it into a show bet on the next race. If you lose, then start over.

"It's still hard to hit," said Mayne. "The top three sounds easy, but it's not too easy. I just think it's the most elementary way to introduce someone to the game. And that's whether they are reading the form trying to figure it out, or they're picking names or colors and think they know."

But what if they are someone who is just betting the Derby?

"If the Derby is the only race you're going to bet all year, then to me it doesn't make any sense to pick the favorites," said Mike Watchmaker, national handicapper for the Daily Racing Form. "The thrill would be to try and win a lot of money with little investment. I would go for the long shots, the price horses."

But which price horse?

"If you can, predict how the race is going to be run," Mayne said. "Does there seem to be only one horse that seems to have front speed and everyone languishes behind and it might be able to pace itself and go off and win. It's kind of elementary, but if there are two or three, they might burn each other out and you might pick a closer."

"I think you should attempt to find a more scientific approach than using names or colors or whatever," Watchmaker said. "If you like the horses that raced in California, or if you think that the horses that raced in Florida are better, use some sort of scientific method instead of the out-and-out hunch plays."

Then again, if more money is bet on the Derby than any other ace, the Derby may be more difficult to handicap than any other race.

There are more horses in the race (19 this year) than any other race. There are more people in the stands (150,000-plus) than at any other race.

"The fact that racing luck is so important in the Kentucky Derby, it makes it a very difficult race to bet for every horseplayer, casual or expert," Watchmaker said. "That's just the way the deal is."

"Once the gate opens, so many things change anyway," Mayne said. "I think it's a fool's errand to think you can pick one out of these 20 and isolate on that."

This brings me to my old friend and college classmate Marty McGee, himself the Kentucky correspondent for the Racing Form. Marty grew up in Louisville. His brother is the trainer Paul McGee. This is his 40th Derby, his 28th as a professional.

"Consider what we say, because our handicapping maxims are generally true — but don't consider it gospel by any means. In the end, the pros are just guessing, too," McGee said. "The most important thing is for you to play what feels right for you — and in the Derby, maybe you should try to do a little moon-shooting.

"Whatever gets you there, I'm all for ya'. And get lucky if you possibly can."

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