Far from having lost luster, Kentucky Derby continues to shine

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

February 19th, 2016

Real Clear Sports, an aggregator of the hottest commentary and news on both a national and regional level, is a site I visit daily (usually more than once as it's updated twice on weekdays). This has been a custom for a long time, so you can imagine what a surprise and thrill it was to see my name on there several years ago when the site picked up a Triple Crown-related piece I had written for

Unfortunately, I think Real Clear Sports was a little wide of the mark on Thursday when an in-house feature compiled by Brian Colella listed the Kentucky Derby (G1) as the #2 Sporting Event That Has Lost Its Luster (from a total list of 10).

Colella writes:

Horse racing used to be "The Sport of Kings" and the Kentucky Derby is still called "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports." But TV ratings say otherwise. The Derby's ratings began a long period of decline in the mid-'70s, not because of the Derby itself but issues surrounding the sport of horse racing in general.

One of the driving forces behind horse racing's popularity has always been betting. For years it was the best and, in many places the only, option to gamble on sports legally. But with the rise of casinos, online sportsbooks and state-sponsored lotteries, America began to abandon the tracks.

First, pretty much all individual sporting events, with the exception of professional and collegiate football games, have seen a general TV ratings decline since the 1970s. That just happens when viewers' options expand from a handful of channels to hundreds.

There's no question attendance and interest in horse racing has declined due to the proliferation of alternative gaming, which has really taken off in the last 25 years or so. However, before that, in the 1980s, the introduction of off-track-betting and inter-track wagering perhaps was a primary driver in the declining number of eyeballs viewing the Kentucky Derby on network television. Why sit in your living room and be counted when you can go to your local track or OTB and actually bet on the race legally and watch it from there?

There have been recent signs of a revival for the Kentucky Derby. When NBC took over the broadcasting rights in 2001, the network made it into a cultural event instead of a sporting event. It began appealing to women, with cooking segments for Derby parties and a red-carpet show discussing the opulent fashion of the elite. TV ratings saw a slight uptick with the new approach, and then with recent horses touted potential Triple Crown contenders, the race has seen the best audiences it's had in decades -- topped by last year's successful run by American Pharoah. Still, it's not the institution that it once was.

All that NBC has done has apparently worked. Nearly 18 million watched American Pharoah cross the finish line in the Derby last May, and an average of 16 million viewed the entire telecast. Yes, that's down from years ago when there were fewer competing options on the tube, but the telecast still attracted between a fifth and a quarter of all people who actually had their television on at that moment. Not bad.

If the popularity of the Kentucky Derby is in actual decline, it's hard to gauge that from on-track attendance and handle. Crowd size last year was a record 170,513 (the previous mark was set three years earlier), and handle on the Derby itself was nearly $138 million. All-sources handle on the entire Derby card continues to creep up toward the $200 million mark. It's an understatement to say those figures compare quite favorably to those from 40 years ago.

The purpose of this rebuttal is not to shill for my employer and its biggest event, but to inject a broader view of the landscape. If Colella had said horse racing as a sporting event in general has lost its luster, the #2 ranking would make a lot more sense.

I agreed with pretty much every other event in the top 10 list (for what it's worth, the World Series was #1). However, I don't think the Kentucky Derby itself has declined as far and as fast, if it all, from such lofty heights compared to others on that list or to those that did not even make it.