We Asked AI to Predict Kentucky Derby Winners—Here Are Its Picks - Decrypt (2024)

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In the world of horse racing, tomorrow's Kentucky Derby is the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the NBA Finals all rolled into one. The “greatest two minutes in sports” is the marquee matchup in a series of over a dozen races, but if predicting the outcome of the March Madness basketball tourney is tricky, it gets even harder when you combine both human and equine unpredictability.

Throw in factors like the weather and conditions of each race track, and the odds of picking winners—the obsession that drives the $500 billion horse racing market—are not exactly in your favor.

In one 20-horse race, the odds of correctly picking the winner are simply 1 in 20. But wagering on horse races can get complicated. If you want to predict the exact order of the top two, three, or four horses, known as an exacta, trifecta, and superfecta, the odds skyrocket to 1 in 380, 1 in 6,840, and 1 in 103,025.

But wait! There's more! Players often “box” their choices to increase the chance of winning. This means they bet on all possible combinations of their favored horses. The odds of winning a boxed exotic bet are better than playing them straight, 1 in 190 for a boxed exacta, 1 in 1,140 for a boxed trifecta, and 1 in 16,215 for a boxed superfecta. However, the payouts are also reduced accordingly.

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Some bettors might relish the prospect of spending hours poring over stats and racing forms, but we invested our time in creating a tool to get us to an answer more quickly—meanwhile crafting a system that can be called up when the next Kentucky Derby draws near.

Enter AI

There are a variety of ways to enlist artificial intelligence in horse racing. You could process reams of data based on your own methodology, trust a third-party pre-trained model, or even build a bespoke solution from the ground up. We decided to build a GPT we named it HorseGPT to crunch the numbers and make the picks for us.

A GPT is a type of AI agent built atop a large language model like ChatGPT from market leader OpenAI. A customized agent works with a set of pre-defined prompts and training data to guide its behavior. This approach is less complex than training a model from the ground up, but proved to be good enough to pick winners and defend those choices.

We did start from scratch in one sense: we were completely new to playing the horses, and don't know the first thing about “handicapping nags” or other terms of art. The most popular AI chatbots were similarly ignorant at first.

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We carefully curated prompts to instill HorseGPT with expertise in data science specific to horse racing: how weather affects times, the role of jockeys and riding styles, the importance of post positions, and so on. We then fed it a mix of research papers and blogs covering the theoretical aspects of wagering, and layered on practical knowledge: how to read racing forms, what the statistics mean, which factors are most predictive, expert betting strategies, and more.

Finally, we gave HorseGPT a wealth of historical Kentucky Derby data, arming it with the raw information needed to put its freshly imparted skills to use.

We unleashed HorseGPT on official racing forms for this year's Derby. We asked HorseGPT to carefully analyze each race's form, identify the top contenders, and recommend wager types and strategies based on deep background knowledge derived from race statistics.

The big four

Without further ado, here are HorseGPT's predictions for the 150th “Running of the Roses” at the 2024 Kentucky Derby on Saturday. The main race is race number 12.

Given the profiles of the horses and their racing styles, here’s its recommended betting strategy:

  • Win Bets: Place win bets on both Sierra Leone and Fierceness. These horses have demonstrated consistent performance and high potential for winning, making them solid choices for direct win bets.
  • Each-Way Bet: Consider an each-way bet on Just a Touch. This horse shows potential but might not be as strong a favorite as the others, offering a good balance for a bet that covers both winning and placing.

As for so-called exotic bets?

  • Exacta Box: Box Sierra Leone and Fierceness in an exacta. This bet will win if either horse finishes first and the other second, in any order.
  • Trifecta Box: Box Sierra Leone, Fierceness, and Just a Touch. This covers more combinations, increasing the chance of a high payout if these top contenders finish in the top three in any order.
  • Superfecta Bet: For a higher-risk but higher-reward bet, place a superfecta picking Sierra Leone, Fierceness, Just a Touch, and include a dark horse like Mystik Dan or Domestic Product based on their potential to outperform expectations under muddy conditions.

A second and third opinion

To double and triple check our work, we did give other powerful AI tools and models a spin.However, building agents with Claude or Reka required API credits and careful coding. Cutting to the chase, we attempted to rely on their respective massive training datasets, building an elaborate prompt to secure their winning picks.

Interestingly enough, our HorseGPT AI agent and the other out-of-the-box chatbots seemed to agree with each other, and with many experts analysts cited by the official Kentucky Derby website. Just a Touch was the only aberration. HorseGPT put it in a top-three spot, but the other experts—AI and human—went with Catching Freedom instead.

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That said, some human experts like James Cully and Kaitilin Free are also optimistic about Just a TOuch.

The top three by consensus among our AIs and our mixed slate of experts is to bet on Sierra Leone, Fierceness, and Catching Freedom.

We Asked AI to Predict Kentucky Derby Winners—Here Are Its Picks - Decrypt (1)

Hold your horses

We didn't know how to read a racing form, but HorseGPT could break down each statistic and factor in mere minutes after being coached with prompts and research material. We may not be handicapping savants, but we fed our model information provided by experts. That's the power of these large language models: if you know how to work with a chatbot, but once you've ‘taught’ them and fed them high-quality information, they rapidly acquire domain expertise.

But before you rush off to place bets—if allowed under the laws of your local jurisdiction—remember that predicting anything as messy as humans—whether it's bracketology, horse racing, or even stock market trends—requires nuance. AI and conventional mathematic models analyze past performance and make predictions based on "ceteris paribus," or status quo, conditions.

But they can't predict extraordinary circ*mstances like an injury, a sudden rain, or a jockey or horse simply having a bad day. That unpredictability, of course, is part of the thrill.

Bonus picks for the other races

Unlike a human bettor, HorseGPT doesn't tire of crunching numbers. So we also asked our AI model to digest the racing form for each of the other eleven races this weekend. The amount of data available was not the same, admittedly, but HorseGPT applied the same methodology. For the completists, here were the results.

Race 1:

Win Bet: Pure Force is a strong candidate for a win bet given his solid workouts, strong breeding, and trainer's track record.

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Exotic Bets:

  • Exacta: Box Pure Force and Evan On Earth. Both horses have shown good form and could end up as the top two.
  • Trifecta: Box Pure Force, Evan On Earth, and Top Gun Rocket. Adding Top Gun Rocket could catch a mid-pack finisher improving with equipment changes.
  • Superfecta: Add Lou's Legacy to the trifecta box for a superfecta bet, banking on his consistency to grab a lower-tier finish.

Race 2:

Win Bet: Scylla due to strong performances and favorable conditions.

Exotic Bets:

  • Exacta Box: Play with Scylla, Coppa Girl, and Joke Sisi.
  • Trifecta Box: Add Steel Racer for depth given the competitive ML odds and past performance.
  • Superfecta: Include Zawish and Victorious for their potential in past performance at Churchill Downs.

Race 3:

Win Bet: Mindframe due to the highest potential shown in debut and strong workouts.

Exotic Bets:

  • Exacta Box: Mindframe and Invigorated. Both horses show strong early career forms.
  • Trifecta Part Wheel: Mindframe, Invigorated, and Cornishman in varying positions.
  • Superfecta Additions: Consider adding Elephants Ear and Bee Dancer for their consistent performances to increase coverage.

Race 4:

Win Bet: Place win bets on Best Actor due to high consistency and performance, particularly if the track remains dry.

Exotic Bets:

  • Place/Show Bets: Strong Quality and U. S. Army are good candidates for Place and Show bets, offering a balance of risk and reward with their solid track records.
  • Exactas and Trifectas: Consider an exacta box between Best Actor, Strong Quality, and U. S. Army. For trifectas, adding a slightly less favored horse like Denington or Five Star General might yield higher payouts if they manage to sneak into the top three.

Race 5:

Top Picks: Pure Force and Lou's Legacy stand out based on their training and past performances.

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Win Bet: Pure Force seems a strong contender for a win bet.

Exotic Bets:

  • Consider a box with Pure Force, Lou's Legacy, and Evan On Earth.
  • Longshot Bet: Manfredi could be a valuable bet for superfecta placements due to his fast training times despite low race figures.

Race 6:

Win/Place Bets: Alva Starr and Vahva are the most consistent and should be considered for win/place bets.

Exotic Bets:

  • Consider a trifecta box including Alva Starr, Red Carpet Ready, and Vahva. This selection balances the field's top performers with proven records.
  • Longshots: For those looking for higher risk but higher reward bets, consider adding Flying Connection to exotic bets like superfecta given her decent performance but lower rating.

Race 7:

Win Bets: Chili Flag and Walkathon are compelling choices for win bets due to their strong performances and experience on turf.

Place/Show Bets: Ag Bullet and Cairo Consort are suitable for place and show bets, given their solid records and ability to perform under pressure.

Exotic Bets: Consider a trifecta or superfecta box including Chili Flag, Walkathon, Ag Bullet, and Cairo Consort to capitalize on their combined strengths.

Race 8:

Win Bets: Top Conor and Nash appear to be the strongest bets based on their high Beyer figures and earnings.
Place/Show Bets: Consider Beeline and Vlahos for place/show bets due to their potential and performance metrics.

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Exotic Bets: A trifecta box involving Top Conor, Nash, and Beeline or Vlahos might be promising. Adjust based on the latest track conditions and any pre-race observations.

Race 9:

Top Picks for Dry Track: Legend of Time, Neat, and Set.

Top Picks for Muddy Track: Legend of Time, Neat, and Cugino.

Exotic Bets: Consider a trifecta box including Legend of Time, Neat, and Set or Cugino. Add Stay Hot for superfecta bets, particularly in dry conditions.

Potential Longshots: Blue Eyed George and Lord Bullingdon could offer value in more complex betting structures like superfectas due to their moderate ratings but potential for upset.

Race 10:

Win Bets: Tejano Twist and Gun Pilot appear to be strong choices based on their Beyer figures and proven performances.

Place/Show Bets: Mr. Wireless and Three Technique are suitable for place and show bets, given their solid records.

Exotic Bets: Consider a trifecta or superfecta including Tejano Twist, Gun Pilot, Mr. Wireless, and Three Technique to capitalize on their combined strengths.

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Race 11:

Win Bets: I'm Very Busy stands out due to its high Beyer figure and recent performance, making it a strong candidate for win bets.

Place/Show Bets: Integration and Program Trading have shown consistent performance, making them good candidates for place or show bets.

Exotic Bets: A trifecta box involving I'm Very Busy, Far Bridge, and Program Trading could yield a high return, leveraging their combined strengths and track compatibility.

Race 13:

Win Bet: General Partner: due to its strong performances, highest earnings in the field, and solid Beyer figures.

Place/Show Bets:

  • Discreet Mischief: Bet on place/show given its impressive Beyer of 117 and proven ability in dirt sprints, making it a strong candidate in dry conditions.
  • Jefferson Street: Also consider for place/show due to its solid performance history and good adaptability to both dry and slightly muddy conditions.

Exotic Bets:

  • Exacta Box: General Partner and Discreet Mischief: These two horses because of their top performance metrics and proven track records, which make them the strongest contenders for the top two positions.
  • Trifecta Box: General Partner, Discreet Mischief, and Jefferson Street: Add Jefferson Street for its consistent earning and ability to finish strong, making this trio likely to dominate the top three spots.
  • Superfecta: Include Pirate or Raging Torrent: Consider these for the fourth spot in superfecta bets. Pirate has shown some strong performances and could be a dark horse in this race, especially with an experienced jockey like I. Ortiz, Jr. Raging Torrent has consistent Beyer figures and could perform well if the pace is fast, making either a solid choice to round out the top four.

Race 14:

Win Bet: Gun Party due to consistent performance and good finishing strength.

Place/Show Bets: Timeout and Dive Bomber are recommended for their high potential and strong debut performances.

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Exotic Bets:

  • Exacta Box: Gun Party and Timeout because of their top performance metrics and promising track records.
  • Trifecta Box: Add Dive Bomber to the mix for his speed figures and potential under dry conditions.
  • Superfecta: Consider including Banned for Life as a wildcard due to his training speeds and high Beyer figure.

Edited by Ryan Ozawa.

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We Asked AI to Predict Kentucky Derby Winners—Here Are Its Picks - Decrypt (2024)
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