Kentucky Derby Is a Good Bet for Many People

United Press International

From money bet at Churchill Downs, to bets laid down on the Run for the Roses at tracks across the nation, to bartenders who turn into bookies for a day, betting on the Kentucky Derby becomes a national obsession.

For two minutes on the first Saturday in May, the eyes of the nation are riveted to television sets as the Kentucky Derby is run.

Many of those watchers have a piece of the action, and the action totals $50 million or more.

Last year $5,770,074 was bet on the Derby at Churchill Downs. Off-track betting at 30 race tracks and in New York and Connecticut accounted for another $14,474,555. Las Vegas bookmakers took in more than $1.5 million, making a total of $21,744,629 in legal bets. Bookies took an estimated $20 million or more in illegal bets, and office and party pools accounted for an estimated $10 million or more.


That adds up to an impressive total that gambling experts say is surpassed only by the Super Bowl for the most money wagered on a single sporting event. Total Super Bowl betting is hard to measure but Las Vegas sources agree there’s nothing close to the Super Bowl at their legal betting places.

Bob Wellman of the weekly Las Vegas gambling paper Sports Form said both the Derby’s fame and its national exposure account for its popularity.

“It’s always been the one horse race everybody, not just race fans, gets interested in,” he said. “And everybody likes to have a little action on what’s on TV.”

Paul Dworin, editor of “Gaming and Wagering Business Magazine” in New York, said the Derby is a very special betting event.


“Everybody’s heard of the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “My mother has heard of the Kentucky Derby, but she doesn’t know about the Belmont. You have the romance. It’s very special.”

Special enough to keep ticket sellers ringing in the money from coast to coast.

It begins with the future-books in Vegas in early March. It ends shortly after 5:30 p.m. on the first Saturday in May when up to 20 horses enter the Churchill Downs starting gate.

When it’s over, $50 million or more has been bet, and since estimating totals from office pools and parties is almost impossible, the total may reach even higher.


Dworin said his magazine estimated total illegal gambling on horse racing in the nation at $6.066 billion during 1984. Legal gambling on horse racing that same year totaled $12.16 billion.

Using the same rate as a guideline, that would mean about $10 million in bets placed with bookies for the Derby last year, but Dworin said that’s only a starting point.

He said the Derby attracts increased wagering through bookies, and he added that only the Super Bowl attracts office pools and party pools like the Derby. Dworin estimated that the total bet through parties and pools might be as much as half of legal betting, with bookies taking in about twice that much.

Lt. Howard Tingle of the Louisville Division of Police Intelligence Squad, which oversees gambling enforcement in the city, said bookies do a big business on the Derby.


“There is at least as much bet illegally as legally,” he said.

A retired Louisville bookie who took bets on the past four Derbys agreed.

He called himself a “low-volume” bookie who took in only about $15,000 on Derby Day, but said “85% of that is on the Derby. On Derby Day people come out of the bushes to bet. It’s the race everybody wants.”

He said he and other bookies often send representatives to Derby parties in Louisville to handle bets by party-goers as well as taking in bets over the phones.


While last year’s illegal betting total on the Derby may have been a record, the legal handle certainly was. It might be a short-lived record, however.

Churchill Downs had established simulcast contracts (where bets are accepted and the race is shown on TV) with 38 race tracks through mid-April. That’s up from 30 a year ago and track President Thomas Meeker expects the number will reach 45 by May 3.

And unlike the illegal bets or the Las Vegas bets, where all the money goes to patrons and bookies, the OTB arrangements makes money for Churchill Downs.

From the $14.5 million bet through OTB outlets, Churchill Downs realized a profit of $953,000, Meeker said.


That money and the 11% the track takes from its own Derby handle add up to about $1.5 million which is kicked back to the track from this one race.

Fifty-one% of that goes to improve purses at the track while 49% goes into its general fund.

The impact of that one race on the entire race meeting at Churchill Downs is enormous, Meeker said. Money from OTB alone accounts for $800-$1,000 extra in the purse of every race run at the track all year, he said.

“It enhances our program at Churchill Downs and it increases the handle at tracks throughout the country,” he said.


Whatever the take throughout the nation is, that might just be a tip of the iceberg, Meeker said, because it does not include foreign betting.

“The sports books in England make a killing off of us,” he said.