The Kentucky Derby is run on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville. (Photo from KentuckyDerby.com)
Compared with other sports, understanding Thoroughbred racing is quite simple — the horse that finishes first is, well, the winner – unofficially, of course. If the race was conducted without incident, the winner is declared official within a few minutes.
The lead-up to the race and its consequences are another story. They can be extremely complex, especially to those unfamiliar with racing’s language.
To unravel a bit of the horse racing complexity, here is a primer. Hopefully, it will enhance your upcoming Kentucky Derby experience whether trackside or TV-side.
Often dubbed the fastest or the greatest two minutes in sports, the Derby will be run this year at 6:24 p.m. on May 4 (always the first Saturday in May) at Churchill Downs in Louisville. The race is limited to 3-year-old Thoroughbreds that have earned their way via series of other races.
First run in 1875, the Kentucky Derby has evolved into so much more than a horse race. The event is a slice of Americana that joins the rich and famous with the not so rich and famous for an all-day celebration of life in general.
Goldencents, co-owned by UofL basketball coach Rick Pitino, is one of 21 horses eligible for the Kentucky Derby. (Photo from KentuckyDerby.com)
There are 21 horses entered in the field, as of Wednesday morning (20 starters and one also-eligible). For the also-eligible (Fear the Kitten) to make the field, another horse would have to scratch, or withdraw, by 9 a.m. Friday.
Watching and wagering
If you do not attend the live event at Churchill Downs or take in the excitment during the simulcast at Keeneland or other track, there is ample television coverage starting Derby morning. If you do not want to watch the entire day, be sure to tune in about an hour before the race to catch up on the contenders.
With as many as 20 entrants, the Kentucky Derby provides an exceptional array of wagering options. Bets can be made starting on Friday at various venues, including Keeneland’s drive-through windows. Lines can get extremely long, so you might want to consider parking and walking inside to wager. Admission to Keeneland is $5 on Derby Day but free the day before.
If you are fortunate enough to have a good friend to ferry your bets for you, be sure to be specific about your picks. A little organization goes a long way for the designated bettor, the teller taking the wager, and those behind him or her. Giving your designated bettor a detailed list enhances accuracy.
Wagering can be a complicated process riddled with unfamiliar terms like box, wheel, part-wheel and superfecta but can be simplified for novices. Before making a bet, realize that you are likely to lose and think of the expense as entertainment rather than investment.
Decide how much to spend, then figure out how to gamble it. Blind luck often trumps astute handicapping, so do not hesitate to wager on seemingly hopeless horses especially in combination exotic wagers such as exactas. The simplest wager is $2 to win. If the horse wins, the bettor collects based on its odds. The bigger the odds, the bigger the payoff. Fans can up the ante by wagering more than the minimum.
A less risky venture is betting to place (finish second) or show (finish third). The bettor collects even if the horse wins but for a lesser amount in the place and show categories. The popular “across the board” wager, spreads the risk over all three places.
House numbers and birthday sequences are a simple way of picking numbers that could lead to a hefty payoff. The minimum bet in exotics is generally just $1 or less, so many can be played at minimal cost. Most people “box” their numbers for an extra charge, which means the ticket is a winner in any order. In other words, if you box 6-8-10 in a trifecta that requires the first three finishers, you still collect if the No. 10 wins and the 6 and 8 are second and third.
A riskier wager is the superfecta requiring the first four finishers of the race. Payoffs in this category easily can reach tens of thousands of dollars. Many tracks offer this bet for a dime, so if you want to play lots of combinations, do so in a 10-cent wager. Of course, these fractional wagers have fractional payoffs to the winners.
For a quick course in the key Derby elements, tune into coverage well before the 6:24 p.m. post time. Commentators will cover the horses’ past races, chances of winning and pertinent storylines. National coverage on NBC is slated to begin at 4 p.m., but local stations as well as NBC’s sister sports network will be televising well before and after the Derby itself.
Armchair jockeys will enjoy the race’s coverage more if they have a basic understanding of timing of events and terminology. (Words that will keep cropping up are listed below.)
The Kentucky Derby contenders were whittled down through a series of prep races earlier in the year so that a maximum of 20 remain for the race. The horses are led from the Churchill Downs barn area with their various people—owners, trainers, etc—accompanying them about 30 minutes before post time. “The Walk” evolved from a logistical necessity to a ceremonial stroll that stirs emotions as the crowd cheers them on.
The Derby contenders then are saddled and their jockeys climb aboard in the “paddock” before they return to the track for the 10-minute post parade. As the field enters the track, the band plays “My Old Kentucky Home” which is arguably one of the most moving moments in sports. Although the tradition is unclear; evidence indicates the Stephen Foster classic was first played for the Derby in 1930 and has been a tradition since 1936.
The Kentucky Derby begins at the top of the stretch and horses spring from a regular starting gate with another one attached as an extension. The horses charge in front of the grandstand before sailing into the turn.
The early part of the race often is crucial to the outcome. Horses may be bounced around on the turn compromising their chances. If the leaders are zipping along, they might be going too fast to last the entire distance. Conversely, a horse that appears to be relaxed will be able to cruise along to the finish. If two or more horses are battling for the lead, they usually tire each other out, which sets up for horses with come-from-behind strategies to move into contention.
The race often can change dramatically as the field wheels into the homestretch, one of the longest in American racing. Oftentimes a leader will be beaten by mere inches in the final seconds. The winner returns to the grandstand area where he will be greeted by an entourage that includes Kentucky’s governor, who traditionally presents the trophy to the winners.
Just because the race is over, there is no reason to turn off coverage. Post-race commentary often is as interesting as pre-race jibber jabber, with expert analysts struggling to explain an unlikely outcome or bask in the glory of predicting the result.
If your day ends with a hefty winning bet, you will long remember the 139th Kentucky Derby. But do not dispair if you backed a bunch of losers. There will be plenty of chances to enjoy the Derby for years to come on the first Saturday in May.
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Across-the-board—betting on a horse to finish first, second, or third
Box—wager covering several horses’ finish in no particular order
Check—jockey pulling suddenly on a horse to slow it down and gain better control
Dangerous—slang for having the potential to win as in a horse that is “dangerous on the lead”
Exacta—wager requiring first- and second-place finishers
Exotics—combination bet with several horses in one or more races; also called “gimmick”
Furlong—one-eighth of a mile
Get the distance—be competitive at a particular race’s distance
Gimmick– combination bet with several horses in one or more races; also called “exotic”
Grade, graded—highest level of all races, either 1, 2, or 3; the Kentucky Derby is a Grade 1 race and important races leading to the Derby are graded
Maiden—horse that has never won or a race for such horses; a horse that wins for the first time “breaks his maiden”
Pace—time of the horse that is leading as in “set the pace”
Points—performance-based qualification system in which Kentucky Derby contenders earn points based on their finishes in a series of prep races
Post time—when the race starts
Rate—jockey’s control of horse to make it go at moderate speed
Trifecta—wager requiring first-, second and third-place finishers
Speed—horse’s ability to be the leader early in the race
Superfecta—wager requiring first-, second-, third- and fourth-place finishers
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• First run in 1875, the Kentucky Derby in the oldest continuously run major sporting event in the United States.
• Evidence indicates that “My Old Kentucky Home” was first played for the Derby in 1930 and has been a tradition since 1936.
• Often called the greatest or the fastest two minutes in sports because that is about how long it takes the winner to cover the 1 ¼-mile distance.
• Three fillies have won the Kentucky Derby—Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980), and Winning Colors (1988)
• The Kentucky Derby field has been limited to 20 starters since 1975.
• The Kentucky Derby winner will receive a gold trophy plus an estimated $1.24 million payday. Another $400,000 will be awarded to the runner-up, $200,000 to third, $100,000 to fourth and $60,000 to fifth.
Lexington-based freelance writer Liane Crossley is a lifelong lover of Thoroughbred racing who has held a variety of jobs in both barns and offices. Her favorite part of the industry is being with the horses and the people who share her passion for them. She can be reached at email@example.com
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