The Study

The Kentucky Derby: Can You Beat the Odds?

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The 137th Kentucky Derby will be run on May 7th in Churchill Downs, Kentucky. The twenty-horse field is considered relatively wide-open this year, with Uncle Mo still the favorite, but only at 3-1 after coming down with a gastrointestinal infection and losing at the Wood Memorial earlier this month. Regardless of who wins, though, organizers expect attendees will uphold the twin traditions of outrageous hats and copious consumption of mint juleps. At the track and across the country, gamblers will be hoping to cash in on their hunches and "foolproof" strategies, but is any strategy really "foolproof?" Can you beat the odds?

Three years ago, professors from Butler University and the College of Charleston studied data from Derbies between 1920 and 2005 to see if a "consistently successful wager" was possible. They looked at whether the posted odds reflected generally available pre-race knowledge, such as the previous Derby experience of a horse's handlers, the track conditions, the size of the field, and so forth. They determined that the experience of a horse's handlers increased its chances of winning, but this increase, and the effect of almost every other variable, was reflected in the pre-race odds. There was only one exception to this finding: a more experienced jockey was more likely to finish "in the money" (in the top 3) than the odds would suggest. The authors caution, however, that the difference was small enough that the monetary advantage would likely not be noticeable. If you do win some cash, though, I wouldn't say no to a cut. How about it?

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