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How Much Would You Make Betting on the Kentucky Derby Favorite Each Year?

Bill Speros for Bookies.com

Bill Speros  | 9 mins

How Much Would You Make Betting on the Kentucky Derby Favorite Each Year?

Looking for a betting strategy ahead of the 150th Kentucky Derby?

Try this: Bet $100 across the board on the favorite on your sports betting app and just relax. 

If you had bet $100 on the favorite to win, place, and show over the past 31 Kentucky Derby races, you’d be up a nifty $4,150 during that span on what would have been $9,300 in total wagers. That equates to a $133.87 profit each year when betting $300. A tidy amount to invest elsewhere if you so desire. 

The 2024 Kentucky Derby will be run at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday, May 4. It remains the first entry in horse racing's Triple Crown, with the Preakness and Belmont Stakes following again at their traditional time slots this year. 

Post time for the "most exciting two minutes in sports" is scheduled for 6:57 p.m. EDT and the race will air on NBC. 

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Backing the Kentucky Derby Favorite

Here is a rundown of the past 31 Kentucky Derby races listed by year with the race favorite, the favorite's odds, finish, total winnings if you bet $100 on the horse to win, place and show, the winning horse, and its odds. 

Kentucky Derby Favorites, Odds & Payouts

Year Favorite Odds Finish $ Won Winning Horse Odds
2023 Angel of Empire 4.08 3 235 Mage 15.21
2022 Epicenter 4.1 2 630 Rich Strike 80.80
2021 Essential Quality 2.9 3 0 Mandaloun* 26.9
2020 Tiz The Law 1.75 2 330 Authentic 8.0
2019 Game Winner 6.8 5 0 Country Horse 65.0
2018 Justify 2.9 1 910 Justify 2.9
2017 Always Dreaming 4.7 1 1220 Always Dreaming 4.7
2016 Nyquist 2.3 1 750 Nyquist 2.3
2015 American Pharoah 2.9 1 890 American Pharoah 2.9
2014 California Chrome 2.5 1 840 California Chrome 2.5
2013 Orb 5.4 1 1280 Orb 5.4
2012 Bodemeister 4.2 2 590 I'll Have Another 15.3
2011 Dialed In 5.0 8 0 Animal Kingdom 20.9
2010 Lookin At Lucky 6.3 6 0 Super Saver 8.0
2009 Friesan Fire 3.8 18 0 Mine That Bird 50.6
2008 Big Brown 2.0 1 825 Big Brown 2.0
2007 Street Sense 4.9 1 1140 Street Sense 4.9
2006 Sweetnorthernsaint 5.5 7 0 Barbaro 6.1
2005 Bellamy Road 2.6 7 0 Giacomo 50.3
2004 Smarty Jones 4.1 1 1060 Smarty Jones 4.1
2003 Empire Maker 2.5 2 510 Funny Cide 12.8
2002 Harlan's Holiday 6.0 7 0 War Emblem 20.5
2001 Point Given 1.8 5 0 Monrachos 10.5
2000 Fusaichi Pegasus 2.3 1 810 Fusaichi Pegasus 2.3
1999 General Challenge 4.8 11 0 Charismatic 31.3
1998 Indian Charlie 2.7 3 210 Real Quiet 8.4
1997 Captain Bodgit 3.1 2 430 Silver Charm 4.0
1996 Unbridled's Song 3.5 5 0 Grindstone 5.0
1995 Timber Country 3.4 3 190 Thunder Gulch 24.5
1994 Holy Bull 2.2 12 0 Go For Gin 9.1
1993 Prairie Bayou 4.4 2 600 Sea Hero 12.9

(* - Medina Spirit disqualified. Essential Quality moved up to show position in February 2022 after race results were deemed official. All information was taken from the official Kentucky Derby charts as archived at KentuckyDerby.com.)

Drought Turned Into Deluge

Betting the Derby favorite was a losing proposition for several years. The favorite did not win from 1980-99. Things have changed markedly in the 21st Century. 

Caleb Keller is a horse racing analyst for FanDuel TV. He cites several reasons for this, starting with the belief that the betting public is now better informed in the age of real-time updates via social media and other platforms, and workouts now being open to the public. 

"A perfect example of this was in 2006, when Barbaro was a dominant force coming into the race and somehow wasn’t even the post-time favorite. He paid a very generous $14.20. If they ran that race this year, I think he would have paid closer to $8 as the favorite; he ended up having one of the biggest winning margins in Derby history beating the 2nd-place finisher by over 6 lengths that year. If people had more access to watching his workouts and training sessions, I am certain his odds would not have been as long as they were," Keller told Bookies.com via email. 

Another element helping the public be more successful, Keller believes, has been the adoption of the Kentucky Derby points system.

"Horses used to qualify based on how much they earned and graded in stakes races, but the current points system places more weight on races later in the season, as opposed to weighing all races equally throughout," he wrote. "I believe the favorites this year are worthy, and I do see the winner coming from one of the first 3 choices of the morning line."

2022 Delivered Biggest Long Shot in 100+ Years

Backing the Derby favorite has been a profitable, if not an exciting strategy, during the past 31 years. It has proven to be a solid backup plan for other, more exotic wagers with higher potential payoffs. 

Two years ago, Rich Strike stunned oddsmakers, handicappers, and most bettors. The horse was 30-1 on the morning line but swelled to 80-1 by post-time. Rich Strike's upset was the second-biggest in Derby history, trailing only the win of Donerail at 91-1 in 1913. Even more impressive was the fact that Rich Strike, being a late entry, had to win it from the No. 20 post. 

Rich Strike, who topped the also-eligible list for the race, slid into the Derby field the day before the race after Ethereal Road was scratched. The unheralded colt was 1–0–3 in seven lifetime starts before the Derby. His lone win was a claiming race in 2021. 

Rich Strike outlasted a deep Derby field after being down by as many as 17 lengths early. He drew away from Epicenter on the inside of the homestretch and took the Run for the Roses pulling away by 3/4th of a length. 

This was a marked change from the 2021 Derby. Mandaloun was officially declared the winner of that race in February 2022 after the late Medina Spirit, trained by Baffert, was disqualified. Spirit tested positive for a banned substance after the race but the issue took several months to settle. Race favorite Essential Quality (2.9-1) was moved up into the show position, but those tickets had long been rendered worthless given that the result that stood on race day - incorrect that it was - determined the payouts.

Last year, Mage rallied to win the Derby in only his 4th start, paying $32.42, $14.58, and $9.08. After multiple scratches, Angel of Empire went off as the favorite and finished third, paying $4.80 to show. Derby Week, however, was a somber affair as seven different horses died during the run-up to the Derby, including two on Derby Day in other races. 

Not all favorites are created equal. Tiz The Law was the priciest Derby favorite during this span, going off at 1.75-1 before finishing second to Authentic in 2020. 

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A Look Behind the Numbers & Winners

A breakdown of the last 31 Derby winners finds that 29 are colts and 2 geldings. The "average" Derby winner is a Kentucky-bred bay colt, starting from the 16 post position, ridden by a 36-year-old jockey and covering the 1 1/4-mile course in 2:04.31.

The favorite at online betting sites won the Kentucky Derby nine times overall in this span (29%) and in six straight runnings starting in 2013 with Orb. A bay colt, Orb closed at 5.4-1 and is the most lucrative favorite to win during this span. He returned $12.80, $7.40 and $5.40. In 2007, Street Sense won at 4.9-1 odds. Bettors using this system would have pocketed $1,140 on their investment that year. 

The biggest flop during this 30-year span from a numeric perspective, in addition to the aforementioned Tiz The Law, is Point Given. The horse was a 1.8-1 favorite in 2001 but ran fifth to winner Monarchos. 

Of the 18 horses that returned money on our chart, the average return was $688.56. Timber Country returned the least amount of our money winners, returning just $190 after running third behind Thunder Gulch in 1995. 

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About the Author

Bill Speros for Bookies.com
Bill Speros
Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist and editor whose career includes stops at USA Today Sports Network / Golfweek, Cox Media, ESPN, Orlando Sentinel and Denver Post.