How to Bet Like a Pro at the Kentucky Derby

We’ve talked a lot about what to wear to the track, about what to do while you’re in town and what to do if you’re hosting a party but one thing I’ve, surprisingly, never shared are tips on placing a bet. So I’m partnering up with the team at America’s Best Racing to share some tips on how to place a wager like a pro at the track.

Betting on the races is as much a part of the day as wearing a hat and drinking a mint julep. It’s part of the tradition and even if you’re not a big gambler, it’s fun to throw a couple dollars on your favorite horse.

Whether I like it or not, I come from a gambling family. My dad used to work at Churchill Downs a LONG time ago, so going to the track, breaking down the program and placing a wager or twenty has been something I’ve been doing since I was a kid. That being said, I am no expert. I may know more than the average joe but I’m certainly not someone you want to go to for a detailed explanation of the racing form.

But I do love playing the ponies whenever I’m at the track and wanted to share some tips on how to place a bet. Because that is something I am DEFINITELY comfortable doing (if you see me at the track hogging a window, be sure to troll me).

{Annoying humble brag alert} If you’ve followed me for a while, you might remember that I hit the Trifecta two years ago and won almost $10,000 on a $24 bet. I’ve actually hit the trifecta the last two years but last year’s only paid about $150 or so. I’m sure I’ve lost more than I’ve won but hitting that big bet was one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me and something I’ll NEVER forget. Just saying this because you don’t need to be an expert to hit it big.

But enough of me and on to the tips. Let’s be honest, for a lot of people, placing a bet can be intimidating. Especially if you’re doing anything more complex than $5 to win on X horse. I’ve been to the track with friends and they’ve never placed a single wager because the process stresses them out so much.

So here are some of the terminology, along with tips and a break down of some mildly more advanced bets to try when you’re at the track next week.

The Basic Terminology

Win bet A bet on a horse to finish first.

Place bet A bet on a horse to finish first or second.

Show bet A bet on a horse to finish in the money; third or better.

In the money A horse that finishes first, second, or third.

Across the board A bet on a horse to win, place, and show. If the horse wins, the bettor collects three ways; if second, two ways (place, show); and if third, one way, losing the win and place bets. It’s actually three bets. If you bet $5 across the board, your wager will cost $15.

Morning line The odds that the track handicapper predicts a horse will go off at. These are what will be listed in the program but will change throughout the day leading up to the race. You’ll be paid out on the horses’ odds when the race goes off.

Exacta – A wager in which the first two finishers in a race, in exact order of finish, must be picked.

Box – A betting term denoting a combination bet whereby all possible numeric combinations are covered for certain horses.

Exacta box – A wager in which all possible combinations using a given number of horses are selected. For example, an exacta box using horses 2,4,6 would produce a winning ticket if any two of those three horses finished first and second, regardless of the order (2-6, 4-2, 6-4, etc.). Be careful with these bets because the more horses you add, the more expensive the bet.  

Trifecta A bet in which the first three finishers must be selected in exact order.

Trifecta box A trifecta wager in which all possible combinations using a given number of horses are bet upon. Same idea as an Exacta box but with the Win, Place, Show horses. Again, the more horses you throw in this bet, the pricier the wager.

Daily Double (or Double) Type of bet calling for the selection of winners of two consecutive races. A lot of people will play the Turf Classic (race before the Derby) and the Derby as a Daily Double. You can also play the Oaks/Derby Double where you pick the winners in the weekend’s two biggest races.

Pick (6 or other number) – A type of multi-race bet in which the winners of all the included races must be selected. Pick 3, Pick 4, Pick 5, Pick 6 are commonly used by tracks in the United States.

Part Wheel (my favorite bet)  – Wheel’s are a more advanced form of exotic bets where you choose one horse to finish in a specific position and then choose other combinations for either the exacta or trifecta. For example-  if you think the 7 horse will definitely win and either the 4 or 8 will come in second, you can save money by doing a wheel instead of a box. You would place do a Part Wheel with the 7 and the 4-8. You can add as many horses as you’d like and can do this as a Trifecta and Superfecta.  

If you did a $2 Trifecta Box with four horses, you’d pay $48 but with a Part-Wheel where you choose a favorite in the Win spot, you’d only pay $12 since there are fewer combinations.

How to Place a Bet
  1. Be prepared.
    Going up to the betting windows can be intimidating, especially for first-timers.  And while it may seem like everyone is an expert, I promise they’re not. So don’t be nervous but do prepare. Nothing worse than getting up to the window and freezing.

    I like to write my bets down in the program so I have it all lined up. I bring a pen when I bet because I sometimes throw in last-minute bets if a horse scratches or if the line changes. If you’re planning on doing a more complicated bet, like a Part Wheel, you can even write down a script of EXACTLY what you’re going to say.
  2. Know what your bets will cost and have your cash ready
    Even worse than freezing at the window is finding out that the bet you want to place is actually a $48 instead of $12. America’s Best Racing has an awesome bet calculator on their site here that you can bookmark for race day to see what your wager will cost you.
  3. Place Your Bet Like a Pro
    Walk confidently to the window and drop your knowledge.Here’s what to say:
  • Technically you’re supposed to start with the name of the track but 9 times of 10 you can skip this. BUT say you are at Gulfstream Park in Florida for a Derby party and want to bet on the Kentucky Derby or any races at Churchill Downs that day, you’ll need to start with the track name.
  • Start with the race number. They don’t assume it’s the next race and you can place your bets for the entire day in one visit if you like.
  • State the amount of the wager. I.e. – $2, $5, $10, $50
  • State the type of bet. I.e. – across the board, win, place, show, exacta, box, part-wheel
  • Then add your horses.

Here’s some examples:

  • For beginners:
    • I’d like to bet on Race 6. $5 to win on #4
    • Race 10, $2 Exacta Box with the 2-4-6
    • Race 12, $5 Across the Board on #5
  • Slightly more advanced:
    • $5 on the Oaks/Derby Double with the #10 and #17
    • Race 10. $2 Trifecta Part Wheel. The 4 with the 2-5 with the 5-6-7
    • Race 13. $2 Exacta Wheel with the 6-All (this means you’re picking the 6 to win with any horse from the remainder of the field to place aka finish second).
  1. Budget
    I like to pick an amount of money I’m comfortable with losing at the beginning of the day. Just like you might spend $100 on a night out with friends or a day of shopping. That way, anything you win is a binus. If you find yourself losing a couple in a row, sit out a race or two and sip on the sure bet – a cocktail.
  2. Have Fun!
    This isn’t meant to be stressful or give you anxiety. Don’t be intimidated by the mutual tellers (the people at the betting windows). The majority are excessively helpful and understanding. They realize that there are a lot of newbies on Derby and will help you figure out your bet. If you have a bad experience at one window, just choose another one the next time around. Also, don’t be intimidated by the cigar-smoking bros at the track. I can promise you that the majority don’t know much more than you do, they’re just better at pretending!

If you place any of these bets or win at the track using these tips, please tag me! I would LOVE to see you all out there crushing the betting game at track!

And if this only got you more excited to learn more about wagering, America’s Best Racing has TONS of resources as well as a Derby Tip Sheet with their favorite Oaks and Derby picks. 

And if betting is not for you, which I TOTALLY get,  America’s Best Racing has all kinds of tips from how to host a Derby Party, where to eat and drink when you’re in town for Derby,  the background on this year’s field and so much more on the fastest two minutes in sports.

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3 Comments

  1. Reply

    Amanda J.

    April 29, 2019

    I love this post!!!!! Great info. I just shared it with a few friends, too.

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