How to pick a Kentucky Derby winner

Horse racing, like the stock market, is full of opportunities. You just have to know how to find them. Just ask Warren Buffett. As an enterprising preteen, he hung around Omaha's Ak-Sar-Ben horse-racing complex and started a tip sheet called Stable Boy Selections that he sold for 25 cents. When he was finally of legal betting age, he poured over racing statistics to figure out the probability of each horse winning the race – a skill that certainly came in handy in his next career.

But you need not be the Oracle of Omaha to pick a winning horse, says Dean Keppler, author of Kentucky Derby: How to Wager and Win on America's Biggest Horse Race. The Run for the Roses, as the Derby is known, is a good place to find this out.

Thanks to the onslaught of casual racing fans drawn to the pageantry of the Derby, the brevity of the race and too many mint juleps, it offers one of the best betting opportunities not just in horse racing but in all sports.

"It's an opportunity to get higher payoffs than you would ordinarily see on a regular day at the racetrack," says Keppler. "The pools are enormous and a majority of the fans are fledgling bettors wagering on cute names, numbers etc."

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In Pictures: Largest Kentucky Derby payouts

Indeed, from those in the infield to those in Millionaire Row to those in Vegas and various off-track betting sites, $118 million is wagered on the Kentucky Derby.

To get in on the action, all you need are $1 to wager and racing's bible, the Daily Racing Form (DRF). After that Keppler says picking a winner boils down to a few fundamentals.

•Speed. The most practical starting point for picking a winner is checking out the Beyer Speed Figures printed exclusively in the DRF. These figures are a numerical representation of a horse's performance, based on the final time of the race and the inherent speed over the track in which it was run. Figures are interchangeable from track to track, despite the surface, distance or class level. Simply, it is a way to compare one horse against another by how fast he runs. The higher the Beyer Speed Figure, the better the performance.

A good point of reference in picking your Derby winner is this: The average winning Derby Beyer Speed Figure is 109. Big Brown earned exactly a 109 winning last year's edition. This year's leaders by the numbers: I Want Revenge (113), Dunkirk (108) and Friesan Fire (104).

•Experience. Of course the need for speed has to be balanced against the horse's experience. Not since Apollo in 1882 has a horse won the Derby without first racing as a 2-year-old. Since 1944, 53 horses have come into the Derby bearing that cross. Just six have finished in the money, most recently Curlin, who was third in 2007.

But here's where size matters. No entry in the last 62 years has won the Derby without having run a mile and an eighth. Keppler recommends your selection must show a win or sharp second in such a race.

It's also a good idea to pick a horse that has run in one of the "big three" prep races. Overall, 45 percent of the Derby winners have emerged from one of them: Blue Grass (23), Wood Memorial (19) and Florida Derby (19).

•Handling. Unlike coached team sports, horse racing is one that depends on the performance of its management, specifically the trainer and jockey, and their record. Keppler says to avoid those who are winless the first Saturday in May, until they prove otherwise.

Among the 2009 field, Dunkirk trainer Todd Pletcher has gone 0 for 21 at the Derby. Mr. Hot Stuff jockey John Velazquez Jr. has been cold in 0 of 9 Derby starts.

Pioneer of the Nile's trainer, Bob Baffert, on the other hand, is going for his fourth Derby victory. His past winners include Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002).

On the flip side, it's also important to see how the horse handles itself in workouts the week before the event. Although sharp workouts are common leading up to the race, those Derby hopefuls that work poorly rarely run well on race day. The DRF updates its Web site daily with workout information.

One overrated factor Keppler advises to ignore? The horse's post position at the starting gate. Big Brown did it from the extreme outside, Post 20, last year, and horses breaking from the auxiliary gate (post 15 and higher) are a combined eight for 134 in the history of the race, but six of those wins have occurred in the last 13 years.

Keppler's last piece of advice: Don't bet the favorite. Only 51 of the post-time favorites have ever won the Kentucky Derby. Plus, the beauty of a long shot winner is that the payouts are always better. Check out the largest payouts in Derby History, including the most famous, Donerail, whose 1913 win still stands as the biggest long shot in the event's history, paying off at $184.20.

And should you lose? As Keppler will quickly point out, the Preakness is just two weeks away.

The top five payouts:

1. Donerail (1913): Slideshow
2. Giacomo (2005): Slideshow
3. Gallahadion (1940): Slideshow
4. Charismatic (1999): Slideshow
5. Proud Clarion (1967): Slideshow
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In Pictures: Largest Kentucky Derby payouts