How I'm Betting at This Year's Kentucky Derby

A long-time horseracing fan decides to throw caution to the wind

Kentucky Derby_Matt Sullivan_post.jpg

Reuters/Matt Sullivan

Horse racing is all about the odds. Well, it's mostly about the odds—some of it is about luck, too. But anybody who works the track or is a part of the industry is invested in making sure that you never believe that. And convincing you, the bettor, probably isn't very difficult; everybody who might be throwing down their weekly wages on the horses wants to feel like they can analyze the numbers and position themselves above the rest of the pack. You want to walk into the park absolutely convinced that you'll walk out with a fatter wallet. And you'll think that big wad of cash is even heavier, even more special, if you feel like you've earned it.

But you can only have so much fun if your nose is in the books the entire time you're sitting at the track. Preparing to attend the $2 million Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, I waited anxiously for the Wednesday afternoon lottery that would determine the horses—and their pole positions—that would make this year's field. As soon as the horses were chosen, I put aside some of my work and starting to dig into the statistics. But then I stopped. This will be my first time at the Derby and I'm going to this race for the spectacle and the experience—the rarefied gentry; the floppy, wide-brimmed hats; the seersucker suits—as opposed to one more chance to win some money. When I make my way to Louisville this weekend, I'm going to get drunk. So, taking a cue from my mom's lazy approach to gambling, I've devised a foolproof strategy that relies, for the most part, on luck, but adds just a hint of odds analysis. I'm only betting on two horses, those with the ideal pole positions. It's a strategy I plan to stick to so that, if I have a few too many mint juleps, I won't return to D.C. in debt, hundreds of useless tickets in my suitcase. And if I win? I'll claim it was all because of a couple of smart choices. Luck? Pft.

Story continues after the gallery of the 20 horses in this year's Kentucky Derby field.

When the pre-lottery favorite, Dialed In, drew the No. 8 pole, several sports websites cheered the position. "This isn't picking teams or bidding on starting positions," according to SB Nation. "It's simply hoping to see your number pulled in a position near the middle." No. 8 out of 20 is pretty close to the middle and Brian Floyd called the draw "excellent." The thinking is that, if you're too far on the outside of the pack, you'll never be able to find your way to the rail for the finish; and, if you're stuck starting near the rail, you'll be crushed and slowed down as 19 other horses invade your space. But a little bit of research challenges that argument. Over the long history of the Derby, positions 1 and 5 have produced the most winners with 12 each.

I'm putting my money on Archarcharch and Decisive Moment.

Currently at the top of his game, Archarcharch is a three-time stakes winner with a 6-3-1-1 record. He beat Nehro, another Kentucky Derby competitor, in the Arkansas Derby, his last prep leading up to the big race. Unfortunately, Jinks Fires, the horse's trainer, isn't happy with the pole position. "Not a good place to be," he told the Daily Racing Form. "I've never liked the one hole, but you got to do what you got to do." And you can be sure that Archaracharach's team, which also includes owners Robert and Loval Yagos and Grapestock LLC, will do just that. Fires has been waiting 50 years to get a horse, literally, in the race—and his, well, fire is clear. Archaracharch was one of the few horses training on the track this past Tuesday when the temperatures were low and the track wet. Despite complaints that this year has one of the slowest fields in recent Derby history, Archarcharch was running at 52 seconds per half-mile in the rain.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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