The Kentucky Derby is still several months away and the field of contenders is only now starting to take shape. It’s really too soon to bet on anything involving the 140th ‘Run for the Roses’ but Churchill Downs—host track for the Kentucky Derby—is hoping that some of the strong Kentucky Derby betting volume experienced during the recent NFL Super Bowl translates to a record attendance and betting handle for their race.
Not that things are in bad shape for Derby organizers—the race set an all time attendance record in 2012 with a Saturday attendance of 165,307 and a record betting handle of $187 million. This betting figure takes in to account betting from all sources including ‘legal’ online betting outlets like Twin Spires and TVG and off track simulcasting nationwide. 2013 numbers were decent but fell short of the 2012 records both in betting handle and attendance.
The hope for 2014 is that some of the same broader trends that generated a record Super Bowl betting handle at the legal sports books of Nevada also work in favor of big numbers for the Kentucky Derby. Nevada sports books took a record betting handle of $119 million for the recently completed Super Bowl between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos. This smashed the old record—set last year—of $98 million. Sports books also enjoyed a 16.5% hold which translates into a profit of nearly $20 million.
Some of the factors driving the big Super Bowl handle could also be in play for the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps the most salient is the improving global economy. The Louisville area wasn’t hit as hard as some other places during the worldwide economic downturn but with the economy improving everywhere more people have more disposable money with which to attend and bet on the Kentucky Derby. This is especially significant for international fans of horse racing of which they are many.
On the other hand, some factors driving the huge financial windfall of the Super Bowl don’t seem readily applicable to the Derby. The NFL does everything right in terms of marketing its product while the same can’t be said for horse racing. Furthermore, sports betting revenues of all types are on the upswing worldwide. In fact, sports betting is the only casino game that saw its revenues increase over the past five years. The same can’t be said for horse race betting which has remained flat or declined.
Those concerns notwithstanding the Kentucky Derby is a unique event and not really bound by the same trends as the larger horse racing product. What would help the Derby the most in terms of attendance is something much more practical—good weather, which hasn’t always been the case in recent years. From a betting standpoint a popular contender or group of contenders that capture the imagination of the general public would help increase handle. In any case, the Kentucky Derby will be one of the big sporting—and betting—events of the next few months.