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Kentucky Derby Odds: Picking a Winner Using a History of Horse Names

Justify at the 2018 Belmont Stakes.
Justify, seen here at the 2018 Belmont Stakes, won the 2018 Triple Crown, continuing a seven-year losing streak for horses with three-word names at the Kentucky Derby. Photo by Mike Lizzi (Wiki Commons)
  • The 2019 Kentucky Derby takes place on Saturday, May 4, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY
  • Did you know that a horse with a three-word name hasn’t won in seven years?
  • Take a fun look back that the historic handles of Derby-winning horses

It’s not an understatement to call the Kentucky Derby the “Super Bowl of horse racing.” Like its football counterpart, the Derby draws substantial interest — particularly betting interest — from legions of people who don’t otherwise follow the sport. (There’s also a ton of filler in the broadcast, but I digress.)

On May 4th, the 145th annual Run for the Roses will take place in Louisville. The field is set (barring injuries) and the favorites have been established.

One common trend among neophyte horse bettors — those who go to the track more for socializing than gambling — is to bet based on the names that stand out. I can’t intuit which names in the 2019 field will have mass appeal, but I can break down some interesting name trends among the victorious few from Derby history.

One that stands out, in particular, is that a horse with a three-word name hasn’t won the Derby since I’ll Have Another in 2012, and their success-rate over the last 50 years is even worse. (More on that below.)

As you can see in the first table, below, our odds for the 2019 Derby ever-so-slightly favor a horse with a one-word name crossing the line first.

SBD’s Kentucky Derby Props and Odds

Kentucky Derby Props SBD’s Odds
Winning horse has a one-word name 4/3
Winning horse has a two-word name 3/2
Winning horse has a three-word name 5/1
Winning horse has a name that starts with a vowel 3/2
Winning horse has a name that is a noun 3/7

The odds that a two-word name is victorious are almost identical,  but not quite, while the three-word horses are bringing up the rear, so to speak.

As the next table shows, the top-five favorites are all one-word or two-word names, even though six of the 20 horses in the field have a three-word name.

Early 2019 Kentucky Derby Odds

2019 Kentucky Derby Contenders Odds
Omaha Beach +375
Roadster +450
Game Winner +500
Improbable +650
Tacitus +800
Maximum Security +1000
Code of Honor +1400
War of Will +1600
Vekoma +1800
Cutting Humor +2200
By My Standards +2500
Tax +2500
Win Win Win +2500
Haikal +2800
Spinoff +2800
Country House +3300
Long Range Toddy +3300
Plus Que Parfait +3300
Gray Magician +5000
Master Fencer +6600

One-Word vs Two-Word vs Three-Word Names

In the last 50 years, only seven horses with a three-word name have won the Derby: I’ll Have Another (2012), Mine That Bird (2009), Go for Gin (1994), Lil E. Tee (1992), Strike the Gold (1991), Spend a Buck (1985), and Gato Del Sol (1982).

By contrast, two-word horses have claimed 28 (56%) of the last 50 Derbys, and one-word horses have won 15 (30%).

The best bets to break the three-word curse this year are Code of Honor and War of Will, but the latter has been stuffed in Gate 1, which hasn’t produced a winner since 1986.

The other three-word horses are all pretty sizable longshots: By My Standards (+2500), Win Win Win (+2500), Long Range Toddy (+3300), and Plus Que Parfait (+3300).

Kentucky Derby Name Trends

50-Year Trend Number
One-name winners 15
Two-name winners 28
Three-name winners 7

Vowels vs Consonants

The other trend that stood out immediately is that an outsized number of recent winners have had a name that starts with a vowel.

Side note: It doesn’t matter whether you include Y, because a Y-name has never won the Derby. Also, there are no Y-names in the 2019 edition.

As you can see in the next table, five of the last ten champions (50%) have started with a vowel.

However, over the 145-year history of the Derby, only 19 vowel-names have won. That’s just 13.1%, even though vowels comprise 19.2% of the English alphabet.

Last 10 Kentucky Derby Winners

Kentucky Derby Winner Year
Justify 2018
Always Dreaming 2017
Nyquist 2016
American Pharoah 2015
California Chrome 2014
Orb 2013
I’ll Have Another 2012
Animal Kingdom 2011
Super Saver 2010
Mine that Bird 2009

This year, there are only two vowel-name horses in the field, but they are both among the favorites.

Omaha Beach is the outright favorite, sitting around +375 on the morning line.

Improbable was around +650 and may be a sleeping giant based on SBD’s in-house Kentucky Derby odds formula.

Nouns vs The Field

The majority of racehorses seem to be named after things — i.e. they are nouns before being applied as a moniker to a horse — at least if the Derby fields are representative.

Yet, over the past ten years, there have been an equal number of noun-winners and non-noun-winners. Compare that to the ten years prior (1999-2008) when eight of ten winners were noun-names. Only Charismatic and Big Brown broke through, and Big Brown is debatable!

Kentucky Derby Winners: 1999-2008

Kentucky Derby Winner Year
Big Brown 2008
Street Sense 2007
Barbaro 2006
Giacomo 2005
Smarty Jones 2004
Funny Cide 2003
War Emblem 2002
Moncarchos 2001
Fusaichi Pegasus 2000
Charismatic 1999

The 2019 field is dominated by nouns. Excepting Improbable at +650, all of the other top-five favorites have a noun-name: Omaha Beach, Road Winner, Game Winner, and Tacitus (named after a Roman historian).

By my count, 15 of the 20 horses in the field have a noun-name, in total, and that’s being generous by putting Win Win Win in the non-nouns.

In all likelihood, nouns are poised to break non-nouns two-year win streak this year, unless our in-house darling Improbable beats the morning-line odds.

For the record, we do not advise wagering substantial sums of money based on the history of winning names. But it’s still fun to look at the lighter side of an event that generates so many random betting “strategies.”


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