05/02/2010 11:00PM

Derby handle, TV ratings post gains


Betting on the Kentucky Derby and the 13-race Derby card at Churchill Downs rebounded on Saturday after three years of declines, according to figures released by Churchill, despite heavy pre-race rains, a bet-processing malfunction, and the lack of any standout favorite in the 20-horse field.

According to the figures, betting on the Derby was $112.7 million, a 7.8 percent increase over the $104.8 million bet last year on the race. For the entire 13-race card, betting was $162.7 million, up 4.5 percent compared to the handle total of $156 million for last year's 13-race card. Both of those figures had declined for three straight years, from 2007-2009, after 16 years of unchecked growth.

The gains come as the United States appears to be emerging from a deep recession that has accompanied a dramatic decline in national wagering figures. From the end of 2007 to the end of 2009, handle on U.S. horse races fell 16 percent, or $2.41 billion, and through the first three months of this year, handle has declined another 10.4 percent.

In addition to reversing the trend of the last three years, other Derby figures also were strong this year. Attendance for the Derby was 155,804, according to Churchill, the fifth-largest crowd of all time, while the overnight television rating for a two-hour broadcast of the Derby on NBC rose 1 percent, to the highest figure since 1992, continuing five years of strong growth in the rating figure.

The Derby field this year had the maximum number of starters, 20, and was run under the first sunshine of the day following heavy rains that swamped Kentucky for most of the preceding 12 hours. The race was won by the second choice, Super Saver, who went off at 8-1. The favorite, Lookin At Lucky, was 6.40-1, the highest-priced favorite in the history of the race, while the longest-priced horse, Discreetly Mine, was 31-1, the lowest-priced longest shot in the race since entries were uncoupled in 2001.

Ken Kirchner, the simulcasting consultant for the Breeders' Cup, called the win pool prices "the strangest I have seen." He said the limited spread between the favorites and the longshots was probably based on several factors, including the 50-1 wins by Mine That Bird in 2009 and Giacomo in 2005.

"That makes people think that any 50-1 horse has a chance in the Kentucky Derby," Kirchner said. "There's a lot of casual players who have decided that they can put their money on any horse in the race and have the same chance as anyone else."

Super Saver paid $18 to win. An exacta with Ice Box paid $152.40. A $2 trifecta with Paddy O'Prado paid $2,337.40, and the $2 superfecta with Make Music for Me, the second-highest-priced horse in the field at 30-1, paid $202,569.20.

Betting figures this year were almost certainly negatively impacted by malfunctions at the AmTote wagering hub in Oregon that affected twinspires.com, the account-wagering site owned by Churchill, and XpressBet, an account-wagering company owned by AmTote's parent, the bankrupt racetrack operator Magna Entertainment, among other OTB sites. Several customers of twinspires.com said over the weekend that the service would not accept bets for an hour prior to the Derby post.

AmTote posted a notice on its website that said the network was affected by two outages, one at approximately 5:12 p.m. Eastern, lasting until 5:19, and the other at 6:08, lasting until 6:21. The Derby went off at 6:32.

"In both cases, the service outage was caused by a controlled system shutdown and restart, which was required to reset the system because a key software component became locked due to transaction volumes," the notice said.

The system was tested earlier on May 1 for any flaws, but the tests did not return any problems, AmTote said.

The records for wagering on the Derby and the Derby card were set in 2006, when betting on the Derby was $118.4 million and betting on a 12-race card was $175.1 million. Despite the erosion in the betting figures over the next three years, attendance has been steady, while television figures have increased 39 percent since 2006, from an overnight rating of 7.4 that year to 10.3 this year.

A five-year, $43 million contract with NBC covering the broadcast rights for the Derby and the Preakness expires after the races are run this year. A separate five-year, $20 million contract between ABC and the New York Racing Association for the broadcast rights to the third race of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, expires this year as well.

The handle figures do not include separate-pool handle totals, such as betting from Hong Kong, where the Derby and three undercard races were available for the first time. William Nader, the Hong Kong Jockey Club's executive director of racing, said in an e-mail message that handle on the Derby in Hong Kong was approximately $1 million, while total handle on the four races available was approximately $3 million. Super Saver went off at 16-1 in Hong Kong, Nader said.

For the second straight year, betting on the Derby was marred by the absence of the most highly regarded member of the crop. Last year, morning-line favorite I Want Revenge was scratched the morning of the race, while this year, Eskendereya was withdrawn on the Sunday prior to the Derby.