05/04/2008 11:00PM

Derby betting declines for second year in row

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Betting on Saturday's Kentucky Derby fell 3.2 percent, and handle on the entire Derby card fell 2.0 percent compared with last year, according to figures released by Churchill Downs. It was the second year in a row that handle fell compared to the year before, after 16 consecutive years of growth.

Total wagering on this year's Derby from all sources was $114,557,364, compared with $118,317,714 in 2007, according to Churchill. The high-water mark for the Derby was set in 2006, when total betting was $118,426,874 - a 13.5 percent increase over the figure for 2005.

Total wagering on the 12-race card from Churchill on Saturday was $164,668,176, compared with $168,018,982 last year. The record for the card was also set in 2006, at $175,129,090.

The availability of the Derby card and the Derby itself was restricted this year because of ongoing disputes between Churchill Downs and horsemen. The disputes kept the Derby card from being available on all the major national account-wagering platforms, and limited the Derby's availability to the account-wagering operations run by Churchill Downs Inc. and Magna Entertainment Corp.

In addition, the Derby was not available at major wagering sites in Florida, where horsemen at the Churchill-owned Calder Race Course have failed to reach an agreement with the track on a purse contract. As a result, horsemen in Kentucky refused to approve the export of the Churchill signal to Calder, which redistributes its signals to Gulfstream Park. Horsemen have the right to approve the export of simulcast signals under a 1978 federal law, the Interstate Horseracing Act.

Churchill officials cited the restrictions on the signal availability as being a significant factor in the declines. In fact, very few other reasons - aside from the general stagnation of handle across the industry - could have possibly accounted for the drops. The weather at Churchill on Saturday was breezy and mild, and the Derby attracted 20 horses, the maximum allowed in the race.

The overnight rating for the Derby broadcast on NBC on Saturday, running from 5 p.m. Eastern until 6:45, was a 7.9, according to Scott Freifeld, a spokesman for NBC, compared with an 8.3 overnight rating for the broadcast last year, a decrease of 5 percent. Share - a measure of the percentage of televisions in use that are tuned to a specific broadcast - was identical for both broadcasts, at 18.

The racing portion of the broadcast, running from 5:45 to 6:45 p.m., received a 9.5 overnight rating, down 3 percent from last year's 9.8 rating for the same time period, according to NBC. Share for the racing portion was 21, equal to last year's share.

Handle also declined on Friday's Kentucky Oaks and the 11-race Oaks card at Churchill. All-sources handle on the card, which faced similar restrictions as the Derby, was $31,231,991, down 7 percent compared with last year. Total wagering on the Oaks itself was $9,138,950, a decline of 9.8 percent.

A powerful rainstorm struck the Churchill area about midway through the Oaks card. Churchill officials cited the impact of the weather as well as the signal restrictions for the declines.

Attendance on Saturday at Churchill was reported as 157,770, the second-largest in Derby history and up 0.7 percent from 2007. The record was set in 1974, when 163,628 were in attendance. After the 1974 Derby, the size of the track's infield was reduced.

Ontrack wagering on the Derby was $12,118,527, up 0.3 percent compared with last year. Ontrack wagering on the Derby card was $24,275,864, an increase of 0.9 percent over last year.

In addition to the signal restrictions, Churchill officials acknowledged that its account-wagering platform, Twinspires.com, began exhibiting problems about 45 minutes before the Derby. The problems may have prevented some customers from betting on the race. Several horseplayers complained about the service on Saturday night, contending that the system locked up and could not be restored.

"We deeply apologize for what we consider to be an unacceptable occurrence on the biggest racing day of the year," said Vernon Niven, the president of Twinspires.com.