Updated on 05/09/2011 5:11PM

Kentucky Derby: Betting numbers mixed but positive

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Betting figures on the Kentucky Derby and the Derby undercard this year weren’t great, but they weren’t bad, and good is good enough right now in the troubled racing industry.

According to Churchill Downs, all-sources handle on the 13-race card on Saturday was $165.2 million, up 1.5 percent over the 2010 card, while betting on the Derby itself was $112.0 million, down 0.6 percent compared with last year’s Derby handle figures. Those mixed results were accountable in part to a slight increase in field size for the entire card this year, due somewhat to the rain-soaked conditions last year, and the lack of a pick six carryover this year.

STEVEN CRIST: Full spreadsheet of handle figures and analysis of Kentucky Derby betting »

But perhaps more important to wagering on the Derby, Uncle Mo, last year’s 2-year-old champion and the horse with the highest name recognition in the field, scratched on Friday, leading to a loss of “millions of dollars” in potential bets, according to Ken Kirchner, a simulcasting consultant who works with Breeders’ Cup. In light of that defection, and persistent declines in wagering at tracks across the United States, Kirchner said that the Derby numbers this year were “more than positive.”

“One hundred and sixty-five million is a big number,” Kirchner said. “I’d be pleased if I were Churchill. Anyone would like to see big increases, but that’s not always possible, and with the wagering environment we’re seeing now, with month-to-month declines of 7 to 8 percent for three years, anything flat or even a small increase at this point is a good thing.”

Also a good thing: Despite the racing industry’s struggle to remain relevant, the popularity of the Derby does not appear to be waning, at least locally. Churchill reported that attendance for the race was a record, at 164,458, besting the mark set in 1974, when 163,268 were on hand. The previous day, for the Kentucky Oaks, 110,122 were in attendance, according to Churchill, the third-highest Oaks day attendance.

On the national front, however, overnight ratings for this year’s Derby broadcast on NBC-TV declined 7 percent compared with the 2010 show, according to NBC, despite aggressive promotional efforts by the network and its family of channels. The overnight rating for the race segment, from 6 p.m. Eastern to 7 p.m. Eastern, was a 9.7, with a 22 share, down from a 10.3 overnight rating last year. The overall rating for the three-hour broadcast was a 7.4, with a 17 share. Final ratings will be released Tuesday, NBC said.

In addition to the relatively strong Derby handle figures, the 12-race Oaks card on Friday set a handle record, at $37.5 million, up 4.2 percent compared with the record set last year. Coupled with the Derby increase, it seems increasingly clear that big-event days such as the Oaks and Derby seem to be somewhat immune to the overall industry declines, as Churchill’s chief executive, Bob Evans, has frequently contended.

The handle increase on Derby day was the second year in a row in which handle grew, a trend that reversed a three-year decline in Derby day handle from 2007 to 2009. Before the declines, handle on the Derby had increased for 16 straight years.

This year, 128 horses competed on the 13-race card, including 19 in the Derby, on a main track labeled fast and a turf course labeled firm (though some jockeys quibbled with that characterization of the turf course, which has sustained heavy rains throughout the spring). Last year, 122 competed on the 13-race card, with 20 in the Derby, on a main track that was sloppy by Derby time, and with two races taken off the turf because of rain. Although the overall increase was slight – average field size this year was 9.8, compared to 9.4 – it’s an industry standard that larger fields typically attract more bets, and races taken off the turf almost always have a negative impact on betting.

The slight decline in the Derby handle can be explained by the loss of Uncle Mo and a $450,000 decline in the amount of pick six handle on the card this year. With a carryover from the Oaks card last year, handle in the pick six was $1,306,381, compared to $847,131 this year. That loss, however, was mitigated by the launch of a new bet this year culminating in the Derby, a 50-cent pick five that attracted $792,396 in handle. Certainly some of the pick five handle cannibalized a portion of the pick six betting.

The Derby was also notable this year for the spread in the odds on the horses that ran. The favorite, Dialed In, was 5.20-1, while the longest shot on the board, Decisive Moment, was 39.50-1. With longshots like Giacomo winning in 2005 at 50-1, and Mine That Bird winning in 2009 at the same price, it appears as if the betting public is extremely reluctant to let a horse go off at greater than 40-1 odds.

“You’d think in a parimutuel market, with 19 horses in the field, and no clear-cut favorite, there would be horses that are 50-, 60-, or 70-1,” Kirchner said. “There seems to be an inability anymore for people to let a horse go at those prices.”