01/15/2010 1:00AM

Derby futures headed in wrong direction


NEW YORK - Racing fans spend the first trimester of each year obsessively speculating about who's going to win the Kentucky Derby, carefully analyzing even the most obscure prep races and vying to be among the first to board the eventual winner's bandwagon. Yet when given the chance to wager genuine currency through the parimutuel system on these early opinions, they sit on their wallets.

The Kentucky Derby Future Wager, introduced in 1999, peaked at a puny $1.6 million (for all three of its rounds combined) in 2005. By last year, the total had fallen to $1.2 million, including $207,000 in a new exacta wager. So each of the three rounds of betting now averages only about $400,000 over a long weekend - less than a bottom-level maiden-claiming race handles in half an hour in New York or California.

It is well past time for Churchill Downs to try something dramatically different with the idea, but instead the host track is soldiering on with a clearly unpopular format. What's worse, last Thursday it announced a new schedule for the three rounds of betting that makes it even less appealing.

The final round of betting will be earlier than ever this year, on March 26-28 - before the crucial last two weekends of races that include four of the division's five Grade 1 preps. So your last chance to wager the Derby Future in 2010 will be a week before the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby and two weeks before the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby - the four races that produce the vast majority of Derby winners.

The new schedule was a poor solution to a problem posed by the 2010 calendar: Easter Sunday falls on April 4 this year, and archaic laws prohibit Easter racing in many jurisdictions (most of which do not prohibit other sporting events, or shutter their casinos, on Easter.) Churchill did not want to lose a Sunday of future wagering by running the last pool April 2-3, so it moved the final round back to the last weekend in March.

It would have made much more sense to go a week in the other direction, running the final pool from April 9-11 and giving players 24 hours after the final Saturday of key preps to make their selections - especially since Churchill is sponsoring three NBC telecasts of Derby preps this year, including an April 9 show featuring the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby. Putting more important Derby preps on network television was a great move by Churchill, but why not capitalize on that exposure by closing the last pool after they've been run?

Instead, fans will be betting earlier than ever, with less information, and a much greater chance that their bets will be dead by Derby Day with an extra two weeks for horses to defect from the race - there are no refunds if your horse doesn't make it to the gate.

It's hard to imagine that handle won't suffer again, perhaps enough to jolt Churchill into a complete and overdue overhaul of the wager. A growing chorus of critics has been clamoring for a true future book that would offer betting on each of the more than 400 nominees to the Triple Crown instead of an ever-changing cast of just 23 contenders and an "all others" mutuel field. It's time to try it, starting next year.

The futures exacta bet last year had 553 possible betting combinations, proving that a futures bet with hundreds of betting interests was not the insurmountable technological challenge some had claimed. The sheer volume of high-odds propositions, with hundreds of horses going off at triple-digit odds, would immediately invigorate the bet. Any horseplayer with a heartbeat and an unconventional opinion would dive into a pool where he might get 300-1 on his longshot rather than single-digit odds on a 400-horse mutuel field. Owners and trainers and their friends and families would make at least token bets on their nominees.

Churchill deserves credit for sticking with the Derby Future bet for as long as it has amid paltry pools that don't do much more than cover costs and provide some free publicity. It's hard to believe, though, that a race that attracts $100 million on Derby Day can't do better than $1.2 million in futures. It's at least worth trying a new format, and a more sensible schedule.