02/15/2013 3:07PM

Steven Crist: Kentucky Derby Future Wager needs fixing

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When Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager closed last Sunday, there was $481,632 bet to win and another $139,861 in the exacta pool, which adds up to $621,493. That may seem like a robust number, but how grand a total is it?

The same afternoon at Santa Anita, more than $1.1 million was wagered on a field of nine $20,000 maiden claimers, and that doesn’t include an additional $1.6 million on multirace bets running through that race. At Aqueduct, the 5th race exacta pool on seven $12,500 maiden claimers totaled $194,165, despite offering a field of just seven and 42 possible exacta combinations – 35 percent higher than a Derby Futures exacta pool with 24 betting interests and 552 possible exacta combinations.

Obviously, there is a difference between betting an actual race with a potential payoff in minutes and speculating on a hypothetical field for a race 12 weeks away. Still, given how heavily promoted and discussed the Derby picture already has been, compared to the silence surrounding the worst races on the card at other tracks, you might expect the Futures to have fared better. It simply doesn’t. None of the three pools offered each year is growing in popularity, despite more than a decade of marketing and promotion. Were it not for the oodles of free publicity it generates for the race, Churchill would have already pulled the plug on it as a business proposition, the way the Breeders’ Cup did with its Futures betting after a two-year experiment in the early 2000’s.

Is there a way to expand interest in Derby Futures and make them at least as attractive to bettors as a dismal mid-afternoon maiden-claiming race? It’s worth a try, and here are three suggestions:

First, the win pool will remain stagnant until Churchill makes it a true future-book wager by offering every Derby nominee instead of just 23 individual horses and a mutuel field consisting of everyone else. Having more than 350 possible betting interests would lift prices, create numerous 500-1 and 1,000-1 shots, and attract plenty of new business from the connections and fans of those 300 extra horses – potential customers who now either pass or have to take 8-5 on “all others.” Most pass or bet through a real future book in Las Vegas.

Some Churchill officials have said that expanding the betting field is a long-term goal, but they’ve been saying that for years with no progress, citing technical hurdles and possible fan confusion. These excuses are flimsy. Tote systems that routinely handle superfecta and pick-six wagers with tens of thousands of possible combinations can easily be programmed to handle 400 win interests. Bettors understand how to play these bets and are not “intimidated” by three-digit numbers. If you have to call out or click number #347 to bet on Verrazano, they can handle that – as sports bettors do for millions of dollars every day in Las Vegas.

Second, the Futures should be targeted to online bettors and ADW account-holders on all platforms and marketed more aggressively to those customers. Of course, the bet should be available ontrack, but the potential for growth lies in targeting players who can access the necessary information on their computing devices, not in hoping that a live customer might be lucky enough to hear the one announcement a day that such bets exist.

Finally, what about trying a radical takeout reduction in the win pool, especially given that Churchill’s main motivation is kindling interest in the main event rather than making money on the bet itself? The public perception is that the Futures can be a sucker bet, given that you lose if your horse doesn’t make it to the starting gate and that even if he does, he might pay more on Derby Day than he did in the Futures. Making the Futures takeout something around 8 percent instead of the usual 16 percent would in itself spark interest in the wager: Who wouldn’t at least think about playing in the lowest-takeout win pool of the year?

Though such a reduction would generate good will, Churchill would not be performing an entirely charitable act. People who have Futures positions will actually bet more on Derby Day, hedging or pressing their holdings as well as playing the multiple and exotic wagers unavailable in the Futures.

This view runs counter to that of some track executives who still believe that things like Futures and multi-race bets are inherently bad for the game because they “tie up” money that would otherwise be churned repeatedly. This outmoded attitude is contradicted by the growth of exotic wagering and the real world experience of people who actually wager: Once you have a stake in a race, you usually go back for more.