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Kevin Smith

Kentucky Derby Still Lacks Draw for Online Bookies

4 May 2001

For the next six weeks horseracing will enter the mainstream of sports media in the United States.

Saturday's127th running of the Kentucky Derby, and the chance of a horse winning the Triple Crown for the first time since 1978, will capture the hearts and attention of sports fans all over the states.

It is that kind of intense media coverage and fan excitement that online sports betting operators are hoping to harness into a stronger betting market for them.

U.S. operators admit the Triple Crown, which kicks off Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., is the most recognized horseracing event of the year. While the event may get plenty of play on sports talk shows in America, the global reach of the Triple Crown still has a great deal of untapped potential.

Some European bookmakers are still shying away from even taking U.S. clients and those who do say U.S. bettors represent a very small percentage of their overall horseracing business.

Last year William Hill was the official bookmaker of Churchill Downs in the United Kingdom. The firm's PR manager, David Hood, said the agreement wasn't extended to this year because the two sides couldn't agree on a price, but the company still sees the Kentucky Derby has a big event.

"We are still actively promoting the race within our structure," he said. "The importance of U.S. racing has been growing since the inauguration of the Breeders Cup races. However, the Kentucky Derby in particular has attained reasonable growth over the last three years due to the globalization of the betting industry via the Internet, live TV coverage in the U.K. and (from a U.K. perspective) the participation of the Godolphin challenge."

Blue Square, the popular U.K.-based betting portal, does accept bets from U.S. residents, but the company admitted that Triple Crown action doesn't attract that much attention unless there are English horses or jockeys in the event.

"To be honest, it's not a huge thing over here unless we have a runner," said Blue Square spokesperson Ed Pownall.

The U.K.'s largest sports betting group, Ladbrokes, will not see any bets placed on the Derby from U.S residents, and that is by choice.

"We don't take bets from the U.S. and the Kentucky Derby is only of real interest there," said Andy Clifton of Ladbrokes. "Our turnover on it would be tiny in comparison."

In the U.S. struggling horseracing site is hoping the Triple Crown can help the company to turn the corner financially. remains in hot water with the Nasdaq and could be delisted if the stock doesn't make a significant move by the end of the month. Robert Fell, CEO of, admits the Triple Crown can be a great opportunity.

"These are the three most recognized races in the year in the U.S.," he said. "There will be a lot of attention turned on horse racing. The window won't be open long before the sport is thrust to the back burner again, but hopefully we can capitalize on the attention the Triple Crown gets in the mainstream media."

Like Pownall, Clifton feels that a certain amount of patriotism would draw some U.K. bettors to the race if there was an English interest.

"I think that the only time the race will become significant for us is when there is a British trained horse with a significant chance of winning," he said. "Even then it is unlikely to achieve more than 1 percent of the turnover of the English Derby in the short term."

Using last year’s event as a guide, Hood said William Hill has been offering Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown-related bets for the last couple of months, but still the event is small change in the overall picture.

"We offer fixed odds ante-post markets for the Derby from about the end of February, and each year we see a slight growth," he said. "However, our handle still pales significantly compared to the major U.K. races at this time. This is due to the structure of our business. We are Britain's leading bookmakers in terms of portability, but our structure is made up of three parts. We have 1,550 high street shops that cater for the smaller staking, day-to-day punter. We have a tax-free telephone betting operation and a tax-free Internet operation that now boast clients in over 200 countries between them."

The three formats give Hill three different sets of bettors.

"Shop punters will only bet a little on U.S. racing because they still have very limited access to the U.S. form," he said. "Only the sophisticated punter will access the DRF via the Internet and bet via that means or the telephone."

For William Hill, most of the traffic generated from the Internet is geared toward betting on sports rather than races.

"Our betting on the U.S. races is more of a service to those clients interested than a necessity to our business," Hood said. "However, as an estimate I guess we would now turnover several million per year on U.S. racing."

Pownall feels the Triple Crown could continue to market itself as an international event, but the English horseracing scene on dirt would need to improve before a large amount of punters are drawn to it.

"We need to get some decent races on dirt before it becomes a target," he said. "Dirt racing here is very low quality compared to the turf, hence we always lose in the Breeders Cup."

Clifton said if the legal front in the United States changes, his company would certainly look at the Triple Crown as a major event for getting subscribers.

Kentucky Derby Still Lacks Draw for Online Bookies is republished from
Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith