Updated on 05/09/2016 1:35PM

Wagering on Kentucky Derby dips as some bettors get shut out


Handle on the Kentucky Derby this year dipped to its lowest level since 2011, and the overnight television rating slipped to its lowest point since 2012, a surprising show of weakness rooted somewhat in the crash of a popular account-wagering site and, perhaps, the cathartic effect of last year’s successful Triple Crown bid.

The two declines were the biggest standouts in the broad mix of numbers used each year to measure the popularity of the Derby, the most prominent race on the U.S. calendar. In nearly all cases, those measures dipped compared to the records set in 2015, when American Pharoah took the Derby en route to winning the first Triple Crown in 37 years.

Attendance, for example, declined to 167,227, as reported by Churchill, still the second-best in history but down from the record 170,513 reported by Churchill in 2015. All-sources wagering on the Kentucky Derby card this year, $188.9 million, was also the second-highest in history, just behind last year’s record of $191.4 million, but this year’s number was set on a 14-race card, whereas the 2015 card had 13 races.

Betting on the Derby itself was severely compromised by the system crash of the website operated by Television Games Network, which went down at 5:30 p.m. Eastern, 81 minutes before the Derby field left the gate (the race went off 17 minutes after its scheduled post time of 6:34 p.m.). The crash, which TVG officials blamed on “human error” as the company performed a “final readiness check,” shut out thousands of the site’s customers when the system could not be restored by post time.

Total betting on the Derby this year was $123.3 million, down 9.7 percent from record betting of $136.5 million last year, according to charts of the races (the totals do not include the pools for the parimutuel future bets hosted by Churchill in the weeks prior to the Derby). According to figures maintained by the Oregon Racing Commission, where TVG operates its national betting hub, TVG’s account-wagering operation accounted for 8.6 percent of the total betting in the U.S. last year, so it is safe to assume that the crash of the site had a significant impact on Derby betting.

“We know how important it is to provide a great experience to our wagering account holders, not only on the first Saturday in May but every day,” TVG chief executive Kip Levin said in a statement Saturday. “Today, plain and simple, we let many of you down, and we’re sorry.”

In addition, many horseplayers reported that smaller account-wagering sites shut off Derby betting well before the horses entered the gate, perhaps because of the long delay between the scheduled post time and the time the race actually went off. That may have prevented players from making last-minute bets, especially since most serious bettors tend to wait until the waning minutes of the post parade before making their wagers.

Wagering through TVG’s main account-wagering competitor, twinspires.com, was up substantially compared with last year, according to the company’s parent, Churchill Downs Inc. Wagering by twinspires.com customers on the entire 14-race card was up 29 percent, Churchill said, while wagering on the Derby itself was up 22 percent, totaling $16.6 million, CDI said. Twinspires may have benefited from players migrating to the site after TVG went down.

Earlier on the card, handle on the horizontal bets paying off on the Derby, such as the pick six, pick five, and pick four, were all up, so betting on the Derby was expected to be strong since those pools generally predict the overall handle on the final leg in the bets. However, win, place, and show bets on the Derby were down 11.2 percent, exacta betting was down 8.6 percent, trifecta betting was down 10.4 percent, and superfecta betting was down 17.8 percent, according to the charts, suggesting that the TVG system crash and, perhaps, the early shutdown of other ADW sites had a tremendous impact on handle.

But there were other contradictory indications suggesting that this year’s Derby field was not as attractive to bettors as last year’s field. Ontrack handle on the Derby, for example, was down 6 percent, according to Churchill Downs. In addition, this year’s Derby had a 20-horse field, compared with an 18-horse field last year, and while the general rule is that larger fields lead to larger handle, research by Caroline Betts, a University of Southern California associate professor of economics, and Steve Koch, a former Woodbine management official, has suggested that an 18-horse field typically generates higher handle than a 20-horse field.

In addition, no favorite finished in the money in the five races preceding the Derby, which may have strained bettors’ bankrolls late in the card. Still, going into the Derby, betting on the 11 prior races was $57.9 million, up 21.9 percent over wagering on the 10 races preceding the Derby last year. First post on Derby day in both years was 10:30 a.m. Eastern, but Churchill squeezed an extra race onto the card prior to the Derby this year by reducing the time between the other races on the card.

The overnight rating for the race portion of the three-plus-hour broadcast on NBC was a 9.3, down 14 percent from the overnight rating of 10.8 last year. The share, a measure of the percentage of televisions in use that were tuned to the broadcast, was a 21, down 12.5 percent from last year. The rating was the lowest posted for the Derby since a 9.0 in 2012.

The positive media coverage surrounding the successful Triple Crown bid last year has led some to suggest that the sport is enjoying a surge in popularity known as the “American Pharoah effect,” but that theory would seem to be significantly weakened by the decline in Derby television ratings.

While television ratings are becoming less trustworthy due to the growth in alternative ways of viewing an event, it is possible that the nearly four-decade wait for a Triple Crown winner – following nine near misses over the past 20 years – had a cathartic effect on the general public, weakening enthusiasm for the Triple Crown series. The Derby favorite, Nyquist, also seemed to generate far less positive publicity last year than American Pharoah, even though Nyquist was the more accomplished horse going into the Derby.

Despite the various declines, Churchill Downs Inc. said it expects to post record earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization from Derby week this year, with EBITDA up $4.5 million to $6 million for the second year in a row.

“A special thanks to all of the fans of the Kentucky Derby around the world who once again made this an amazing spectacle,” said Bill Carstanjen, the company’s chief executive, in a statement released late Saturday.

Frank More than 1 year ago
Why would you ever have a TVG account when they have a service fee...Idiotic!

Twinspires is free!

Also TVG network is the worst -- They might as well use that flaming boy and Tara because the idiots they have are all worse!

I miss HRTV and there broadcasters -- TVG ruined the HR broadcasting.
Johnny Matheis More than 1 year ago
Churchill Downs cuts their own throats with their self righteousness and greed. Insane. As a mutuels clerk for one of the tracks, I can attest to why people got shut out. Churchill claimed that ten cent supers would slow down the line. Wrong. They take no time to punch out and get paid. What takes time is when customers come up to bet ten cent one combinations, most that add up to a few dollars at least, then it takes ten seconds of being told that they can't do it, along with a shock, then a rethinking, and they either leave to get shut out, or stutter along a new bet. Churchill management is either retarded or just hateful. I've met them. They're both. Let customers bet the ten cent supers, and stop hating two dollar bettors, and they'll make more money.
Steve Brabant More than 1 year ago
It doesnt take those ten cent super bettors longer to "recover" than the insanity of stringing 6 or 7 horse partial wheels together calling out the names of the horses instead of numbers....those 10 centers would have made it worse....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Horse racing is fixed and outcomes are set by the track.  The money and pool distributions are controlled by the track.  Take out is more like 70%, not 20. 
TEDK215 More than 1 year ago
and u can prove this theory by.........?
John Stevelberg More than 1 year ago
like a broken record, at first I thought you were having a bad hair day, but the word that describes you best is "dweeb".
PendolinoSam More than 1 year ago
Churchill Downs Inc. is a very bad company. They force small tracks to take their signal, at a ridiculous price,  just so you can bet the Derby at your local track. Having worked at a small racetrack it wont be long before these small tracks say enough is enough.
Mary Richter More than 1 year ago
My family was prevented from betting on the Kentucky Derby on TVG and we couldn't make the phone system work either because when it asked for the first three letters of the track name neither chu and cdx worked and we just could not think of what else to try. But this was not the first significant problem that we have had with TVG. The other happened recently too. I played a superfecta that should have hit. When I checked my account it listed the wager as failing. The superfecta they listed wasn't the complete set of numbers that I played as they dropped a horse from the 4th position. Before you think that I made a mistake, let me assure you I did not. I have supervised two multi-million dollar enterprises. As such, I do not employ a number in any capacity until it has been double and triple checked. Of course, TVG blew me off. I recommend that anyone using their site take a screen shot of all submitted wagers so that you can prove everything about the wager after the fact. Insult to injury, they didn't even send me the explanatory email this article refers to. I am now shopping for a different online wagering site. Recommendations appreciated.
slewofdamascus More than 1 year ago
try Xpressbet - they have free replays from all the tracks, I have never encountered a problem.
Jodi Malcom More than 1 year ago
I have started using XPressbet, no problems yet.  NYRA's betting site failed, I think it was on Breeder's Cup day, and  I switched.
george More than 1 year ago
Xpressbet in a minute!
george More than 1 year ago
123bet.com rebates even us small players. Problem is they don't contract with Churchill Downs, so wagering $700+ got me two free one-card Daily Racing Forms.
Richard Feingold More than 1 year ago

Uh Dan.... In New Jersey there is a monopoly and TVG is the ONLY game in town.

Take it or leave it. You have to bet $2,500 for a $5 rebate.

Dan Cronin More than 1 year ago
Not sure why anyone wagers there when u get rebates at my place , just silly really
Frank Avilla More than 1 year ago
Every time there's a big day TVG experiences "system problems" which is just crazy.  I was fortunate that I was able to call their phone system and make a couple of wagers but not all that I was going to bet.

A great day of racing was ruined by incompetent people.  What a waste!

Frank Avilla More than 1 year ago
Though I did get the triple your odds on my $10 Nyquist bet on Friday so I'm really happy about that.
Theokleia More than 1 year ago
Just awful.  Took my money plus service fee ...did not place wager.  Now in dispute with PayPal...never again.
Casper More than 1 year ago
Trump has interests in them. no wonder you get cheated.
George Grennan More than 1 year ago
Image if they would allow online better in NC and other states.