2018 Kentucky Derby Preview: Odds and Endings


That word best describes the point I reach each spring as I apply lessons learned from my 26 years of Kentucky Derby research. The stories the media shares about the contenders and their human connections vary year to year, but the race’s ending almost always turns out the same. Speed rules.

From 1992 through 2012, betting on Derby entrants who showed above average early speed in prep races generated huge profits. The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby documents in detail this convergence of speed and exceptional betting value.

The Lazy Bettor top pick has emerged victorious all four years since the book’s publication. The handicapping angle remains solid. However, with all four winners favored in the betting, some readers might question whether the value portion of the equation remains intact.

Can I build a statistically sound case for betting on Lazy Bettor top horses who are favored in a 20-horse field? Or am I forced to rationalize my way into making that wager?

In The Lazy Bettor’s Guide I show that horses qualifying under my strictest criteria, the Gold Standard, won 9 of the 14 races in which they appeared from 1992 through 2013. With Gold Standard horses (American Pharoah and Always Dreaming) winning the only two solid gold races since then, that record now stands at 11 for 16.

Given this rate of success, winning payouts of 2-1 ring up as acceptable. The nearly 5-2 odds offered for American Pharoah in 2015 rate as a solid value. And the 9-2 odds served up for Always Dreaming stand as downright generous.

Despite the clear performance and value advantages of the Lazy Bettor approach, most analysts cling to the perception that betting the favorite in a 20-horse race is a losing proposition. They deride the winning bettors of the past four years as chalk-eaters or masters of the obvious. And they do so while ringing up poor win percentages themselves and abysmal Derby ROIs. They fail to see the factor that separates the real contenders from the overmatched animals filling most of the Derby starting gate.

Because The Lazy Bettor’s Guide focuses on pace, its Gold Standard horses are unlikely to be outpaced or worn down by the pace. Because part of the standard measures rate- ability, Gold Standard horses are also unlikely to get caught up in a speed duel at too fast of a pace. And because the standard insists on a certain level of late-running ability, these qualifiers seldom fade down the stretch. Their opponents, conversely, find themselves outpaced, worn out by a horse with superior pace performance and unable to persist late in the race, even at their lower rate of speed. Lazy Bettor Silver Standard horses hold similar advantages in performance and running style.

The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby has proven to be the clearest and most effective path to picking Kentucky Derby winners. Four winners in the four years since

publication. And research pointing to 22 years of success prior to that. The decades-long positive ROI of this method continues to the present day. Perhaps lazy bettors will need to accept 5-2 more often than the 5-1 and higher offered in the past. That’s still a healthy profit margin garnered with steady returns.

Welcome to a better way of betting this American classic horse race!

The 2018 Gold Standard Qualifier

When I created the Gold and Silver standards for my book, I didn’t intend for them to be hard-and-fast rules. But I needed well-defined parameters to show that my overall approach was effective. In my past Derby previews I noted when a Silver Standard horse should probably be considered a Gold Standard qualifier even though the horse fell slightly short of that higher standard. Both California Chrome and Nyquist earned that recommended boost in stature from me.

The importance of being flexible with my published standards increases every year. Training patterns tilt toward fewer and fewer prep races. That leaves top contenders with fewer opportunities to race up to the high level of performance demonstrated by Derby winners of decades past. Bettors must fill in more blanks now than 10, 15 or 20 years ago.

This year I again cut a little slack for one particularly impressive runner and promoted him to Gold Standard status.


You’ve likely heard or read the cavalcade of accolades for this horse. Mixed in with the compliments, you’ve heard repeated warnings about his lack of experience or the century-long failure of horses unraced at 2 who attempt to win the Kentucky Derby. I want to offer a new compliment that demonstrates Justify’s superiority in terms of actual performance. And I won’t add any asterisks or caveats to my praise.

Only four horses since 1992 qualified for my “Superfast” Gold Standard criteria. They did so by logging early fractions that far exceeded typical definitions of “fast.” Two of those qualifiers (Sea Hero and Silver Charm) and went on to win the Kentucky Derby. Justify came amazingly close to that standard in only the second race of his career. Much like the lightly raced 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown, Justify missed qualifying as Superfast by just two-fifths of a second. The raw talent he possesses is rare indeed!

After nearly equaling a standard matched by only four horses in the past 25 years of Kentucky Derby prep races (that’s about 500 races and 5,000 top-level horses), Justify won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. In that race he soundly defeated Bolt d’Oro, the best 3-year-old stakes runner on the West Coast.

The figures I use to measure early speed place Justify on the same level as recent Kentucky Derby winners Orb (2013), California Chrome (2014) and American Pharoah (2015):

Orb: 93

California Chrome: 94 

American Pharoah: 92 

Justify: 93

Justify also enters the Kentucky Derby with the largest pace-superiority gap over his opponents: a four-length early pace advantage over his next fastest rival. It’s unlikely that any entrant in this year’s race will tire him out early.

The only question remaining is whether such a lightly prepared horse can stretch that tremendous speed to a mile and a quarter. In the early stages of the Santa Anita Derby he cooperated fully with his jockey in slowing down and rationing his speed. In the final few furlongs he unleashed that conserved energy to great effect. He flew through the stretch with gusto while extending his lead all the way to the finish. And he did it with such ease that Bolt d’Oro’s highly accomplished jockey, Javier Castellano, decided to look for a different Derby mount.

Castellano’s departure from the Bolt d’Oro camp reminds me of the character in the movie Jaws who first sees the enormity of the shark. After recovering from his astonishment he tells the ship’s captain, “I think we’re going to need a bigger boat.” Javier is off in search of a bigger boat.

There you have it. No caveats. No asterisks. Accept odds as low as 2-1 on Justify if they’re offered. If bettors send him to the starting gate at odds any higher than that, consider stretching your betting comfort zone at least slightly and getting more action in.

Silver Standard Standouts

Two horses qualified for the Lazy Bettor Silver Standard.

Magnum Moon

After watching Magnum Moon win the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in early spring, I was convinced he’d be my Kentucky Derby selection. He sat third, between horses. That meant he had some dirt kicked in his face. He felt bookended pressure from two or three equally fast early runners. And then he left all his rivals in the dust and won in impressive time for the distance.

Magnum Moon’s next race, his final Derby prep, failed to improve on that effort. In some ways his Arkansas Derby victory seemed like a step backwards.

Gulfstream Park’s leading rider Luis Saez piloted Magnum Moon that day. He had been aboard for all of Magnum Moon’s prior races, all of which were victories. Coming

around the final turn, Saez attempted to cut the corner and hold Moonie tight to the rail. But Magnum Moon started drifting out and continued drifting out badly for nearly a sixteenth of a mile.

Either greenness or soreness allowed centrifugal force to dominate his run through that final turn. And neither condition counts as a positive as Magnum Moon stretches out further and runs in a thicker crowd. Saez said the horse shied from the tire tracks left by the starting gate, but the drifting began well before horse and rider arrived there and continued well after passing the tracks.

The good news is that despite drifting out, Magnum Moon posted a sizzling 11.99 second final furlong!

You’ll find better odds on Magnum Moon than on Justify, as well as a slight edge in experience. Further improvement will put him on or near par with Justify, but a bet on Magnum Moon leaves you banking slightly more on hope than on demonstrated ability.


Flameaway qualified for the Silver Standard with his hard-fought win in the Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay. After posting two front-running victories, Flameaway got cut off at the start of the Tampa Bay Derby and then launched a race-long rally to finish a fast- closing second.

Like Malibu Moon he has shown above-average speed and great versatility. With odds likely to be 30-1 or higher, he is a must play.

Why Trust the Lazy Bettor Approach?

Prior to the book’s publication in 2013, Gold Standard horses won the Kentucky Derby 9 times in the 14 years a horse qualified. Although some years fielded more than one qualifier, the overall ROI if you bet on all of them equally amounted to +207 percent.

After the book’s publication, only four horses met the Gold Standard. American Pharoah, Firing Line and Dortmund competed against one another in 2015, finishing first, second and third. In 2017 Always Dreaming cruised to victory as that year’s only Gold Standard qualifier.

An interesting sidenote to the success of Always Dreaming is the Kentucky Derby travails of his trainer, Todd Pletcher. Pletcher ranks as one of the greatest trainers in US history, but prior to 2017 he sent only one of his 45 Derby starters to the winner’s circle. Many bettors disregarded Always Dreaming for this reason. Pletcher’s one Derby winner, however, was his only Gold Standard qualifier: Super Saver. With the victory by Always Dreaming, Pletcher now holds a perfect 2 for 2 record when sending a Gold Standard horse postward in the Kentucky Derby.

In the four years since the book’s publication, the DRF’s top Beyer Speed Figure pointed to only one Derby winner, California Chrome, as did the top BRIS speed figure. The top Lazy Bettor horse won all four times.

My post-mortem research of 22 runnings of the Kentucky Derby (from 1992 through 2013) pointed out Kentucky Derby winners at an enviable and incomparable rate. My pre-race picks since then confirm the superiority of these methods.

Betting the 2018 Kentucky Derby

Top Pick: #7 Justify
2nd Best: #4 Flameaway
3 rd Choice: #16 Malibu Moon

I recommend betting primarily on Justify, with Flameaway and Malibu Moon as minor backups. In other words arrange your bets so that your largest potential payoff will be with a victory by Justify.

Bet a smaller amount on the longshot Flameaway and Malibu Moon. Arrange these secondary bets so that your return is about the same on either.