05/11/2012 2:31PM

Crist: Kentucky Derby Day handle a compellingly positive sign

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Barbara D. Livingston
I’ll Have Another wins a Kentucky Derby that saw handle up nearly 20 percent.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the 2012 Kentucky Derby was neither I’ll Have Another’s victory at 15-1, nor Bodemister’s dazzling attempt to wire the field, but that betting on the race soared nearly 20 percent from a year ago.

In 2011, commingled bets on the Derby, and the multirace bets ending with it, totaled $107.8 million, a tiny decline from the 2010 total of $108.9 million. This year, that number climbed 19.27 percent to $128.6 million. (These figures are slightly different from Churchill Downs’s because I included only commingled, one-day bets, but the increases are very close on both sets of numbers.)

There were no dramatic differences in weather, ontrack attendance, or the depth and quality of the 2011 and 2012 Derby Day cards. Both were 13-race programs with virtually identical post times, stakes offerings, and field sizes (123 starters this year vs. 126 in 2011.) Betting was basically flat year over year on the 12 supporting races ($53.9 million vs. $53.3 million), with virtually all the gains coming on Derby-related wagering pools – $20.8 million of the $21.4 million gain.

All 11 of those Derby pools were up, while only 42 of the day’s 71 other pools showed a gain over last year. Every Derby pool was up at least 9 percent. (That was the pickup in superfecta wagering, where growth continues to be hampered by Churchill’s overly cautious refusal to offer the bet in 10-cent increments on Derbty Day.) There were gains of 22 percent in the win-place-show pools, 15 percent in the exacta and trifecta pools, and pickups of 21 to 35 percent in the double, pick three, pick four and pick five. A $286,000 carryover from Oaks Day probably helped account for a $941,000 increase in the pick six pool, but that’s only 5 percent of the year-over-year increase. (You can find a full pool-by-pool breakdown of the 2011 and 2012 Derby Day betting on my blog at drf.com).

It pays to be cautious when looking at year-over-year variances to be sure there’s no overriding reason that has nothing to do with the product or how it is being marketed. For example, when national betting figures were up in each of the first three months of this year, no one claimed that racing was enjoying some significant resurgence – obviously the weather had been a huge factor, with the mildest northern winter in decades prompting far fewer cancellations and fewer scratch-ravaged, sloppy-track programs. Reaity returned in April when weather was comparable to a year ago and the national handle dipped 7 percent.

So why the explosion in Derby betting? The only comparable gain in recent years in one of the sport’s signature events (excluding Belmont Stakes fluctuations when there’s a Triple Crown on the line)was the Breeders’ Cup two years ago, when full-card handle soared from $95.7 million at Santa Anita in 2009 to $110.0 million at Churchill in 2010. The gain came largely from increased action on the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where Zenyatta’s bid for perfection in her final career start drove the Classic pools from $24.9 million to $37.0 million. That gain was widely attributed to a “60 Minutes” feature on Zenyatta the Sunday before the race, with bigger fields and a return to dirt racing also probably contributing to the increase.

There’s really no comparable explanation for this year’s Derby surge. It was an appealingly wide-open race, with a 4.20-1 favorite and nine horses at 15-1 or less, but that was not a radical departure from other recent editions. There was no Zenyatta-like figure of national prominence and few if any proclamations that the sport’s next superhorse was in the field. While difficult to quantify, it’s probably fair to say that it didn’t hurt that NBC and its networks presented national telecasts (funded in large part by the Jockey Club) of three Saturdays of Derby preps. Including a Santa Anita Derby/Wood Memorial telecast April 7 that drew 1.2 million viewers.

Whatever the reason, the gains were particularly heartening to those who want to see the game succeed, because they came amid what may have been an unprecedented spate of negativity surrounding the sport and its real and perceived problems with medications and accidents. Part of the narrative routinely put forward by the sport’s detractors is that these issues are alienating the general public from racing, driving away longtime fans, and preventing newcomers from trying out the game.

A sharp Derby Day decline would have been widely cited as proof of that thesis. Instead, the supposedly fed-up public voted with their wallets that at least on days when it puts its best foot forward, racing remains a compelling attraction.