Billy Reed’s Guide to Picking Derby Winners

Billy Reed may be the world’s greatest authority on the Kentucky Derby. We’re fortunate here at to have permission to publish this piece, with a special thanks to

By Billy Reed

Billy says the name has to look good on the sign

I have been on the Kentucky Derby trail since 1964 and have actually picked and bet on a few winners over the last 44 years, most recently Super Saver in last year’s event. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I almost must admit that in 1973 I picked Sham over…uh, gosh, what was that winner’s name? Seems like a movie was made about him recently, but I’m not sure.

Over all these years, I’ve grown amused at the individuals, some of whom are even intelligent, who have tried to develop a foolproof “system” for picking the Derby winner. I well remember the “Dosage Index,” which was based mainly on breeding. It narrowed the field to only a few “qualifiers” and was highly popular until a couple of “non-qualifiers” stomped it under their hooves in the 1990s.

My good friend Schwartz, who died last year, was a degenerate gambler who came to Louisville every spring weighted down with charts, graphs, formulas, theories, and “figs,” which is how gamblers refer to the esoteric systems based on race times. He would stay up until late at night, getting computer printouts on past performances.

As best I can recall, Schwartz’s only winner in recent years came when he beat the Oaks-Derby double, coupling the great Rachel Alexandra in the Oaks with everybody in the next day’s Derby. He was quite proud of himself. I couldn’t believe that a professional handicapper, somebody who actually got paid to pick winners, could be reduced to that.

Whenever I talk to novices about gambling, I tell them two things: Don’t bet more than you can afford to lose and have fun. By having fun, I mean don’t get intimidated about all that information in The Daily Racing Form or even the track program. Trust me, you don’t have to be a genius to win at the races. You just have to be lucky.

So come up with your own system. If you want to bet on the color of the jockeys’ silks or the Horses’ names, go for it. If you want to bet on your favorite jockey or trainer, be my guest. I promise your chances of winning are every bit as good as the poor schmuck who believes that handicapping is a science that can be mastered with diligent study.

Between now and the Derby, I’m going to discuss a few “systems” that you might want to consider. Please feel free to print and save for future reference.

I’ve always believed that the gods of racing do not want badly named Horses to win the Kentucky Derby. For example, there’s a good reason that no Horse with one of those hideous run-together names – Imawildandcrazyguy, for example – has never won the roses: It just wouldn’t look right painted in gilded letters on the clubhouse wall at Churchill Downs.

I must admit, however, that sometimes the gods of racing test me sorely. For example, I eliminated Mine That Bird because I thought the name was stupid and nonsensical. So imagine my chagrin as I sat there and watched Calvin Borel guide that colt from last to first, in and out of traffic, on the first Saturday in May, 2009.

That turned out to be a cruel joke on everybody because, after the Derby, Mine That Bird reverted to the form we all thought he had. I don’t think he ever won another race. He will go down in history as one of the worst Derby winners ever.

I also dismissed Lil E. Tee in 1992 simply because I hated the name. How could you bet him in a filed that had clever names like Casual Lies, Dance Floor, and Devil His Due? But what I didn’t know until after the race was that the racing gods had decided that May 2, 1992, was Pat Day’s time to win the Derby. That trumped his colt’s unfortunate name.

Of racing’s 11 Triple Crown winners, all have regal names that have resonated through history except Seattle Slew. I didn’t particularly care for the name, but I also didn’t think it was as bad as Sir Sir, who also was in the 1977 Derby. Besides, I fell in love with Slew and his crew. He remains probably my favorite Derby winner.

Looking at this year’s Derby field from the standpoint of names, I’m eliminating Archarcharch, Comma To The Top, Mucho Macho Man (ugh!), Nehro, Pants On Fire, Stay Thirsty, and Twinspired.

Yeah, I know a lot of bettors will think Twinspired is the perfect name for a Derby winner. But if he wins, that will only remind me of how sad I am about how the twin spires have been dwarfed by those awful luxury-suite towers on either side. So I’m eliminating him for personal reasons.

But that leaves 13 acceptable names, an unusually large number. After considerable deliberation, I’ve decided the four I like best are Anthony’s Cross, Decisive Moment, Midnight Interlude, and Soldat.

If you like the name system, you might want to use those four in a $2 exacta box (cost: $30). That means if any of the four finish 1-2, in any order, you will be happy enough to take me to dinner at Pat’s Steak House.