Kentucky Derby Handicapping: How to Prepare for Run for the Roses
by Trevor Whenham - 04/07/2009
It seems hard to believe, but the Kentucky Derby is less than four weeks away. I've been counting the days and following all of the lead-up action for months now, but I realize that most of you aren't like me on that front. If you are serious about having a good betting day on the first Saturday in May, though, then you can easily catch up and be on top of things by the time the field is set for the biggest of races. Here are six things you can be doing now to be very prepared for the Kentucky Derby:
Develop the proper mindset - To do well at the Derby, or at least to enjoy it, you have to approach it in the right way. Betting on this race, on a purely practical basis, is ridiculous. Just think about it - these are very young horses that are probably running a very challenging distance before they are really ready for it. They come from all over the country, and from several different surfaces. They run in a massive 20-horse field on a track that is just barely big enough to handle that kind of a crowd. There are at least 150,000 screaming, drunken fans watching the races. The whole day is just chaos. That certainly doesn't mean that you should avoid betting the race, but it does mean that you can't treat it like any other race. This is one sports truly unique spectacles, and you'll have much more fun, and a much better chance of making money, if you treat it as such.
Look to history - On the Kentucky Derby Web site, or on places like Youtube, you can go back and watch all of the old Derbies. I always find this helpful, and not just because of the reminiscing. By watching the races you'll start to see the running styles that have been successful, and, more importantly, the running styles that you like. That gives you something to look for when you start looking at this year's field.
Watch everything - Youtube has really changed the world for Derby handicappers. You can now go back and watch pretty much every race that every major contender has run on the way to the Derby. By doing that you can get a sense of what the horses have done, their styles, and their weaknesses. You'll quickly get a sense of the horses you like, and of the horses that just don't do it for you. You'll also be able to see what the track looked like on race day - what shape the surface was in, and the weather. You'll get far more out of watching the races than you will from just relying on the past performances.
Group the runners - Because there are so many potential runners to deal with, the best way to manage the race and get a good grip on your handicapping is to break the horses down into groups that make sense for you. You can do this pretty much any way that works for you. You could break them up according to running style - front runners, stalkers, closers and so on. If you value experience then you could group them by how much they have raced. If you are concerned about the Churchill Downs surface then you could group them according to how much they have run on dirt and how they have done. Heck, if you are superstitious you could group them by color, number of vowels in their name, or the month they were born in. It doesn't matter. By breaking them down into manageable groups you can more easily make sense of the potential field, and are more likely to arrive at a good decision, and one that makes you happy.
Open your heart - Handicapping horse races is usually a cold and calculating game of numbers. In the Derby, though, it is much more about sentiment. The field is full of the best of the best horses out there, and you can legitimately make a case that well over half the field is good enough to win. Handicapping this race is ultimately about finding a horse or two that suits your preferences and just makes your heart beat a little faster than the rest. The years I have done best betting on the Derby are the ones in which I have fallen for a horse weeks or even months before the Derby. Betting on sports is mostly about using your head and leaving your heart out of it, so the Derby is a good chance to exercise another part of your being.
Plan your Kentucky Derby party - This is the single most important part of the Derby experience. Everyone needs to go to the Derby at some point in their lives. If that's not going to happen this year, though, then you need to find the best place possible to watch the race. You need a big TV, and horse racing looks great in HD. You need to have people around to gloat to when you are right and mock when they are wrong. You need lots of snacks - the kind that are clearly going to shorten your life. And, most importantly, you have to learn how to make a mint julep. A few of those on race day and you won't care if you win or lose.