Gambling on horse racing may be down in the United States overall, but the interest in major races and marquee events like the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup are showing strong wagering results. The 144th running of the Kentucky Derby was won by the post-time favorite for the sixth straight year when Justify galloped home a 2½ length winner over a sloppy Churchill Downs surface.
Gamblers rode the favorite to the winner’s circle and the 2018 Kentucky Derby set new records with Churchill Downs reporting an 8% handle increase in both the race and the Kentucky Derby Day program.
Record wagering on Kentucky Derby
From the Kentucky Derby website:
Wagering from all-sources on the Kentucky Derby Day program totaled $225.7 million, an 8% increase over the 2017 total and previous record of $209.2 million. Wagering from all-sources on the Kentucky Derby race increased 8% to $149.9 million from the previous record of $139.2 million set last year.
More than 157,000 fans were in attendance at Churchill Downs during a record Derby Day rainfall of more than 3 inches. Those fans got drenched while enjoying the 14-race card, but their interest in wagering on the races produced an on-track handle of $23 million; the eighth highest in history and more than the $21.9 million wagered at the track during last year’s Derby day.
Legal betting sites and apps drive Derby records
Churchill’s Twinspires.com advance-deposit wagering service posted gains over last year despite being unable to accept bets for about 20 minutes before the Derby due to technical difficulties. The $39.2 million bet through TwinSpires.com on Churchill races was up 15% from last year, and the $24.6 million bet on the Derby itself both online at Twinspires.com and on its mobile app was up 18% over last year.
Those figures do not include legal online wagering at other horse betting sites and apps such as TVG, NYRA Bets, DRFBets or Bet America. Online wagering is clearly helping to increase the handle and amount wagered on horse races, and further online growth is expected with the passage of legal sports betting.
The Kentucky Derby is the marquee race and attraction that drives the wagering interest, but Kentucky Derby week is a six-day event that produced $311.2 million in all-sources handle, another record that was up 9% from the $285.1 million last year.
The importance of the Supreme Court decision
There have been modest gains in horse race wagering since 2014, when $10.5 billion was gambled on horse races in the United States. But that number was down from the $15.2 billion that was bet on horse racing in 2003. The big horse racing events continue to captivate fans.
The U.S. horse racing industry has tried various ways to boost interest and gambling revenues, including the addition of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park the end of January.
- That race had a $12 million purse in 2017 and a $16 million purse in 2018.
- The inaugural Pegasus World Cup had a record $40.2 million wagered on its record-setting day in 2017
- 2018 Pegasus Day drew a record $41.98 million in wagers for the 12-race card with $16.4 million wagered on the richest horse race alone. The two-day all-sources weekend handle of $70 million was fueled by a record carryover in the Rainbow 6 jackpot pool, which soared over $20 million.
So while major horse racing events, big jackpot pools and Pick 6 carryovers drive more wagering interest, it’s the expansion of legalized sports betting in the U.S. that may provide the biggest boost to horse racing beginning this summer. The looming Supreme Court decision expected in June will have an immediate impact in New Jersey, where Monmouth Park has partnered with bookmaker William Hill in providing a sports bar and expanded sports book that will take legal sports bets. Should sports gaming be expanded across the country, some of the new jurisdictions will be at racetracks and not just casinos.
Cross-promotion is critical, and the opportunity to market legal sports betting to those gamblers and potential horseplayers is certain to generate more wagering on horse racing. The expectation is that people will come to the racetrack to bet on sports, and those people will be engaged through wagering on sporting events, in-play wagering and the opportunity to also bet on horse racing. The addition of sports wagering with food, drinks, entertainment and events will fuel the overall interest and experience at the racetrack to include more fans attending and wagering on horse racing.
The horse racing industry has seen some growth by partnering with casino gaming across the country, and a bigger movement and wagering interest is expected with the legalization of sports betting. You can bet on it.