Growth in Kentucky Derby Day betting virtually unabated in its modern history

April 2nd, 2024

The Kentucky Derby celebrates its 150th running in 2024 as one of the oldest continuously held events and institutions of its kind. It must be remembered, though, that technological advances have made it visible to a wider public for only half that time. Meanwhile, long-standing legal barriers limited their wagering participation on the entire Derby Day program to roughly the last 30 years or so.

Despite these constraints, it’s not difficult to track how increasingly popular the Kentucky Derby, and its surrounding racing program, have become in the latter half of its history. Although there have been a couple minor bumps in the road, the rise has been steady and notably swift when we look at Derby Day business at 10-year intervals.

The nation’s first significant taste of viewing the Kentucky Derby in real time occurred in 1953, when racing’s first television star, a gray colt named Native Dancer, notoriously lost to Dark Star in what would be his lone defeat in a 22-race career. The only way to legally wager on that Derby and eight other races on the program was on site at Churchill Downs. The total handle, or amount bet, was $4.3 million, the equivalent of $49 million in current dollars.

Ten years later in 1963, handle on Kentucky Derby Day had risen to $4.68 million, though that was a decline in real terms ($46.5 million) from a decade earlier. Despite idyllic weather, that year’s Derby simply lacked the star power that Native Dancer had brought a decade before.

That was certainly not the case in 1973, when Secretariat began his race toward Triple Crown immortality by winning the Derby in a still-standing record time. Nine-race programs were still the norm then, yet handle that day was a robust $7.6 million. Adjusted for inflation, it was the equivalent of $52.3 million today.

Business in 1983 proved not so fine in real terms. Hurt by a long inflationary period in the 1970s and early 1980s, and an economy just getting out of a deep recession, handle on Kentucky Derby Day was $11.9 million, or the equivalent of $36.3 million today. Better times, however, were right around the corner.

The 1980s brought significant changes in technology and the relaxing of interstate wagering prohibitions. Churchill Downs began exporting the simulcast and betting rights to the Kentucky Derby race itself to dozens of locations throughout the country, enabling a wider public to legally wager on a race that had long since captured its imagination. By the mid-1990s this would be extended to the full Derby Day program, which had grown to nearly a dozen races.

The figures for Derby Day 1993 show what a huge leap the simulcasting revolution had made. Although betting on the Derby race itself outside Kentucky was still often done in separate pools based on location, rather than comingled with the money bet at Churchill Downs, handle on the card was $52.4 million ($110.4 million today). That was a rise of more than 200% in real terms from a decade earlier.

Full card simulcasting was in full bloom by the early 2000s, and by that time betting by phone and online through advance deposit wagering (ADW) sites were also contributing to an explosion in growth. In 2003, all-sources handle on the Kentucky Day program had risen to $140.3 million, the equivalent of $232.2 million today. That real term increase was more than double what it was a decade earlier.

The world economy hit a rough patch midway between 2003 and 2013 but wagering on Kentucky Derby Day continued apace. All sources handle on the 2013 Derby Day program was $184.6 million, an increase of nearly a third from 2003, though the real term rise was a more modest 3.9%.

The most recent Kentucky Derby Day program in 2023 again set records for all sources handle, when $288.7 million was wagered. The real term increase from 2013 was a robust 19.5%.

As a measure of its popularity with the public, handle on the Kentucky Derby program is a barometer hard to dismiss. Not only does the Derby and its surrounding program frequently continue to set wagering records but has more than kept up with inflation when other aspects of the racing business and other entertainment events have not. 

The sesquicentennial running of the Kentucky Derby finds America’s most famous horse race and its adjoining program on strong footing from a popularity standpoint and in a position to grow even more in the years to come.

YearKentucky Derby Day all-sources handle10-year percent increaseKentucky Derby Day real all-sources handle (2023 dollars)10-year real percent increase
$4.3 million
$49 million
$4.7 million
$46.5 million
$7.6 million
$52.3 million
$11.9 million
$36.3 million
$52.4 million
$110.4 million
$140.4 million
$232.5 million
$184.6 million
$241.5 million
$288.7 million
$288.7 million