First of all, I should say up front that I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, and Derby Day is a big deal there.  The schools were closed today in preparation for it.  There’s a two-week festival preceding it.

That being said, I have never actually attended a Derby.  Actually, I’ve never actually attended any horse race.  Pretty philistine of me, I know, but then again, I can count on one hand the number of sporting events of any kind I’ve attended.  And I get a better view of the Derby on my television.  And watching from home, I can socialize until the moment the race starts, watch it, then get back to the party.  No crowds, no rain, no parking problems.

Although I have not always worn my Kentucky heritage with pride (and hey, George Clooney doesn’t either), I have enjoyed spreading Kentucky Derby fever among my friends.  I’ve lived far from Louisville for more of my life now than I lived there, and so most of the Derby parties I threw were for people who’d never even watched it on television.

Three years ago I began using a new math curriculum, and discovered that our final unit covered in the year, probability, starts just before the Kentucky Derby.  I decided this was a great real-life example of probability.

In order to teach it to students, I ended up learning a lot myself in preparation.  For instance, the starting odds are made by experts in the field, but on race day the odds are determined by the betting itself.  If everyone starts betting on a long shot, the odds change to reflect that it’s no longer a long shot.  That’s really interesting and also shows the lengths betting parlors will go to to ensure they get your money.

I’ve discovered it works best as a two-day lesson.  On the first day, I talk about the concept of odds and what that means for betting.  Then I provide students information about the horses and we talk through a few examples so they see what kinds of information people like to know beforehand — the owner, trainer, and jockey, the previous starts, the track conditions.  That’s day one.

Day two (which is the day before Derby day, and now we have post positions added to our data), and each student is given 25 hypothetical dollars to bet.  It’s a simple bet — just to win — but it does have to be the minimum $2.  I tell them there are lots of other ways to bet — win, place, or show, trifecta — but that for our purposes we’re going to stay simple.  On the notecards they hand in I need their bets and some reason why they bet the way they did.

The students left my class today buzzing about their choices and mulling over what their winnings might be.  Before we started, I had several students tell me they didn’t like the idea of betting or horse races, but everyone left today debating the merits of this or that horse.  (We also found out this morning that one of their favorites from the other day, Uncle Mo, was scratched this morning, and we talked about what that meant.  There was a side conversation about thoroughbreds;  one girl rides and wants a horse someday, but said thoroughbreds are inbred and weak.)

Each year I refine my way of doing this.  Each year I learn more about the race and the betting system, but I also learn more about my students and how they learn best.  I think so far, this year’s lessons have been the best of the three years.

And this year I am doing this carefully enough to collect (and then analyze) the results with the students.  Graphing is another skill they’re working on, and we can talk about how to show our class results.

I’m curious to see what happens tomorrow.  I had one student who bet the whole amount on the horse with the longest odds (50-1), because he said it would pay the best if he won.  I had a number of students who made $2 or $3 bets on a lot of horses, hedging their bets (as they say).  I told them (as verified by an article online) that the favorite rarely wins.  In the last 10 years, the favorite has won three times.  And yet most of the students made at least one bet on the favorite.

The student who put all his money on the horse with the longest odds got some flack from the other students for it, but my guess is that when we come back on Monday, watch the race online together, and calculate winnings and losses, most of my students will have lost all of their money, just as he did.  And if he wins, he’ll win more.  Of course, there are many theories about human decision-making (some of which are too recent for me to have read about in college, and some of which I read about in my college psych courses but have since forgotten because I graduated from college 20 years ago), but I’m interested to see it playing out in my own classroom.  The students will learn that gambling rarely pays (which we’ve already discussed in terms of the lottery or dice games).

So though I’m far from the land of my birth, I’m carrying on its traditions all these years later.  Have a mint julep, watch the race, and know that there’s a class of kids hanging on the results.