12/11/2015 1:32PM

Simon: Exploring new frontiers for Derby future bets


The prime property of Churchill Downs Inc. is the Kentucky Derby and the publicly traded company tries to maximize revenues from that singular event to boost its bottom line. For a company that has diversified its portfolio broadly outside racing, the Derby is its one big chip left in the sport.

So it was with interest we saw that Churchill had instituted a new future wager on the Kentucky Derby, one for sires, that became available the last weekend of November.

First, it’s good to see that Churchill is thinking outside the box and coming up with a new wager, one that has not before been used in racing. They get props for that.

That said, a future wager based on sires is harder to handicap and understand than one based on likely or possible entrants, and is a much more difficult proposition when potential runners for each sire are not defined. That’s because nominations for the Triple Crown races do not close until mid-January and the list of nominations is not released till around Feb. 1.

While the first Derby future wager for horses also opened the last weekend of November, there will be three more pools for Derby futures, in February (12-14), March (11-13), and April (1-3). There will be one Kentucky Oaks Future Wager, March 11-13, long after form has been established among 3-year-old fillies so bettors can wager with some degree of knowledge of the merits of contenders and what odds they are willing to take seven weeks before the event is run.

The Kentucky Derby Future Sire Wager, however, was being made available just once, so bettors did not know the exact list of nominees each sire would be represented by as potential runners in the Derby on May 7.

Churchill did publish a list of statistics for each of the 23 sires in the future pool in its program to aid bettors, and also provided for each sire a list of all their $30,000-plus earners in the present juvenile crop. Also included was how each sire has done with past Derby starters, as well as statistics on the number of 2-year-olds they have, average yearling price from 2014 auctions, and average sales price for juveniles sold at auction this year. The data also included number of starters, winners, stakes winners, top money earner for each, and average winning distance for their progeny. For those who appreciate sire stats, it was a good package of information.

We would have preferred, though, that Churchill had waited until nominations were out before offering this wager so that bettors could get an actual list of nominees for each sire. It also would have been better had Churchill brought the wager back in February or March, once nominations were announced, so bettors could see the first pool and where value may lie in the second pool. Offering the wager a second time would have helped establish the market for the wager as well.

In terms of how the future sire wager was accepted, the pool that closed Nov. 29 totaled $29,696, with $26,751 wagered on individual sires and the remainder in the exacta pool. That compares to $141,925 bet on individual runners in Derby future wager Pool 1, which was open at the same time as the sire wager. Then again, the new wager was not announced until just a few days before the pool opened so probably few bettors knew about it.

So here’s a suggestion: In future years, bring back the future sire wager for a second pool after nominations have closed and once form has been established among contenders. The concept is a good idea. It just needs some work.

And speaking of future years, here are some ideas Churchill could use for additional future wagers.

Kentucky Derby Future Trainer Wager. Trainers are every bit as important to the winning formula as the horse, and trainers are the most recognizable of all entities in racing, whether it’s the Derby or just everyday racing. Horses change every year; trainers, at least the best of them, are constant in their ability to get horses into the starting gate for the Derby.

In a trainer wager, there would be a lot of action on such familiar Derby-winning trainers as Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, D. Wayne Lukas, Doug O’Neill, and Shug McGaughey, but other high-profile trainers who have never won the race would also attract a lot of play: Steve Asmussen, Chad Brown, Mark Casse, Kiaran McLaughlin, and Dale Romans. You wouldn’t even need a list of nominees to offer that wager: It could be offered in November.

Kentucky Derby Future Color Wager. This would allow bettors to place wagers on what color the winning horse might be: chestnut; dark bay/brown; bay; or gray/roan. Bettors could see the color of the best runners and wager accordingly. On the flip side of that coin, someone would not need knowledge of handicapping to place a wager on their favorite color. And while serious handicappers might scoff at the thought, many people do bet by color. The color gray would likely attract an inordinately higher percentage of handle compared to the actual percentage of gray nominees.

Kentucky Derby Future Post Position Wager. The simplest of all bets and one that should appeal to those who like to play numbers. There would be 20 numbers, with historical data available to bettors who do want to “handicap” by post position. This wager can be offered at any time until post positions are drawn Derby week, and the pool can be open for months. It provides an opportunity for offering futures on exactas, trifectas, and supefectas, which would appeal to people who play lotteries. It would give those ticketholders a rooting interest on the Derby and they would not need to know anything about racing.

These proposed wagers individually may not produce handle equal to the original Derby future wager, but when combined they could. Ultimately, the game is dependent on handle, and racing must diversify its wagering platforms to increase handle. It also needs to expand its fan base.

Wagers that are simple and can be made by anyone without handicapping knowledge are good for the game because they could expand the audience of the sport.

And what better way to introduce new bets than through the most recognizable commodity racing has to offer, the Kentucky Derby?