Playing the Ponies: The Allure of the Future Wager

Betting on horse racing, especially the Kentucky Derby, can be an attractive circumstance that can also result in frustration.

Updated: Dec. 5, 2018 • 9:55 AM ET


Hopes and futures can ride on a single horse racing wager, while others are minor.

There is something oddly reprehensible, yet strangely alluring, about a wager whose result will not take place for several months.

Of course, if you go to Las Vegas, there are seemingly limitless opportunities to make these kinds of wagers and copious odds to be had. You could bet on the sex of Prince Harry’s kid, or who will be the next President in 2020 (my money’s on John Kasich by the way). Horse racing, of course, has similar future wagers; one of them that has developed into several stages are pools that lead up to the Kentucky Derby.

The first one, which lasted over the Thanksgiving holiday, just ended, while others run where you can bet the sire of the eventual Derby winner or on the Kentucky Oaks (the featured fillies’ race, which takes place on Friday). There are three more of these betting opportunities throughout the spring related to who the betting public thinks will win the Derby: Pool 2 is set for February 8th-10th, Pool 3 for March 8th-10th and Pool 4 for April 5th-7th.

Typically, the first pool in November is the toughest, since two-year-old horses haven’t yet turned three and May feels a long way off. This year, there were 22 horses to pick from and one could make a $2 wager or higher on any or all of them. You also had the option of playing the odds and going with the “fillies” category or taking the “rest of the field,” which constitutes any horse not on the list of 22 that might get in the mix and win the run for the roses (rundown of all horses and odds).

Of the 22 horses, the undefeated, Bob Baffert-trained (surprise!) Game Winner took the top prize as a 5-1 favorite, which means a $2 bet would bring $13.80 if he won the Derby. Bettors thought well enough about him, as they handed over $22,022 aggregately to back him — a tidy sum.

The impossible three-year-old fillies wager brought $2,276, and a $2 bet on any of them would net $135 at that rate. This is an insanely difficult wager, because fillies really have no chance of even making the Derby nowadays since the points system restructure.

Finally, the most popular wager was the “All Others” category. That pot reached $65,556 at 6-5, which would turn $2 into $4.60 if any three-year-old male not on the list wins the prize.

Last week, turf writer and handicapper Vance Hanson wrote in a weekly piece that playing Game Winner at the end of Pool 1, as opposed to the “rest of the field,” would be a preferred wager, especially considering past history.

I’m not so sure about that declaration, as I’m firmly against the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. It’s a scheme, like the South Sea Bubble of the 1720s, the Clinton’s Whitewater fiasco, or Lewis Carrol’s White Rabbit. It’s all a mirage — tempting the tempted.

I understand its purpose and acknowledge it. Twin Spires, the company that owns Churchill Downs, is after the creation of buzz because they’re all about the Derby and not much else. To boot, it’s winter; and with the cold whipping around at Aqueduct and horses repairing to Santa Anita and Gulfstream Parks, the Derby Trail needs the ringing of bell, I suppose.

Is this a wager that’s playing more than just a little on people’s emotions? An even better question might be, is there any skill in this?

In my mind, the short answer is absolutely not. Wagering on horse races should be in the moment of the race itself. Pure handicapping is a skill that’s something to be honed and polished. To put it more bluntly, any fool can pull a lever.

To be sure, there’s something enticing about getting better odds on a horse than on Derby Day, or being able to brag to your pals that you “had it” months before is certainly gratifying. These are crumbs though. Why not wait for the bulging pools of that first Saturday in May?

Be patient punters! Look to Tampa Bay Downs for some great Maiden Special Weight turf contests, or that hidden gem that is Hawthorne Race Course outside of Chicago with its low takeout?

One more gentle reminder that we might recall: As the old saying in gambling goes, “if you’re sitting around the table trying to figure out who the mark is, then it’s probably you.”

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