Wagering on the 14 races of the Breeders' Cup held at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Friday and Saturday jumped 15.5 percent compared with the betting totals for the 14 races last year and established a record for the event, according to figures provided by the organization on Monday.
The sizeable gain in betting handle bucked a two-year trend in which national racing handle has been dropping at an annual rate of approximately 7.5 percent. It also represented the first significant year-over-year gain in handle on the Breeders' Cup since 2006, the last year in which the Breeders' Cup was limited to eight races held on one day.
The attempt by the popular mare Zenyatta to run her unbeaten record to 20 races in a row in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic undoubtedly had an impact on the wagering numbers, as demonstrated by a tripling in the television rating for the segment of the broadcast that featured the Classic. But other factors also played important roles, including a 1.2-horse increase in average field size for the 14 Breeders' Cup races, a $2-million increase in pick six handle on Saturday that also fueled increases in other pools as pick six players hedged their bets deeper in the card, and a decision by Breeders' Cup to lower the minimum bet for popular wagers like the trifecta, pick three, and pick four.
"All of that worked to generate a big upswing in the business, which is very encouraging, considering the problems in the parimutuel market right now," said Ken Kirchner, the simulcasting consultant for Breeders' Cup.
Including separate-pool handle from most international jurisdictions, total all-sources handle on the 14 races was $157.5 million, compared with $136.5 million last year, when the Breeders' Cup was held at Santa Anita Park. Several foreign jurisdictions had yet to report their handle totals to Breeders' Cup by late on Monday. The jurisdictions will probably account for approximately $100,000 in total additional handle, Kirchner said.
Total all-sources handle for the two 10-race cards on Friday and Saturday was $173 million, up 12.8 percent compared with total all-sources handle of $153.3 million at Santa Anita last year for a nine-race card on Friday and a 10-race card on Saturday.
Handle on the Classic set a record, with $25,520,892 bet on the race, not counting multi-leg wagers linked to the stakes. A total of $2,858,321 was placed on Zenyatta to win, also a record. Zenyatta finished second in the Classic to Blame, the second choice.
A total of 164 horses ran in the 14 races on Friday and Saturday for average field size of 11.7, the largest field size average since Breeders' Cup adopted the two-day format in 2007 and an 11.4 percent gain over the field size average of 10.5 last year. Increases in handle typically accompany increases in field size.
Kirchner said that handle in the exotic pools were most heavily affected by the interplay between field size and the lower minimums, as bettors spread their bets to include high-priced horses in their exactas, trifectas, and multi-leg wagers. The lower betting minimums also gave incentives for bettors to play the same wager multiple times because of the potential to avoid mandatory tax withholding on bets with high payoffs.
"I think what we saw is that a lot of people were playing the same 50-cent boxes and keys multiple times, and what happened is that for a lot of people, their individual volumes went up because they could afford to play so many combinations," Kirchner said, adding that the 50-cent minimums will remain in place next year. "You know how gamblers are: If we feel good about what we're betting, we're going to bet more."
The handle figures also benefited from the first pick six carryover in the four-year history of the event being held on two days. The pick six pool on Saturday was $6,058,282, the second-largest pool ever for the event, after bettors poured $5,240,640 into the pool on Saturday to chase the $817,643 carryover from Friday. Many of those bettors also hedged the pick-six play later in the card, contributing to gains in other exotic pools.
Attendance figures were just as strong as the betting figures, with 72,739 ontrack on Saturday, a 23.6 percent gain on the attendance figure for the Saturday card last year at Santa Anita. Attendance on Friday was 41,614, a 10.5 percent gain over the Friday attendance of 37,651 last year.
Next year's Breeders' Cup will also be held at Churchill Downs. This year, two races on the Friday card were held after sundown, and the Classic on Saturday was also held under the lights.
Greg Avioli, the president of Breeders' Cup, said that the organization has not made a decision on whether to push the two cards later into prime time next year, but he said that the organization and its broadcast partner, ESPN, believed that running the races under the lights "certainly was pleasing from an aesthetic point of view."