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April 27, 2015

A beginner's guide to the 2015 Kentucky Derby, part 1

The gates will open on the 141st edition of The Kentucky Derby on Saturday at about 6:20 p.m. Philly time. Here is the first installment of a three-part series for racetrack novices that will explain all you need to know to have some fun, impress your friends and maybe win some money at your Derby party. 

Let's start with the basics of the Derby and how to bet on it:

The Kentucky Derby is always run on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. It is the first leg in the Triple Crown of thoroughbred horse racing (the other two legs are The Preakness Stakes and The Belmont Stakes).

The Derby is limited to thoroughbred race horses who are three years old. Thoroughbreds start racing at two, reach full physical maturity at five (most have retired from racing by then) and can live into their early 20s. So a three-year-old thoroughbred is roughly equivalent to an 18-year-old human athlete in terms of physical and mental maturity.

Both males (a colt in horse talk, unless something bad has happened to his "stallion equipment" in which case he is called a gelding or a ridgling depending on how bad that something was) and females (a filly in horse talk) are eligible to run in the Derby, but this year all of the runners are males, including one gelding (War Story) and two ridglings (Far Right and Upstart).

The distance of the Derby is a mile and a quarter (one lap around the Churchill Downs racetrack equals five laps around your old high school track). The great Secretariat holds the record time for the Derby at just under two minutes (1:59.4).

The owner(s) of the 2015 Derby winner will receive approximately $1.24 million in purse money. The winning trainer and jockey will each receive 10 percent of that and the crew of stable hands who care for the winner split 2 percent (all taken out of the winning purse money). It costs approximately $70,000 to $100,000 per year to maintain an elite thoroughbred in training, so even after these big paydays there is plenty of cash left over to pay for lifetime supply of organic hay for your pet horse if you own the winner.

The prestige of winning the Derby is also huge -- horse racing immortality for the horse and its human connections, a chance at a lucrative post-racing career as a stallion (colts only) or as a broodmare and a really cool gold trophy.

The horses often have very creative names (betting solely on the basis of names is an honored Derby tradition) and are identified in the program by a number (1-20) which is shown on the cloth the horse wears under its saddle. Because it's so hard to see these saddle cloth numbers when the race is being run, you should memorize your horse's name and more importantly the color of the jockey's hat and shirt (the silks in horse talk) before the race goes off so that you can keep track of your pony's progress as the race unfolds.

The most common forms of bets that can be made on the Derby are:

     • betting on a single horse to win, place (means coming in second or third) or show (means coming in third),

     • betting on a single horse "across the board" (means coming in first, second or third),

     • betting on a combination of horses to come in first and second (called an "exacta" bet) or

     • betting on a combination of horses to come in first, second and third (called a "trifecta" bet).

Assuming that you bet $2 on each bet, the cost of betting a horse across the board is $6 (you are really making three $2 bets), the cost of betting two horses in an exacta to finish in any order (Horse A first Horse B second/ Horse B first Horse A second) is $4 (you are really making two $2 bets) and the cost of betting three horses in a trifecta to finish in any order is $12 (you are really making six $2 bets). If you want to bet an exacta you should bet the horses to finish in any order - this is called "boxing an exacta" and is a very good strategy as long as you don't use more than four horses -- it gets to be too expensive to bet this way if you use more than four horses. The same boxing strategy can be used to bet a trifecta.

Unlike most casino games, in which you are playing against the house, in horse racing you are playing against the other bettors (the house in horse racing simply collects the bets, takes a cut off the top for putting on the show and pays the balance out to the winning bettors). The odds of a horse (which are based upon how much money is bet on the horse in relation to the total amount bet on all the horses in the race) reflect the betting public's collective judgment. A horse with relatively low odds is being bet heavily while a horse with relatively high odds is being bet lightly.

Your horse's odds will be updated every 45 seconds until the betting automatically ends when the gate opens to start the race and you will get those "post time odds" (not the odds that were in effect at the time that you bet) if your horse wins. If you bet $2 to win and your horse wins at 3 to 1 odds you will be paid $8 (you always get back the $2 that you bet when you win plus you get paid an extra $3 for every $1 that you bet).

In Part 2 on Tuesday, we will examine the strategy of how the Derby is often run and won, which of this year's horses fit that profile and what to look for when watching on TV. In Thursday's finale, we will handicap the field (horse talk for we'll give you our picks to win, place and show).