Is the Derby Third-Place Finisher the Easiest to Predict?

Is the Derby Third-Place Finisher the Easiest to Predict?

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Over the last fifteen years, we’ve seen many huge longshots win or finish in the superfecta in the Kentucky Derby. Horses like Giacomo and Mine That Bird have won the “Run for the Roses” at odds of 50-1, while several huge longshots have finished second, including Closing Argument at 71-1, Commanding Curve at 37-1, and Golden Soul at 34-1.

But while you would think that the usual blend of favorites and longshots that comprise the Derby superfecta would spread out evenly across the top four finishing positions, this hasn’t been the case. And believe it or not, over the last fifteen years, the third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby has been the easiest to predict–even easier than the winner, despite the fact that there have been six winning favorites during the last fifteen years.

Since 2001, the average odds of the horses that finished first, second, third, and fourth in the Derby are as follows:

1st 14.48-1
2nd 21.56-1
3rd 10.49-1
4th 21.64-1

While the average odds of the second- and fourth-place finishers are very close to the hypothetical 20-1 odds of any given horse finishing in any given position in a 20-horse field, the average odds of the third-place finishers have been half that, coming in at a surprisingly low 10.49-1. Furthermore, if you exclude the third-place finishers with the highest and lowest odds during the last fifteen years, the average odds drop to 9.68-1–into the single-digit range.

Of course, the sample size of fifteen years might not be large enough to be truly significant, but it does suggest that if a Derby longshot is ready to run well, they are more likely to run huge and finish first or second rather than third, which seems to be a position most often occupied by well-regarded runners that ran their race, but just weren’t good enough to finish in the exacta.

Taking all this into account, it might be wise to include more favorites for third place when playing trifectas and superfectas and lean toward including longshots for second or fourth instead. Of course, this could very well be the year when a 70-1 shot finishes third and blows up the premise of this theory, but at the very least, the trend of low-priced third-place finishers in the Derby is something to keep in mind. Good luck!

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Follow J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman"):

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, blogger, videographer, and all-around horse racing enthusiast who was drawn to the sport by Curlin's quest to become North America's richest racehorse. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He lives in Wisconsin and also writes for the blog Unlocking Winners.

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Mr Knowitall

I beat you to this theory on one of the Bloodhorse Blogs. I pointed out that in the past 25 years 21/25 or 84% of the time a horse 15/1 or under has finished 3rd besting the 18/25 or 72% of the time a horse with the same odds of 15/1 or less won or placed. 14/25 or 56% of the time a horse 15/1 or less finished 4th with the other 11 finishing 4th had odds between 20/1 and 30/1.