06/21/2012 12:39PM

Beyond Derby and Oaks, Churchill Downs in slump

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Barbara D. Livingston
The walkover at this year’s Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, where total handle since the May 5 card has fallen 14.4 percent compared with last year.

The flight of horsemen from Kentucky to New York is having a significant impact on races at Churchill Downs this year, though not in the way that might be expected.

Although several high-profile Kentucky stables have begun stabling at Belmont for the first time or have sent more horses to the casino-felt green of New York’s pastures this year, field size at Churchill Downs has not dropped precipitously, dipping from 7.98 last year to 7.62 so far this year. That represents a drop of 4.5 percent, although the rate of decline has accelerated over the last several weeks. Yet total handle on the track’s races since the Kentucky Derby has fallen at a far greater rate, 14.4 percent, an outsized figure that cannot be attributed to the decline in field size alone. In fact, only record handle for the Derby and Kentucky Oaks cards has kept wagering on Churchill races ahead of last year’s pace.

The blame probably falls on several factors that influence the amount of money that bettors are willing to wager on a race. One telling factor has to do with favorites. This year, they are winning at a 40 percent clip, compared with 32 percent last year, which is the national average. Also, the average price of a favorite has fallen from approximately 1.80-to-1 to 1.40-to-1.

Take the card at Churchill on Thursday, May 10. Bettors wagered $5.4 million on nine races, a 35 percent decline compared with the $8.4 million bet on the comparable 10-race Thursday card a year earlier. On the 2012 card, field size was 8.3 horses per race compared with 8.9 horses per race in 2011.

While the drop in field size and the subtraction of a race were factors in the handle drop, the bigger difference was in the makeup of the races and the opportunities the fields presented to horseplayers. Six favorites won the nine races on the 2012 card, and three of them went off at 2-5 or lower. A fourth winner went off at .70-1, and the average price of the favorites on the nine-race card was 1.33-1.

On the comparable 2011 card, three favorites won in the 10 races, and one of those favorites was 3.10-1. The average price of the favorites on the 2011 card was 1.87-1, a difference of 28.9 percent compared with the average price of the favorites on the comparable card in 2012.

A similar situation occurred two weeks later, when five favorites won on the 11-race May 24 card, another Thursday. The average price of the favorites that day was 1.16-1. On the comparable 11-race Thursday card last year, one favorite won, at 2-1, and the average price of the favorites in the 11 races that day was 1.82-1. Handle that day was $7.26 million, a difference of 38.1 percent compared with handle of $4.49 million on the comparable 2012 card.

How can the presence of a big favorite influence betting? Example: A $20,000 starter allowance race at Churchill on June 14 scratched down from 12 horses to five because of the presence of Outta Tune, who had won a Grade 3 race at Oaklawn on April 14. Show and superfecta betting was canceled, and total handle for the race, including the daily double and pick 3, was a paltry $175,881. An average race at Churchill, excluding the Derby, typically draws about $500,000 in wagers. (Outta Tune, the 9-10 favorite, finished third.)

While the run of favorites at Churchill this year may just be a statistical anomaly, there are compelling reasons to believe other factors are in play. Track officials, handicappers, and horsemen principally cite the flight of horses to New York, where purses were raised significantly this year because of subsidies from a casino at Aqueduct racetrack. The exodus has not had a big impact on field size at Churchill, but it has reduced the pool of competitive horses at nearly all levels of the condition book, leading to races in which one horse stands out over horses who may have been hustled from less competitive stables, according to Marty Maline, the executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

“If you look at New York now, it’s like Kentucky east,” Maline said. “We’ve lost our quality, and now we’ve got these fields that have prohibitive favorites because all the quality ones are elsewhere.”

Trainers who have sizable stables in New York this year include Kenny McPeek, who has 24 horses at Belmont Park and 36 horses at Churchill. McPeek said he shipped the horses to New York at the request of his owners, but he also said he’s treating his split stable as a moveable beast.

“If a race doesn’t fill at Churchill, I ship them to Belmont,” McPeek said. “If a race doesn’t fill at Belmont, I ship them to Churchill. Although a lot of times it seems I’m shipping them to Belmont.”

So far, McPeek has started 24 horses at Belmont, winning with three and finishing second seven times and third twice for total earnings of $307,122. At Churchill, he has started twice as many horses, with a record of 48-8-6-7 and earnings of $350,202. However, McPeek’s earnings per start at Belmont are $12,796; at Churchill the figure is $7,296.

Other Kentucky trainers making numerous starts at Belmont this year include Dale Romans (23-5-2-1, $919,784); Michael J. Maker (24-7-5-4, $374,880); and Eddie Kenneally (22-8-4-2, $296,005). But it’s not as if the Kentucky crew is dominating the standings. By starts at Belmont this year, Maker and McPeek are tied at 33rd with five other trainers, well behind Gary Contessa’s 86 starts and a slew of other longtime New Yorkers. Romans is co-ranked at 40, and Kenneally is co-ranked at 42.

Meanwhile, at Churchill, Romans is the leading trainer by starts and wins, with 13 victories from 80 starts. Maker is third by starts with 55, McPeek is fourth, and Kenneally is 12th.

Romans was given 40 stalls at Belmont this year, and he acknowledged that the horses he sent to New York were “horses that could compete in their races” – meaning a better class horse.
“I’d hate to say that, because I don’t want my clients to hear that, but yes, those [New York] horses are probably a higher caliber of horse, because they have to be,” Romans said.

As for the wide discrepancy between the number of horses Romans has started at Churchill and Belmont, Romans said, “Eighty starts [at Churchill] might seem like a lot, but I’ve had spring meets where I’ve started 200 horses or more. This is a different era at Churchill. Churchill is losing some of its ranking on the national scale, and the way the industry works now, it’s a big competition out there in the simulcast marketplace. Bettors are looking at Belmont, and they’re saying it’s a better product.”

Betting odds at Churchill this year have also been influenced to some degree by two claiming stables at Churchill, Midwest Thoroughbreds and PTK, which have been spotting their claims aggressively throughout the meet, chasing first-place purses at the risk of losing horses through the claim box. Midwest, which has started 28 horses at the meet so far, has won with 39 percent of its horses this year, often at odds-on, while PTK, an outfit from Maryland that has started 27 horses, has won with 37 percent of its starters, often at short prices as well.

“When you’ve got guys that aren’t afraid to cut a horse in half, entering a $30,000 claim for $16,000, that’s going to have a big impact on whether people are betting or not,” said one handicapper who plays Churchill.

Fortunately for Churchill and its horsemen, betting on the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks cards set records at a total of $24 million over last year’s handle on both cards, and for the meet, handle on Churchill’s races is still running slightly above last year. Total betting of $226.9 million on those two cards, in fact, has accounted for nearly two-thirds of the betting during the entire meet so far.

Because of the handle on the two cards, Churchill was able to raise purses three weeks ago by 10 percent across the board. Ever eager to make their case for casino gambling, Churchill officials also said the purse increase was partly made possible by the fact that the track’s richer allowance races were not filling – which are exactly the types of races that, with full fields, generate oversized handle.

“Those types of races typically equate to higher purse money being offered, but they aren’t filling as often as we’d like,” Kevin Flanery, Churchill’s president, said in a release. “Instead, horses of that caliber are continuing to leave Kentucky for more lucrative opportunities in states that boost their purse structure from [gambling].”