How to bet the Kentucky Derby
Q: Can you explain betting at the Kentucky Derby or just horse racing in general? What does it mean to “go off” at 10-1 odds or be a 33-1 long shot?
Ed, of Shiloh
A: Allow me to break this answer into two parts — the what and the how — so that if I start burying you with too much information (as I sometimes do) you hopefully will have a working understanding of the numbers.
What it means is easy. The odds — 10 to 1, for example — are simply a ratio or comparison of two numbers. The first number is the amount of money you’ll win if the horse does what you think it will. The second number is the amount you need to bet to win the first number.
So, let’s take your 10-1 example. What it means is that you’ll receive $10 in winnings for every dollar you bet on that horse if it wins. So, if you place a standard $2 bet, you will walk off with $22 — $20 in winnings (2 times 10) plus the return of your original $2. Similarly, if you’re feeling as frisky as a colt and bet $100 on a horse with 33-1 odds, you’ll scoop up $3,400 (33 times 100 in winnings plus your original $100). If a horse has 5-3 odds and you bet $30, you’ll take home $80 (10 times 5 plus the original $30). That’s all there is to it.
Now comes the trickier part: How is all this stuff figured? Why are some horses given nearly even odds — say, 3-to-2 — while others may start a race (“go off”) at 50-to-1? It’s all the result of pari-mutuel betting, which is the type of wagering used in most horse racing.
Pari-mutuel is just a high-falutin’ French term that means “mutual stake.” In golf, for example, players battle each other for a pot of money offered by a sponsor. But when you bet on the ponies, you’re fighting for part of a pool of cash that has been wagered by all of the other bettors like yourself. You all have a mutual stake in it as it were.
A couple of things should become obvious immediately. The more that bettors favor Horse A, the more money they’re going to wager on it. As a result, they’re saying the odds are good that it will win. But it also means those gamblers will win less per dollar bet because you have to divide the total pool of money among a whole lot of people. Conversely, if few people are betting on Horse B, they’ll take home a much bigger stack of cash if their horse wins because far fewer people will have a claim to that same pool of money.
And to make things more interesting, these odds can keep changing in the days leading up to a race. As horse experts learn more about the many variables that go into their decision — the history of the horses and jockeys, injury rumors, weather forecast, etc. — they may start hedging their bets and begin laying down money on other entries, thus altering the numbers.
Now let me give you an oversimplified example of how the odds are figured. Let’s say this year’s Kentucky Derby was a three-horse race between Fleet o’ Foot, Not So Fast and Beetlebaum. Now, let’s say people wagered a total of $1,000 on these three steeds — $500 on Fleet, $300 on Fast and $200 on Beetlebaum. Here’s what would happen:
First, the people accepting the bets would take their share off the top as their fee for providing the service — usually 10 percent to 20 percent. Let’s say it’s 10 percent. That leaves $900 as the payout to be split among the winning bettors depending on the race’s outcome.
Now we must figure what they will win. This is the formula: The odds for each horse are calculated by subtracting the amount bet on that horse from the available payout and dividing the result by the amount bet on that horse. So for Fleet o’ Foot, you’d first subtract 500 from 900 to get 400 and then divide by 500. The resulting odds are 4-to-5, which means for every dollar you bet, you’d win 80 cents plus your original dollar back if Fleet wins.
Similarly, Not So Fast’s odds would be 2-to-1 (900 minus 300 divided by 300) while Beetlebaum would go off at 7-to-2 (900 minus 200 divided by 200). So the less favored a horse is, the worse (or “longer”) its odds and the higher its payout because theoretically you’re assuming more risk if you bet on it.
Real life, of course, is not that simple. This year’s Kentucky Derby had 20 horses and the total wagers of $139.2 million shattered the previous record of $137.9 million in 2015. Always Dreaming wound up paying $11.40 on a $2 bet to win.
Bettors also wager on far more than just wins. In North America, there are “place” bets that pay if a horse places first or second. (At the Derby, Lookin at Lee paid $26.60 finishing second.) There are also “show” bets that pay if a horses finishes in the top three (Battle of Midway paid $20.80). If you feel you have a lot of horse sense, you can risk your money on perfectas, trifectas and superfectas, in which you try to predict the exact order of finish for the first two, three or four horses in a race. And so on.
As you might expect, as these bets get ever more exotic, the calculations become increasingly complex although the core principle is the same. Thank goodness modern computers can figure it all out at a gallop.
Which Kentucky Derby winner had the longest odds in history?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: As of January, 31 states still can impose the death penalty. Four others currently have governors who have put a moratorium on its use. All 31 use lethal injection as their primary means of execution but nine can use electrocution, six can use the gas chamber, three can use hanging and three can use the firing squad, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
More numbers to think about: Since 1976, there have been 1,453 executions, reaching a peak of 98 in 1999. Last year, the United States saw 30 sentenced to death and 20 — all in five states — were executed. As of Oct. 1, there were 2,902 prisoners on death row (54 women). Since 1973, there have been 157 death-row exonerations. Former Gov. Pat Quinn abolished Illinois’ death penalty in March 2011.