Kentucky Derby Betting Returns to Pre-Pandemic Heights

  • Churchill Downs Inc. reported that bettors placed wagers totaling $233m on Derby Day
  • Online betting set a record, with TwinSpires handling $62.7m in Derby Day bets
  • A crowd of 51,838 was the the largest audience at a US sporting event since pre-pandemic
  • Mattress Mack lost his wagers worth $2.3m on pre-race Derby favorite Essential Quality
Entrance to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby
The 2021 Kentucky Derby betting handle returned to pre-pandemic levels, with $233m wagered on all races over the weekend and $155.4m on the Derby itself. [Image:]

Getting back to normal

The weekend was a good one for the horse racing industry, as betting handle figures returned to pre-pandemic levels across the 14-race Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs Inc. reported that bettors placed $233m worth of bets on the races, making it the second-largest handle on Derby Day. The record of $250.9m in bets came in 2019. This is normally the US horse racing event that takes in the most bets each year.

$155.4m went toward betting on Saturday’s Kentucky Derby itself

Breaking down the total handle figure, $155.4m went toward betting on Saturday’s Kentucky Derby itself. The record handle for this particular race is $165.5m. These figures cover all sources, including on-track at Churchill Downs, at other race tracks, and online.

Churchill Downs did not report the specific handle that came from on-track betting. Because of the reduced crowds this year as a result of pandemic-related restrictions, it is likely that it would not surpass the $21.3m in on-track bets from 2019.

A new online handle record

Online bets did set a record this year on race day. The Churchill Downs-owned TwinSpires online betting platform reported a preliminary record handle of $62.7m. TwinSpires took in $40.8m for the Kentucky Derby race alone.

The total online handle for the race day was a 66% year-on-year rise and the Derby handle was a 75% increase. One of the contributing factors for the larger number of online bets was significantly higher viewership numbers.

NBC Sports revealed preliminary data on Sunday that estimates an average of 15 million viewers tuned in for the day’s broadcast. This compares to only 9.3 million last year, which was the lowest television audience number in the history of the race. The average number of viewers in 2019 was 16.5 million.

The crowds return

On Saturday, 51,838 people were in attendance at Churchill Downs for the day of racing, the biggest crowd to attend a sports event in the US since the start of the pandemic. This attendance figure, however, is well below the 150,720-person crowd in 2019.

today it was incredibly gratifying to welcome our fans back to Churchill Downs”

In the delayed 2020 Kentucky Derby, little to no crowds were permitted. Betting on the races last year was just $126m. Speaking in a statement about Saturday’s racing, Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said: “Today it was incredibly gratifying to welcome our fans back to Churchill Downs for the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby.”

Medina Spirit came on top in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday by half a length. It was trainer Bob Baffert’s seventh Derby win, which is a new record. Jockey John Velazquez was on board his fourth Kentucky Derby winner.

Derby wasn’t good for Mattress Mack

The Kentucky Derby often attracts a lot of big bets. Well-known sports bettor and Texas businessman Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale reportedly wagered $2.3m on the race. He placed these bets in person with cash, backing the pre-race favorite Essential Quality.

The 70-year-old was contemplating placing as much as $4m on the race after wiring this sum to Churchill Downs. His reasoning for placing the bet at Churchill Downs was because the money would help Kentucky horsemen and the Kentucky Thoroughbred racing fund. As a result of Mattress Mack’s bets, the odds for an Essential Quality win dropped from 5/1 to 3/5. Unfortunately for the furniture store chain owner, Essential Quality could only manage a fourth-place finish in the race.

In conjunction with the Kentucky Derby bet, Mattress Mack offered a refund to customers who purchased a mattress for at least $3,000 if the race favorite was the winner. Providing his reasoning for backing Essential Quality, Mattress Mack explained that six of the seven previous Kentucky Derby winners were the pre-race favorite.

Mattress Mack has placed numerous other high-profile sports bets in recent years. Most recently, he lost a $1m bet on the Houston Cougars to win the NCAA Men’s Division 1 college basketball tournament.

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