Despite inch upon inch of rain and a weather forecast that could have chased away patrons, the May 1 Derby more than held its own. Handle and reported attendance were up from 2009, providing a boost for Churchill, Kentucky racing, and the generally sour pari-mutuel industry.
“It was incredible, just incredible,” Churchill Downs vice president of communications John Asher said in looking back on the Derby and record Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) program the previous day, when the weather was spectacular.
All-sources handle on the 13-race Derby day program was $162,749,136, up 4.3% from $155,969,770 in 2009. All-sources handle for the Derby itself, with a 20-horse field, was $112,727,554, up 7.8% from $104,563,501 last year.
The bigger surprise was on-track business, which was solid despite day-long rain.
Total on-track handle on the Derby card was $21,497,204, up 1.4% from $21,191,305 last year. At Churchill the Derby itself attracted $11,059,210, up 8.8% from $10,164,997 a year ago.
Derby day attendance was reported at 155,804, up 1.5% from 153,563.
“This easily was our best wet-track Derby,” Asher said. “The previous best was in 2004, when Smarty Jones won. The crowd showed up pretty much like the weather forecast—there was supposed to be a break in the rain in the afternoon. It was a late-arriving crowd; when the afternoon came, the crowd exploded.”
With each passing year the Kentucky Oaks continues to take on a bigger life of its own. The reported attendance of 116,046, up 5.5% from 110,336 in 2009, was a record for the event.
And the Oaks offered more proof that field size matters. Last year, when Rachel Alexandra romped in the Oaks against six rivals, the race generated total handle of $6,839,926.
Rachel Alexandra was great for the eye but not for handle as evidenced by this year’s figures. With a full field of 14, the Oaks produced a total handle of $10,577,041, up 54.6% from last year.
The Oaks itself produced $2,750,669 in wagering on track, up 49% from $1,844,649 last year.
For the day, all-sources handle of $35,966,039 was up 19.8% from $30,020,877 in 2009. On-track handle for Oaks day was $11,854,343, up 13.2% from $10,475,352 last year.
Churchill officials called the numbers encouraging, given an equipment failure at the AmTote Oregon betting hub. The incident, which occurred before the Derby, led to lost wagers through advance deposit wagering providers such as TwinSpires.com and XpressBet.com, and betting outlets such as Arlington Park and Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots.
“We are sorry customers throughout the country experienced difficulty placing wagers on the Kentucky Derby and the undercard, and we promise to get a full and complete accounting from AmTote of the failures,” Churchill president Kevin Flanery said.
Asher noted one external factor—a perceived slight improvement in the economy—may have aided the 2010 numbers for the two days of racing. Another factor, and perhaps the most important, is the allure of the Kentucky Derby.
“There’s nothing like it in our sport or any other sport,” Asher said. “It is what it is. On Saturday, people were so excited about sharing this moment and event. There also are some signs the economy has turned a bit, so people were in the mood to celebrate.”
Churchill officials noted advance sales and sponsorship interest were up this year, and hotel operators in the region said 2010 was the best Derby week in a few years.
And there was the odd break in the weather. Asher said about 90 minutes before post time for the Derby, the weather map showed a “huge multicolored mass moving toward us” with an expected arrival about Derby time. But from the time the horses left the paddock until the end of the race, the sun came out.
“If you don’t believe we have something special going on here…I don’t know how else to prove it to you,” Asher said.