The speed of legal sports betting’s expansion across America in the last four years has surprised even the most bullish advocates. On any given day in a majority of states, Americans can bet on just about any outcome in the world of sports.

The next point in a game of tennis. The total runs in the next inning of a baseball game. The number of corner kicks for a team in a soccer match.

But if you legally wanted to bet on the Kentucky Derby other than the day before or day of the race, you have but a few weekends to place pari-mutuel bets, in limited pools, and through underdeveloped advanced deposit wagering.

Churchill Downs offered five opportunities to bet Derby futures for its 2022 edition, to be run this coming Saturday. Win and exacta pools were available, as well as a bet on the winner’s sire and the sires of the exacta finishers. Total handle across all of the Derby-only pools was $1.88 million. An Oaks/Derby double future was offered and handled less than $85,000.

Roll back the clock to 2002 and Derby future betting was just three pools over three weekends with win betting only. Total handle that year was a combined $1.5 million which when adjusted for inflation, equates to about $2.36 million today. Despite additional pools and dates, Interest measured by inflation-adjusted handle is down about 20%.

Sports betting is not legal in Kentucky at present, but that would not preclude Churchill Downs from striking future deals with operators in states that permit fixed odds betting on racing.

The opportunity for the Kentucky Derby and its qualifying series to dominate the landscape in coming years is strong. While pari-mutuel futures on the big race have stagnated, a far more diverse market of fixed odds opportunities should be within reach.

Markets for horses to win the Derby, finish in the top three or four placings or even just to make the final field should permeate sports book offerings. Each horse entered for a Derby points-earning race should be given an over/under on total number of points earned that season.

The Derby is not alone, here. Imagine Travers or Pacific Classic futures dominating discourse at the big summer meets. The Breeders’ Cup could be a months-long punt. Futures betting becomes a form of marketing our sport’s biggest days.

Fixed odds futures betting will never surpass handle on the day, after the confirmed fields, draws, jockeys and conditions are known. But American racing is ripe for a far more diverse set of betting options on all of its races and particularly its most prestigious.

The betting menu which will be available for roughly two days leading to the 2022 Kentucky Derby is not much different than the 2002 Derby. The intra-race, pari-mutuel bets are nearly all the same bar the introduction of the super high-five. Multi-race bets have merely been versioned to create more opportunities to include the Derby as the ending race in a sequence of top-quality races.

That’s not innovation.

If you like Messier and dislike Taiba, you should be able to bet Messier to beat Taiba, heads-up. There should be 380 head-to-head matchups priced for your pleasure.

There should be a Derby win market without Epicenter or Zandon.

There should be a prop on the margin of victory.

You should be able to back just about any opinion you might have on America’s best race.

But for now, legally, that is mostly a pipe dream. Countless options exist in grey or illegal markets, none of which share revenue with the sport.

Sports betting in America has gone from popular but shadowy and generally unregulated, bar a few limited areas, to ubiquitous and well-regulated. Horse racing needs to engage in that flourishing space.

Much about gambling in America has changed, but racing’s offerings have remained pretty much the same. Derby, Preakness, Belmont and Breeders’ Cup betting should look very different in the next few years than it has for the last two or three decades.

Day-to-day racing will start changing too, and that begins this Saturday at Monmouth Park as they launch fixed-odds betting alongside their legacy pari-mutuel offerings. The start will be slow – limited to on-track bets only – but is due to grow to New Jersey’s many online bookmakers, and with simulcast races in the mix later. Colorado is believed to be next in line with other states pursuing the opportunity as well.

The U.S. racing wagering playing field should look far different in the coming years. The last two decades are as forgettable as they appear.


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