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Betting on the 149th Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Derby patrons examine the odds on an upcoming race.
J. Tyler Franklin
Kentucky Derby patrons examine the odds on an upcoming race.

With the favorite to win the 149th Kentucky Derby scratching the morning of the race, LPM's Ryan Van Velzer went in search of a new bet.

Hours before the Kentucky Derby, Forte, the overwhelming 3 -1 favorite scratched. Forte was the fifth horse to drop out of the race following Monday’s post position draw. The last time this happened was 1936.

With that, the Derby field was down to 18, the betting pool shuffled like a game of 52 card pickup, and those looking to beat the odds were left scrambling for a new champion — including me. So I took $50 in cash to Churchill Downs and started asking for advice.

One thing that makes horse betting unique is the parimutuel wagering. So if you’re betting on the Derby, you're not playing against the house. You’re betting against everyone else. And those odds change as people place bets up until moments before the horses leave the gate.

“I’m after Tapit Trice, been on him for a while. I like the number 5 and I like the gray horse so I always bet on them,” said Chris Bowlby, who’s in town with his wife Brenda celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary.

The betting website Twinspires says the favorite often wins and is a safe bet, but that wasn’t the case last year when Rich Strike won on 80-1 odds. Jack C. and his friends put their money on Angel of Empire — which they think is a safe bet.

“So we came in here and Angel of Empire was looking like a cool dog to take but not really, he’s not the favorite. And then all these other favorites are dropping, they’re scratching like flies, Angel of Empire jumps up to be the first or the second favorite now. Angel of the Empire's going to win it all,” he said.

Lavorne Jones from North Carolina was at his first-ever Derby, and his plan was to sprinkle a little money on whichever horse had the lowest odds.

“I would take my chances and go with the long shots, because if you win, you win big,” Jones said.

Then I met Sherry Ledford, a Louisville resident with a big beautiful hat she described as teal majesty. She told me to bet the farm on Rocket Can — a horse with 30-1 odds in the official program.

“You got 50 bucks? I’d do the whole 50,” she said.

Ninety-one-year-old John Sutton Jr. attended his 84th Kentucky Derby this year and said he’s putting his money on Tapit Trice.

“My mother asked me one time and I’ve never been able to live that down. We usually bet big money to show,” he said.

Before I placed my bets, I decided to check in with Matt Stahl, a former reporter with Horse Racing Nation. He told me about Two Phil’s.

“Two Phil's last out he ran at the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park over in northern Kentucky and he won the race,” Stahl said.

But more interesting than that, he said the trainer and jockey of Two Phil’s used to race at Arlington Park, a track outside of Chicago which Churchill Downs bought and sold to the Chicago Bears, ending the racing there. So now this trainer and Jockey are running in the Derby for the first time and have something to prove. I love a good redemption story.

So, I bet Two Phil’s to win, Tapit Trice to place, and Angel of Empire to show. I put down those three for a trifecta and I tossed the rest of the money on a longshot, Rocket Can.

Two Phil’s, the horse I bet to win, drove into the lead and held on for a while, until Mage pulled ahead and ran to victory.

But I did win at least one bet: $23.50 on Angel of Empire to show. Or I lost $26.50, but either way, it was an exciting two minutes in sports.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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