Is Betting the Kentucky Derby Really as Easy as Going Chalk?


Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The 144th running of the Kentucky Derby will take place on Saturday, May 5 at Churchill Downs with a post time of 6:34 p.m. ET. The field includes 20 horses with Justify the current favorite at 3-1 odds.


Novice horse bettors are likely to chase the chalk, as Justify is the favorite for a reason. In other sports, betting favorites rarely works. In the NFL, favorites are 1,859-1,860-111 ATS since 2005, costing $100 bettors $7,852. In the NBA during the same time frame, the favored team is 8,079-8,160-293 ATS resulting in a $47,806 loss for a $100 bettor. Same story in baseball (18,339-13,652, -$59,234) and hockey (9,120-6,373-2, -$20,262).

At The Action Network, we often take a contrarian strategy when it comes to sports betting and that usually means fading the public and betting underdogs. Does this approach work for the Kentucky Derby?

No, in the “Run for the Roses” the favorite, not the underdog, has been the smart play.

In the last 50 years, 17 favorites have won the Derby. A bettor wagering $2, the minimum bet amount required, on each race for a total of $100 investment would have returned $116 (16% return). Since 2000, bettors taking the favorite in the “Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” won half the races. A $2 wager on the 18 races for a $36 investment would have returned $77.80 ($41.80 profit plus original $36), a 116% return on investment.

Is betting the Kentucky Derby really as easy as going chalk?

After five straight wins, it appears playing the favorite is the sharp side. There is evidence this trend isn’t a fluke either.

In 2013, when the winning streak began, horses qualified using a new points system. Horses now have to participate in a series of designated races that award points to the top four finishers. The 20 horses with the most points earned a spot at the starting gate; this is called the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

The new qualifying system helps ensure the very best horses run the first Saturday in May. By eliminating those that don’t belong, there is less variance in the outcome of the race, making it more likely the favorite crosses the line first.

Before you race off to the nearest ticket window to bet Justify, there are a few things to know about the 3-year-old. First, he is lightly raced, which sounds good but historically has been a negative. Justify has won all three of his starts but didn’t run as a 2-year-old. There hasn’t been a Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 to win without having raced at age 2.

Second, in Paul Lo Duca’s Kentucky Derby Power Rankings, Justify is not the No. 1 horse. Finally, while favorites have been on a tear, just look at last year’s race to see how easily the streak could have been ended. Longshots Looking at Lee (31-1) and Battle of Midway (37-1) finished second and third, respectively.

Going chalk has been a profitable strategy in recent Kentucky Derby races. Will the trend continue on Saturday?

Pictured: 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming

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