The Kentucky Derby Has Come Quite A Long Way As It Heads Into 150th Running

Written By Grant Lucas on May 3, 2024
American Pharoah during the 2015 Kentucky Derby for a story on the growth in popularity and betting of the Run for the Roses.

Some 91 years ago, West Virginia lawmakers agreed to legalize parimutuel wagering in the Mountain State.

Later that year, in 1933, Hollywood Casino Charles Town, specifically the Shenandoah Jockey Club, opened the state’s first track. It held its inaugural race in December on a still-uncompleted course. Some seven months earlier, Twenty Grand won the Kentucky Derby to claim a $48,725 purse.

Now consider where we stand today.

Hollywood Casino stands as the oldest and biggest revenue-generating casino in West Virginia. The Run for the Roses enters its 150th running on Saturday. And the winning horse will enjoy a massive $3.1 million check.

Indeed, the Kentucky Derby has come a long way over the past century and a half. So, too, has horse betting in West Virginia – especially when you think about the number of ways in which to bet on the Derby, from on-track windows to simulcast lounges to wagering on your own phone through platforms such as FanDuel Racing.

Just how far has the Kentucky Derby come since its inaugural race in 1875?

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Comparing winning purses over 150 years

Let’s start with the aforementioned purse growth.

In 1875, Aristides won the 1 1/2-mile race in 2 minutes, 37.75 seconds. (Just for fun, consider the following: You know what the slowest winning time has been in the last 80 years? 2:07 – in 1945.) As a reward, Aristides trotted away with $2,850, or just shy of $81,000 in 2024 dollars.

On Saturday, the 150th Kentucky Derby will boast a record-breaking purse of $5 million, with $3.1 million going to the winner, $1 million going to the runner-up and the remainder divvied up among the third- through fifth-place finishers.

In January, when he announced the record-setting purse, Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Churchill Downs Inc., called it “a symbol of the health of horse racing in Kentucky.”

Indeed, it does appear so. In more ways than one.

Simulcasting helps Derby betting take off

Off the track, betting on the Derby has boomed over the past 30 years.

Stands to reason, as the Kentucky Derby didn’t see simulcast wagering begin until 1981. And even then, it went away for a few more years until returning three years later. Simulcast – like you’d find at Hollywood Casino Charles TownThe Greenbrier, Mardi Gras Casino & Resort and Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack – allows bettors to get in on the action at racetracks and other facilities aside from Churchill Downs, anywhere in the country.

According to the Louisville Courier Journal, in 1984, betting during Derby Day resulted in just over $25 million in wagers.

Last year, the 149th Kentucky Derby itself drew a record $188.7 million in bets. Taking into account all the other races on Derby Day, all-sources handle amounted to a record $288.7 million. That total topped the previous best by nearly $15 million – that difference itself almost equivalent to the 1984 total.

Handle on the first Saturday in May has topped $200 million in six of the past seven years. (The 2020 race had a limited attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Even winnings have gone off the charts. According to the Kentucky Derby website, the highest $2 payoff came in 1911, when Donerail recorded a massive upset to win at enormous 91-1 odds. That resulted in $184.90. That, of course, came in the “pre-exotics era,” before the exactas and trifectas.

Compare that with 2005: A $1 superfecta bet turned into $864,253.50 after a bettor correctly predicted a Giacomo-Closing Argument-Afleet Alex-Don’t Get Mad finish.

Betting handle has grown nearly 500% over last 70 years

Further illustrating the growth of Kentucky Derby betting, TwinSpires collected all-source handle data dating back 71 years.

In 1953, according to TwinSpires, all-source betting handle for the Derby clocked it at $4.3 million, the equivalent of $49 million in 2023 dollars. Again, compare that to the 149th Kentucky Derby, which boasted $288.7 million.

That represents a growth rate of nearly 500% over seven-plus decades.

YearAll-Sources Handle10-year % increaseHandle in 2023 dollars
1953$4.3 million$49 million
1963$4.7 million9.3$46.5 million
1973$7.6 million61.7$52.3 million
1983$11.9 million56.6$36.3 million
1993$52.4 million340.3$110.4 million
2003$140.4 million167.9$232.5 million
2013$184.6 million31.5$241.5 million
2023$288.7 million56.4$288.7 million
Grant Lucas Avatar
Written by
Grant Lucas

Grant Lucas is the managing editor for PlayWV. A longtime, award-winning sports writer, Grant has covered gambling and legal sports betting since 2018, when he got his start reporting on the New Jersey and Pennsylvania industries. He now oversees West Virginia, one of the few states with legal sports betting, online casino gambling and, soon, online poker.

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