05/04/2009 12:00AM

Derby handle down again, but TV ratings up


All-sources wagering on Saturday's Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville fell for the third consecutive year, declining 8.7 percent from the 2008 total, according to figures provided by Churchill Downs. Preliminary television ratings for the race, however, climbed 7 percent to the highest figure in 17 years.

The decline in handle, from $114,557,364 last year to $104,563,501 this year, comes amidst the deepest recession in the United States in more than 20 years. Handle at many racetracks has declined at double-digit rates during the last six months, and betting figures at casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City are running 20 percent below last year's totals. Before the recession, horse racing handle figures had been stagnant or declining marginally for several years.

All-sources wagering on the entire Derby card also declined for the third straight year, dipping 5.3 percent, from $164,668,176 to $155,969,770. The decline came despite the addition of a 13th race to the card this year. Last year, the Derby card included 12 races. On average, then, each race other than the Derby drew $4,283,856 in bets, compared with $4,555,528 last year, a decline of 5.9 percent.

Though wagering fell, the overnight television rating for the Derby was a 10.2, up seven-tenths of a point from last year's overnight rating of 9.5 for the one-hour portion of the two-hour broadcast from 6 p.m. Eastern until 7 p.m. According to NBC, which broadcast the race, the figure is the highest overnight rating since 1992. Share - the percentage of televisions in use from 6 p.m. to 7 that were turned to the NBC broadcast - was a 22, up 1 point from the 21 last year.

The increase in the overnight rating is somewhat perplexing because of the lack of star power in this year's Derby and the lingering fallout from the death of Eight Belles last year. Eight Belles, a filly, was euthanized after breaking both front ankles while galloping out after her second-place finish in the 2008 Derby.

This year's edition of the Derby was a particularly inscrutable handicapping exercise, with many of the most highly considered 3-year-olds missing from the lineup because of injuries or training setbacks. The morning-line favorite, I Want Revenge, was scratched the morning of the race because of an ankle injury. The Derby was won by Mine That Bird at 50.60-1, the second-highest price in Derby history.

The wagering results on Saturday will likely fuel significant handle gains for Churchill on Wednesday because of two carryovers triggered by Mine That Bird's longshot win. The pick six pool for Wednesday's card has a carryover pool of $781,146, and the super high five carryover is $251,865. The super high five requires bettors to select the first five finishers in a designated race on the card. As of Wednesday, it was not clear which race would offer the super high five carryover, which can also be transferred to either Arlington Park or Calder Race Course, two tracks owned by Churchill Downs.

Churchill reported that attendance on Derby day was 153,563, down 2.6 percent compared with 157,770 last year. It was the sixth-highest reported attendance in the history of the race. The skies were overcast, and the temperature was relatively chilly compared with average May temperatures in Louisville.

Wagering on the Derby and the undercard may have been helped by the widespread availability of the races on account-wagering platforms for the first time in two years. This year, all four major national account-wagering companies were able to offer betting on the Kentucky Derby. In the two previous years, both Youbet.com and Television Games Network were unable to offer betting on the card and the Derby.

In addition, because of a dispute between Churchill and horsemen last year, betting on account-wagering platforms was limited in 2008 to two races on the Derby card, the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and the Derby itself. The limitations played a part in wagering being down in 2007 and 2008, the first declines after 16 years of uninterrupted growth.