More people means more betting

It is going to take a while before we are back to “normal” in the United States, but this past weekend’s Kentucky Derby gave us at least a little glimpse of what something approaching normal used to look like in the sports world. Churchill Downs Incorporated reported that 51,838 fans attended the Derby on Saturday, making it the largest crowd to attend a live sporting event since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sports world last year.

Along with the crowds came the betting money. $233 million was wagered on what is called the Kentucky Derby Day program, an 85% increase from last year. For the big race itself, wagers totaled $155.4 million, nearly double 2020’s numbers. From Opening Night on April 24 through Derby Day on May 1, total betting handle was $314.6 million.

Churchill Downs’ online horse racing, sports betting, and casino gaming platform, took in $62.7 million in handle for the Kentucky Derby Day program, a record for the site. For just the Kentucky Derby race, handle was $40.8 million, an increase of 75% over last year.

The vast majority of bets came from online sources. Official on-track numbers have not been released, but bettors wagered $21.3 million at the Kentucky Derby in person in 2019. Considering the 2019 attendance was three times what it was this year, it is extremely unlikely that 2021 handle was higher.

Internet and television drove handle

There are two primary reasons for the massive jump in online wagers. First, sports betting has spread to more states, thus allowing millions more people to place bets on the various sites. And second, television viewership was way up this year. NBC Sports reported that 15 million people watched the Kentucky Derby over the weekend, compared to just 9.3 million last year, which was the lowest figure ever. The 2021 number came close to 2019’s 16.5 million.

So, since more people watched, there were naturally more people who were interested in putting down a last-second wager. Combined that with the spread of online and mobile sports betting and there you go.

So did Mattress Mack

If there was one other thing that helped in-person betting on the Kentucky Derby besides increased attendance, it was a specific man, Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale. The owner of the Gallery Furniture store chain, McIngvale bet $2.3 million on favorite Essential Quality to win the race. Because of his massive bet, the horse’s odds went from 5/1 to 3/5.

“I wanted to go where the track’s dollars were maximized and the horse owners’ dollars were maximized to support the ecosystem of the entire game,” said McIngvale, explaining why he traveled from Houston to Louisville to place his bet. Churchill Downs gets 10% of all on-track bets, money which then goes toward the race prizes. Had McIngvale placed his bet online, at most half that percentage would have gone toward race purses.

McIngvale is known for his big sports bets, having previously plunked down millions on the World Series and March Madness. He looks at it as marketing dollars, as he runs a promo at his store at the same time, refunding customers’ purchases if they spend at least $3,000 on mattresses and his bet wins.

He lost this time, as Medina Spirit won by half a length.

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