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Derby expands global presence
Kempton Park outside London won't make anyone's top 10 list of must-see European racetracks. Alan Shuback, in his excellent recent book, "Global Racing," said the sport at Kempton "has always been of a rather tasty meat-and-potatoes variety." But on Wednesday night, Kempton became a rather important, though out-of-the-way, detour on the road to the Kentucky Derby. It was the site of the inaugural Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes, a race that, for the first time this year, guaranteed a horse a spot in the May 2 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
The race was won by Mafaaz, a John Gosden-trained 3-year-old colt who was nominated to the Derby at a cost of $600 in January. By virtue of his win Wednesday, Mafaaz is the first horse assured of a starting berth in this year's Derby.
The ramifications of this race are far wider, however. It is a means to an end. Tom Aronson, a vice president at Churchill Downs, spearheaded the creation of this overseas Derby prep. And while Aronson was recently described as a "sporting romantic" in the Times of London, Aronson readily admits that the purpose of the Kentucky Derby Challenge is to facilitate interest in the Kentucky Derby. Betting interest.
"One can't succeed without the other," Aronson said in a recent interview.
"It will make the race more compelling," Aronson said during a recent visit to Santa Anita, prior to leaving for London. "The Derby doesn't need that much help over here. But when you look at where there could be growth, the internationalization of the race, and, more importantly, the internationalization of the betting, stand out as opportunities."
In Britain, bettors - known as punters - can play through legal bookmakers, or through the parimutuel Tote system. Legal bookmakers, who set their own prices on each horse and assume all risk, are far more popular with bettors, accounting for approximately 95 percent of betting turnover in Britain. But legal bookmakers do not have the wherewithal, nor the stomach, to take bets on exotic United States wagers like the Derby's trifecta and superfecta, which have produced payoffs of hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years.
Even with favored Street Sense winning the Derby in 2007, the superfecta returned $29,046.40 for a $1 wager. When longshot Giacomo won in 2005, the superfecta came back $864,253.30. Aronson - who has been with Churchill for two years after more than 25 years as a racetrack executive or industry consultant - said he believes that giving international bettors, starting in Britain, access to these gigantic pools will help the Derby's handle grow exponentially. And he believes the best way to help accomplish that is, as he put it, for Britain to "have a standard-bearer in the race."
"The ultimate objective is to have a quality horse from overseas who supercharges betting on the race," Aronson said.
Betting on the Derby itself peaked in 2006 at $118,426,874. It dropped slightly in 2007, and dipped further in 2008, to $114,557,364.
Very little of that came from overseas. George Primarolo, a spokesman for Tote, said his company handled just 15,000 British pounds (approximately $23,000) on the race last year. And all that was through Tote's bookmaking arm, because, according to Primarolo, the Derby was run too late in the day to facilitate a pass-through to Churchill's parimutuel system.
"It's not as popular as the Breeders' Cup," Primarolo said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "There's more European interest in the Breeders' Cup, because there's British horses in the Breeders' Cup. This year it might be different, because there's a fair amount of interest in the race tonight."
Guaranteeing Mafaaz a slot in the Derby field leaves just 19 spots remaining. Should that many enter, as expected, earnings in graded stakes races determine who runs in the Derby. Last year, the horse who was 20th on the earnings list was Denis of Cork, who subsequently finished third. Had the Kentucky Derby Challenge been in existence a year ago, and the winner entered the Derby, Denis of Cork would have been bumped from the field.
Is it fair to offer the winner of an ungraded European race, run on a right-handed course, and worth just 80,000 British pounds, a spot in America's premier race at the expense of a horse who tried to amass the requisite graded stakes earnings?
"Graded stakes earnings is the standard that has been used, and it's done quite well, but it puts the Europeans at a disadvantage," Aronson said. "It makes sense from the American side, but not the European side. This race makes up for that lack of certainty by offering a clear path to the race."
The name of Churchill's track, and its biggest race, have antecedents in Britain. And in recent months, Churchill has seemingly become more Anglophilic. It hired Britain's Mark Johnson as its new track announcer, beginning next month. Johnson also called the race at Kempton on Wednesday. Aronson said there was no grand scheme to hire Johnson as a marketing ploy to connect the Kentucky Derby Challenge and the Kentucky Derby.
"He won on his outright merits, not as part of some overall strategy," Aronson said.
Aronson is also looking to grow the Derby in the U.S. He concedes that the Kentucky Derby Future Wager has grown stagnant, and though an exacta on last week's Pool 2 offered a new twist, Aronson's goal is to have a pure future wager, in which a bettor could wager on any individual horse nominated to the Derby.
"As God is my witness, we will get there," he said.
Now that the first part of Aronson's British parlay has come in, with the running of the Kentucky Derby Challenge, he must dive headlong into growing the betting business. His ambition extends beyond the British isles to such racing-mad areas as Hong Kong and Japan.
"The last few months we've identified the technological gaps that impede international, co-mingled pools," he said. "The British can bet with bookmakers, but they're predisposed to win betting only. What I'm looking to do in the next few years is enable players worldwide to compete for the extraordinary payouts the Derby has produced."
Today, Kempton. Tomorrow, the world.
In other Derby developments:
* A field of 12, headed by Bittel Road and West Side Bernie, was entered on Wednesday for the Grade 2, $500,000 Lane's End Stakes on Saturday at Turfway Park. It is the only graded stakes race for 3-year-olds being run this weekend.
Friesan Fire is now the 5-1 favorite on the Kentucky Derby future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, following his win in the Louisiana Derby last Saturday. There are three newcomers to this week's top 20. Win Willy, the upset winner of the Rebel Stakes, enters as a 20-1 shot. Terrain, third in the Louisiana Derby, is 40-1, while Musket Man, the Tampa Bay Derby winner, is 50-1.
Flying Pegasus, General Quarters, and Hello Broadway were dropped from the list following disappointing efforts in their respective prep races last Saturday. Old Fashioned, favored one week ago by Watchmaker, is now the co-third choice at 8-1 after suffering his first loss in the Rebel. Pioneerof the Nile, despite winning his third straight race, was raised to 12-1 after being 6-1 a week ago.
ON THE BUBBLE
Mafaaz, the winner of the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes at Kempton on Wednesday night, is likely to move onto the list next week now that he is guaranteed a spot in the Derby field. The winner of the Lane's End Stakes on Saturday at Turfway also could move onto the list. - Jay Privman