If you just look at the betting data from Saturday’s 149th running of the Kentucky Derby, you’d imagine everything is coming up roses for the US horse racing industry. Even the most ardent supporters of the sport in the US would have to admit that would be looking at things through rose-colored glasses, though.
Lean betting numbers on less prominent events and safety issues at notable tracks have plagued horse racing recently. While state governments are working to assist the industry, if it comes to survival, that could be a matter of survival of the fittest.
2023 Kentucky Derby betting bests 2022’s record
Mage was first among the horses in Saturday’s race, but the real winners of the Fastest Two Minutes in Sports were racebooks in the US. According to a Saturday news release from Churchill Downs, “wagering from all sources on the Kentucky Derby Day program set a new record of $288.7 million.”
That bested last year’s record by almost $15 million or about 5.2%. Betting on the Kentucky Derby itself came to just shy of $189 million, also a historic high. While Churchill Downs execs had reason to toast with those mint juleps, it was probably restrained jubilation.
Mage did not outperform the expected cast of competitors on Saturday. Earlier last week, a total of four horses pulled out of the Kentucky Derby. The scratches came after four horses died after racing at Churchill Downs in prior weeks. The early favorite, Forte, pulled out Saturday morning of Derby day.
Investigations into the equine fatalities are ongoing. However, Churchill Downs isn’t the only famous track that has had safety issues recently.
Other tracks facing funding, safety issues
Last month, regulators suspended racing at Laurel Park in Maryland due to five horse deaths taking place in a two-week span there. Racing resumed after an independent inspection of the track and some maintenance. The owners of Laurel Park also own Pimlico Race Course, site of the second Triple Crown race on May 20.
However, that may have amounted to placing a band-aid over a gaping wound. Laurel Park is just one of many tracks that are in need of significant renovations. The issue is serious enough that it has gotten the attention of Maryland’s legislators.
The legislature has sent a bill to Gov. Wes Moore that would essentially force the issue of providing funding for upgrades at horse tracks in Maryland. That could include Pimlico.
In a similar fashion, Belmont Park recently used public funding commitments to secure financing for a complete renovation. Currently, the home of the Belmont Stakes last saw a major renovation in 1968 despite being the home of one of the Triple Crown legs.
Securing government funds to provide necessary track upgrades has become a theme in horse racing. That is partially due to the races failing to regularly convince taxpayers in those places to willingly hand over some of their money.
Betting activity falling on less publicized events
In February, the amount of money bet on horse races in the US fell for the fifth consecutive month. Equibase estimates that racebooks will see $750 million less in wagers on horse races than they did in 2022.
There are many opinions on what’s behind the decline. Everything from people reducing their entertainment budgets because of inflation to tracks raising their fees likely plays a part. At the same time, headlines about equine mortality are probably not helping matters.
On Sunday, Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher spoke about the situation with Gary B. Graves of the Associated Press.
“Everyone in the industry wants to make racing as safe as possible,” Pletcher said. “And even in situations like that where right now everyone is doing everything they can to make sure the horses are going out there in the safest possible conditions, we still had two fatal breakdowns yesterday. It’s something as a trainer that keeps you up at night.”
Negative perception could limit future public financing measures, which could widen the chasm between the majority of tracks around the US and the few that host headliner events like the Kentucky Derby. If the disparity between betting on the Kentucky Derby and other events is any indicator, that’s exactly the fate the sport is headed toward.