05/08/2017 2:50PM

Handle on Kentucky Derby card tops $207 million

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Despite unseasonably cool temperatures, the lack of a popular contender, and a quirky wet track, wagering on the Kentucky Derby and its supporting card Saturday at Churchill Downs set records, with total betting surpassing $200 million for the first time on a North American race card, according to the race charts.

Total betting on the Derby, when including all horizontal wagers that ended in the race (but not including Churchill’s parimutuel future wagers), was $137.8 million, just besting the record set in 2015 of $136.5 million. The figure this year was an 11.8 percent increase over last year’s handle, which was significantly impacted by the crash of the TVG account-wagering site one hour prior to the Derby.

Total wagering on the 14-race card was $207.5 million, an 8.4 percent gain on the record set in 2015 on a 13-race card, according to charts. The 2017 figure was up 8.4 percent on the total wagering on a 14-race card last year.

The overnight television rating on the race portion of a nearly six-hour broadcast on NBC on Saturday was also unusually strong, given the lack of a horse in the Derby field who had captured the popular imagination. The overnight rating was a 10.5, the highest overnight for the broadcast since 1992, and share, a measure of the percentage of televisions in use tuned to a broadcast, was a 25.

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Paradoxically, the poor weather throughout the eastern half of the United States and the lack of a strong favorite may have helped the Derby’s business figures. With cold weather and intermittent rain in many locales, many people stayed indoors Saturday, and the wide-open field led experienced horseplayers to stretch their bankrolls chasing potentially large payouts.

Total betting in the win, place, and show pools was $58.1 million, up 15.7 percent over last year and a record, while exacta wagering was $23.3 million and trifecta wagering was $30.7 million, according to charts. Superfecta betting was $13.02 million, a 19.4 percent jump over last year, although just shy of the record superfecta pool established in 2015 when $13.25 million was bet.

Betting in several of the horizontal pools was especially strong as bettors went deep in the Derby in light of the lack of a strong favorite. The pick four pool was a record $3.38 million, and the pick five pool was a record $1.73 million.

The chilly local temperature and an early forecast of nearly day-long rain in Louisville likely had an impact on the ontrack crowd, with Churchill reporting attendance of 158,070, well off the record of 170,513 set in 2015. The reported attendance was the seventh-highest in the history of the race, Churchill said.

The decline in attendance also coincided with a $20 increase in the price of a walk-up general admission ticket, to $80. That price has doubled since 2011, although Churchill has provided discounts on the walk-up price if the tickets are purchased in advance as it incrementally raised the price over the past five years.

In contrast to its usual practice, Churchill did not release ontrack wagering figures for the Derby or the Derby card this year. The company did not respond to multiple requests to provide the figures or to provide a comparison of the number of general admission tickets sold in 2016 or 2017.

Churchill has reported that it has spent approximately $125 million on renovations to its Louisville track since 2005, part of an aggressive strategy to leverage the Derby brand and capitalize on demand for premium seating areas sought by the wealthy. The renovations have included the construction of several high-end areas in the grandstand, including the Mansion, a posh, invitation-only area located in the track’s former press box.

In contrast to last year, when the meltdown of TVG’s account-wagering site likely cost Churchill at least $5 million in Derby handle, account-wagering handle this year was especially strong, at least through Churchill’s own account-wagering service, TwinSpires. The company reported that handle through TwinSpires was up 22 percent on both the Derby and the Derby card.

Account-wagering companies aggressively court customers in the lead-up to the Derby, in the hopes of capitalizing on the publicity surrounding the race. Those promotions frequently provide new customers with large deposit bonuses, so a fraction of the betting on the Derby and the Derby card is actually provided by companies within the industry.

Churchill did not respond to requests to provide the total amount of money bet through account-wagering operations on the Derby and the Derby card.

A total of 147 horses ran in the 14 races on Saturday’s card, down from 155 horses on the 14-race card last year. Churchill expanded the Derby card from 13 races to 14 races in 2016.