The 2021 Kentucky Derby comes up this Saturday and will draw the attention of millions betting on the race at horse racing betting sites. Many casual bettors will wager without having any real inclination of how to find out who the best horses in the race might be. But all it takes is a few handicapping tips and a racing program to help you become an informed bettor and drastically improve your chances of winning your Kentucky Derby bets.
The Kentucky Derby, which takes place on Saturday at Churchill Downs in Kentucky, is the one thoroughbred horse race held in America each year that is guaranteed to draw casual fans as well as hardcore racing enthusiasts. If you’re one of the casual fans that’s new to the sport, you might not know too much about the betting process. And you might think it’s too hard to learn in such a short time.
Luckily, there are some easy ways to narrow down what will likely be a 20-horse field for the race on Saturday. And the easiest method of handicapping the 2021 Kentucky Derby is to look at the program pages. You’ll be able to find these pages online printed in advance of the race once the field is all set.
Reading the Program
The program is essentially your one-stop shop for learning everything you can about the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Without even seeing a race, you can find out a vast wealth of information about the horses in the field. And with that information, you can then make your bets and give yourself a much better chance than if you were going in blind.
That’s not to say that you’ll be ensured of winning your Kentucky Derby bet by making bets based on the tips found in the program information. But you can certainly make your picks more confidently and know that you’ve done the necessary research. You might still need a little bit of luck, especially in a race as wild as the Kentucky Derby, but you’re certainly improving your winning chances.
In this article, well show you how to dissect those program pages. We’ll explain how each piece of information can be used to project horses that will either perform well or come up lacking. By the end, you’ll be able to use the program for the same expert knowledge that even the most experienced bettors possess.
Key Program Information for the 2021 Kentucky Derby
Owners, Trainers And Drivers
Obviously, the horses are the ones who will be in the spotlight come this Saturday when the gates open. But it is important not to underestimate the human element that plays into the success of these horses. And that’s why it’s important to take in the information at the top of each horse’s entry on the program letting you know who the jockeys, trainers and owners are.
When you see that a horse is trained by somebody like Bob Baffert of Todd Pletcher, who have enjoyed a lot of success in the past in other big races, you should immediately take note. However, you also have to realize that other bettors will take note as well, which means you almost have to pay a tax on those horses because of who their trainers are. That’s not to say they should be avoided, but you might lose out on some value.
Jockeys are extremely important in the Kentucky Derby, because, with up to 20 horses in the race, positioning will be crucial. It’s always nice to know that the jockey of the horse that you’ve bet has the kind of big-race experience to win the Run for the Roses. Look at the history of the Kentucky Derby winners and cross-reference that against the jockeys in the race to find those who could propel a horse to great heights on the biggest stage.
Pedigree is a bit of a more involved concept when it comes to horse racing handicapping. It does help if you’ve followed the sport and might be able to recognize the names of horses who have performed well in the past. Again, you could easily look that information up to see the records of the horses in question.
The program page will give you the name of the horse’s sire (father) and dam (mother), as well as both of their fathers as well. You’ll hear on the broadcast of the Kentucky Derby how commentators will talk about the bloodlines of a particular horse.
They do this because the idea is that a horse whose parents or grandparents have done well in big races will have that kind of ability in them as well.
In the case of the Kentucky Derby, many of the horses in the race will have impeccable pedigrees, so it’s a little bit harder to use as a determining factor. If you see a horse without those bloodlines, however, it might be a reason to give you pause about using that horse in your wagers. Pedigree is good information to have, but make sure to not use it as your only tidbit when picking your potential winners and exotic finishers.
Ultimately, you’ll be betting on horses who are going to finish somewhere high in the order of finish, as this is the basis for both straight (win, place and show) and exotic (exacta, trifecta, superfecta, daily double, and so on) wagering on the 147th Kentucky Derby. In the top right of the horse’s entry in the program, you’ll see all the information pertaining to their record. For example, this is a typical record for Super Stock one of the horses who will actually be competing on Saturday:
Life: 8 2-2-2 $804,762
2021: 2 1-0-0 $650,000
2020: 6 1-2-2 $154,762
The top line is letting you know that, in his racing career to date, Super Stock has eight career races, with two wins, two places (second-place finishes), and two shows (third-place finishes). He has earned $804,762 in that span. On the lower two lines, those stats are broken down further into each racing year.
As you move a little bit to the right of that information on the Kentucky Derby program, you’ll see each horse’s record broken down a little bit more. You’ll see its record on fast and “off” or “sloppy” tracks, its record at a longer distance, and its record on different surfaces like turf. This info will help you pinpoint exactly how the horse might do in the Derby, where the distance is 1 ¼ miles, the track will be a dirt surface, and the track condition will be determined by the weather on race day.
It’s important to not get too carried away with raw records, as it could obviously be affected by the caliber of competition. But you can often find a bargain in horses that tend to go out there every single race and, regardless of competition or circumstances, is right in the middle of it at the end of the race. This is especially helpful when you’re trying to fill out exotic tickets with horses who might not win necessarily but can hit the board.
When you move to the bulk of the horse entry on a Kentucky Derby program page, the first thing you’ll see on the left is the date of each of the races highlighted, with the latest races on top. You might not think about this as anything more than a trivial piece of information. But you can actually use it as a crucial piece of data in picking potential winners.
There are a few key elements of horse racing habits that you should know before considering the date:
On average, a top Kentucky Derby horse will race approximately once a month. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but this is generally the schedule whereby a horse will have time to recover from one race and train for the next one.
If a horse has been away for longer than that, the first start back is often one where it is not quite at its peak level. You’ll hear horse racing experts say something like the horse “needs a start,” which means that they think the horse will use this race as a kind of tuneup. It’s not to say that the horse has no chance in that particular race, but instead that it might not yet reach its best form.
The second, or sometimes third, start after a layoff of longer than usual is often one where bettors believe the horse will put together its best effort. Which one it is could depend on the length of the layoff beforehand. But bettors will often target these horses when they make their wagers on any thoroughbred race, let alone the Kentucky Derby.
With all that information in your head, you should definitely check out the dates as well as how the horses performed on those dates. It can be especially helpful in finding value horses, which are those which can return a lot on a small betting investment. A horse that might have struggled in a previous race off a layoff could be undervalued at the betting windows as they make their second start back.
Just to the right of the date in a Kentucky Derby program is the abbreviation for the track at which it raced. It will all look something like this, which is taken from Derby hopeful Rock Your World:
What this is telling you is the last race for Rock Your World was on April 3, 2021 at Santa Anita in the eighth race on the program that day. Part of the effort to handicap with Kentucky Derby programs is learning all these little abbreviations and shorthand. It can seem intimidating at first, but they’re necessary for the track officials to give you all that information in a truncated space, and they’re easy to learn with a little practice.
Why is track information important?
Well, for one thing, horses that have already performed well at Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, might have an affinity for the track surface. It could also give them a familiarity edge over horses who have never raced at Churchill before.
In addition to that, there are some tracks that are just a bit more renowned then others in terms of the competition that they offer. Here are some of the abbreviations you’ll find on a Kentucky Derby program and the tracks to which they refer:
CD = Churchill Downs
SA = Santa Anita (California)
OP = Oaklawn Park (Arkansas)
GP = Gulfstream Park (Florida)
Kee = Keeneland (Kentucky)
Aqu = Aqueduct (New York)
FG = Fair Grounds (Louisiana)
Bel = Belmont Park (New York)
These are all major thoroughbred tracks featuring excellent competition. If you see some other abbreviations on the Kentucky Derby, it could be an indication of a lesser track. And that could mean that the horse coming from those locations might not be ready for the big-time competition awaiting in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.
Of all the factors that Kentucky Derby novice bettors tend to overlook which might come back to haunt them, distance might be the top. The Derby is contested at a distance of 1 ¼ miles. That will take the horses around two turns.
For every one of the horses in this race, this will be the longest race of their career. But how much longer it is for them than usual could have an effect. Some horses might already have stretched out to a distance as long as 1 3/16 miles, while others might have topped out at around 1 1/16 miles.
The key to using distance is to look at the length of each race and see how each performed in it. If it has thrived with each longer race, it just might find out that the extra distance of the Derby is to its liking. But if the results at longer distances have been less impressive than when the horse is at shorter spans, you could be looking at a horse that might be tiring late in the Kentucky Derby.
After the track and distance information, you’ll see a series of numbers listed for each race. These represent the fractional times of the race. And they’ll look something like this, which is taken from an actual race at 1 1/16-mile race at Santa Anita which featured some of the Derby competitors:
In this case, the 46 seconds was the time at which the half-mile marker was reached by the leader. The next two numbers were the times of the leader at both the three-quarter-mile and one-mile marker. And the 1:49 represents the winning time of the race.
How can this information help you?
Well, it can help you judge how fast the race was contested compared to an average race. Usually, 23 seconds or so for about every quarter of a mile is a good standard against which you can measure a typical race.
Truth be told, fractional times aren’t that important to study because much of that information is included in the speed figures, which we’ll talk about in a second. Still, you might want to take a gander at those times. You might come up with something that pushes you in one direction or another as a tiebreaker between horses you’re thinking about betting.
We talked above about certain tracks were better than others in terms of the caliber of their competition. Another way you can judge competition is by looking at the race type. This will help you judge if a horse has been seasoned against tough competition or if it was facing lesser horses.
Race type is a good tool to use in conjunction with a horse’s record of wins and finishes in the money. For example, a horse that has dominated against lesser competition might not have what it takes when it steps up into the pressure cooker of the Kentucky Derby. By contrast, you could find that a horse with a middling record performs very well in the Derby because of how it’s used to facing very tough competition.
Here are the main race types that you’ll encounter on a Kentucky Derby program page, ranked from easiest to hardest:
Maiden races: These are races featuring only horses who have never won before. Once a horse has a win, it is no longer eligible for a maiden race. There are maiden special weight races, where a horse has to carry a certain weight, and maiden claimers (more on claimers below.)
Claiming races: A claiming races is one where every horse in the race can be purchased by an accredited owner. These are usually the weakest thoroughbred races in terms of talent, because the horses involved wouldn’t be put up for sale if their current owners thought they had great earning potential. Still, there have been cases where horses have risen from the ranks of the claimers to win Triple Crown races like the Kentucky Derby.
Allowances: An allowance is a race where the track determines a certain standard that a horse might fit before being allowed to compete. For example, the race description might say something like “non-winners of $30,000 in last five starts.” Any horse that fits that condition would be eligible to race.
Allowance/Optional Claimers: In some cases, an allowance includes a condition whereby a horse can compete because it fits the description but can also be put up for a claiming price. Usually, the claiming prices are extremely high in situations like this.
Stakes races: Stakes races are ones where the owners might pay a fee to enter their horses. Hence, these races also feature higher purses to draw owners who would be willing to do this. Owners generally wouldn’t enter a horse into a race like this if they didn’t think it could win, which is why stakes races are such tough competition.
Graded stakes races: A graded stakes races is one that has been determined by thoroughbred racing officials to be of particularly high caliber. Grade 1 events, like the Kentucky Derby, are the finest stakes races, followed closely by Grade 2 and Grade 3 events. For a horse to even make the Kentucky Derby, is has to perform well in Derby preps, which are generally all graded stakes.
Speed figures are one way that you can take all of the information in the program and boil it down to a single number. The problem with it is that it is a somewhat subjective number, as race tracks employ experts to look at a race and assign a statistical approximation of how well a horse raced on a given day. If the figures are accurate, you could theoretically use them to compare two or more horses who ran completely separate races at different tracks and different dates and tell who was the best performer.
Information that goes into the speed figures include:
How the track surface was on the day of the race
What kind of pace was set
What kind of trip the horse was able to get
On top of that, the horse’s actual performance is factored into it and a number is reached. An outstanding speed figure is 100, and it’s a number that many (but not all) of the 2021 Kentucky Derby contenders have reached. If you see numbers well below that, it might be an indication that a horse might not have what it takes.
If you’re going to use speed figures in your Kentucky Derby handicapping, consider doing it as a way to spot trends. For example, if the speed figures are steadily rising heading into the Derby, it’s a good sign. Also, if one race on a horse’s line might feature a lower speed figure than usual, it could be an indication that the horse just wasn’t itself that day and could be ready for a bounce-back.
The speed figures could indeed be a useful tool, especially if you use it as a way to eliminate certain horses. Just be careful about splitting hairs if there are just a few points difference in the speed figures of horses. Remember that the few points could easily have been different if someone else had rated the race.
Order During Race
The biggest part of a horse’s entry on a program page shows where it was in the order during different portions of each race. This can be an excellent way to handicap the Kentucky Derby, because it shows how a horse likes to race in terms of its style. And in many years, a horse’s style can either give it a better shot of contention or perhaps harm its chances.
There are three general styles that cover most thoroughbred horses. They are:
Frontrunners: You might also hear this style referred to as the “early speed.” A horse who fits into this category tends to run hard out of the gate in an effort to either get to the lead of get as close to it as possible. From there, they’ll try to hold off all horses looking to come up from behind, either by keeping the pace slow to hold energy in reserve, or by “bottoming out” the field by pulling so far ahead nobody can catch them.
Stalkers: Many experts feel stalking is the best style for a race like the Kentucky Derby because a horse can adjust to what other horses are doing. The idea of being a stalker is to stay just off the pace and make a move when the leaders start to tire. Stalking horses, perhaps more than any other style, need their jockeys to be sharp, because positioning is crucial.
Closers: These are the horses that don’t mind being well off the pace in the early stages of the race. They will instead make their move late, usually approaching the final turn, and try to pass tiring horses. Because the Kentucky Derby is longer than what horses at this age are accustomed to running, closers, who are often coming on strong at the end of shorter races, can sometimes be a late factor.
What you should be looking for, as much as possible in a race with up to 20 horses like the 2021 Kentucky Derby, are styles that stand out. These horses might have an edge because they can use their style against the grain of what is happening in the race. Identifying styles that stand out can help you find value horses.
If there are a lot of frontrunners, it could create a quick pace and lead to an edge for the closers. But a lack of early speed horses could mean the horses that do like to get out in front early might be able to dictate a slower pace and give themselves an edge. Stalkers are usually in good shape no matter fast or slow pace, unless there are too many of them, in which case positioning could be an issue.
How can use the horse’s order during the race to determine the style? Take a look at what a typical line might look like in a race, taken from a recent race for 2021 Kentucky Derby contender Super Stock:
1 31 1/2 42 32 31/2 12 1/2
What this indicates is the following:
Super Stock left from post position #1
He was third at the beginning of the race after the horses broke from the gate and settled somewhat into an order, just 1 ½ lengths back of the leader
He was fourth at “first call,” which roughly relates to the first part of the race, such as the quarter-mile of the Kentucky Derby, two lengths back of the leader
He was third at “second call,” which is when the horses are on the straightaway before the second turn, in this case two lengths back of the leader
He was third at the top of the stretch, 1 ½ lengths back of the leader
Super Stock came on to win the race by 2 ½ lengths
Now this was just one race. But if you looked at every race of Super Stock and you saw lines similar to this, you could assume he favored a stalking style. You could then go forth in your handicapping for all types of bets with that knowledge.
One other way to use the information about where the horse is in the order of each race is to combine it with the distance of the race to see if it can hold up to the longer distance of the Kentucky Derby. If you see a horse that is always passing horses at the end of shorter races, it could indicate that it will enjoy the longer distance of the Derby. But if it is either being passed by horses or losing some of its lead late in the shorter races, it could mean that it will struggle to go 1 ¼ miles.
Here is an area where many novice handicappers won’t even look at the program to note it, but they could be making a bad mistake by doing so. To the right of the area that indicates the horse’s positioning throughout the race, you’ll see first the name of the jockey, and then a number with a decimal point. This is an indication of what the betting odds were for the horse in that race.
For example, in his last race, Essential Quality, who is the morning line favorite and could very well end up being the 2021 Kentucky Derby favorite at race time, had these odds:
These odds are always in relation to a dollar. In this case, Essential Quality went off at 50 cents to a dollar, which is 1-2 in common pari-mutuel betting parlance. In addition, there was a small asterisk placed next to the top left of the number, which indicates that Essential Quality was the betting favorite.
Why Does This Matter?
Well, bettors generally know what they’re doing. And if a horse is constantly being heavily bet, it can often be an indication that the horse in question has a lot of talent.
Obviously, a lot of times low odds will go right along with horses who have been performing well anyway. But you might be able to sneak out a Derby value horse if you see one who has previously been bet well in big races but isn’t getting the same kind of attention on the Derby odds. In cases like that, you might just have a horse that’s flying under the radar.
To the right of the odds in a horse’s race line in a program is a listing of the top three finishers in that race. Sometimes called the competition line, this information is a good way to get nuts and bolts data on how certain horses performed against each other. For many bettors, this beats any of the statistical analysis, because it gets down to the bottom line of a race.
As an example of what this looks like, here is a competition line for 2021 Derby contender Caddo River:
What this is telling you is that Super Stock finished first in that race, with Caddo River second and Concert Tour picking up the show. Obviously, the abbreviations might be a bit tricky. But one helpful piece of this is that the other horses are listed in bold type.
When you see the bold type in the competition line, you know that those horses are also in the Kentucky Derby field. That allows you to make a quick comparison among the competitors in the race. It helps when it comes to determining which horses are at the top of the heap, which can be difficult in such a big field.
If you see horses that are constantly beating others in the Derby field, you can expect that they’ll get a lot of betting attention. By contrast, the horses who beat lesser fields might not be ready to face the top-caliber competition they’re sure to face in the Kentucky Derby. The order of finish information in the racing program can help you to determine all of that.
Furthest to the right on each horse’s race lines in the program is a brief description of what the horse did in the race. This comes from someone employed by the track who is paid to go back and watch every single horse in every single race. And then this person writes about it for the program.
If you’re new to horse racing programs, the race description might look like a series of hieroglyphics. Everything is abbreviated to the point where it’s somewhat difficult to read. But once you’ve seen a few of these, you can start to piece them together.
As an example, take a look at the race description for a recent race by 2021 Kentucky Derby entrant Mandaloun:
4wide turns; chased; empty
In horse racing parlance, this is telling you’re the following:
Mandaloun had a rough go of it on the two turns of the race, parked four-wide from the rail on both, which cause him to have to go extra distance
He then tried to chase the leaders
He came up empty in his effort
When you put this information together with the result of the race, which was a 6th-place finish, it starts to make sense. Maybe that was a race where the bad racing luck that Mandaloun endured caused him to come up short. That could mean that he gets underestimated in the betting for the Kentucky Derby, which could give him some excellent value.
Race descriptions are also subjective, although most of them try to give as much non-debatable information as possible. What you should be looking for are circumstances which affect a horse’s performance either way. Maybe they’ve enjoyed good luck in previous races that’s bound to run out, or maybe they’re due for a better trip after having it bad in other starts.
Underneath the lines for each race in a horse’s Kentucky Derby program entry, you’ll see the last bit of information you can use, which is the horse’s workout times. Usually, there will be a series of them from different dates, and they will usually look something like this, which is taken again from Mandaloun:
13Mar FG 5f ft 1:003 B 4/44
What this is telling you is that the horse in question worked out on March 13 at Fair Grounds. The workout was five furlongs long and occurred on fast track, and the time that it took him to cover that ground was 1 minute and three-fifths of a second. He breezed in the workout (that’s what the “B” stands for) and had the fourth-fastest time out of 44 workouts at that distance that morning.
One other thing you should look for as a kind of shorthand when it comes to workouts is a black dot before one is listed. That indicates a “bullet” workout, which is the fastest of the morning. Horses with a lot of bullets are constantly outperforming others at the same time.
Workout times are a good tool if you’re wondering about how a horse who might be new to Churchill Downs likes the surface. Still, it is much easier for a horse to run well when they’re all alone with no other horses on either side of them. In other words, use workouts as part of your handicapping, but not as the be-all, end-all.
We hope that these tips on how to read the program give you a real advantage when it comes to making your 2021 Kentucky Derby betting tips. Try to focus on a few key pieces of vital information and see if that helps you narrow down your choices. That will make picking who to bet easier and just might give you a heads-up on all those bettors who ignore the data they have at their disposal.
Jim Beviglia joined Gamblingsites.org as a staff writer in 2018, parlaying his years of freelance writing into contributions on a number of different topics. He handles the sport of horse racing for GamblingSites.org and the intersection between the worlds of cryptocurrency and online gambling in a weekly blog.
For his full-time job, Jim handles the television and track announcing duties at a h …