The Kentucky Derby around the world: How Australia does Derby

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TwinSpires Staff

May 4th, 2016


Imagine for a moment that the Kentucky Derby was not on a Saturday afternoon in the spring. Instead, it was run in the autumn on a Sunday morning, right before a big day of pro football.

Never in a million years, right? Actually, that is exactly how America’s biggest race is consumed live by bettors and racing fans in Australia.

“I reckon most people would be betting from home,” said Tristan Merlehan, a bookmaker who is CEO of the family-operated TopSport in Sydney. “But on the big events like the Super Bowl and potentially when the Derby is on, they might go to the bar and make a day of it. Watch the races, have some brekkie and maybe stay in the bar with the Aussie sport.”

Having lived in Australia for three years of the 2000s, I took in the Smarty Jones, Giacomo, and Barbaro victories from half a world away at around 8:30 a.m. local time on those Sunday mornings either in a legal betting shop or in a bar with betting machines.

“Given that it’s the early hours of the morning, the pools aren’t as big as we would normally have,” said Brett Gorman, the Sydney-based general manager-international for Tabcorp, Australia’s biggest bookmaker. “It would be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Obviously, if someone came along to have a fairly sizable bet – $2,000, $3,000, $4,000 bet into a $30,000 or $40,000 pool – that can have a significant impact on distorting those odds.”

But the reality is the Derby is not so much for the big-time horseplayer in Australia as much as it is for the average bloke wanting to have a punt.

“The sort of people that are awake and punting are your rank-and-file customers who really do like their betting, and they love their racing,” Gorman said. “They’re a fan of the sport rather than someone who is going to have a sizable bet.”

It is not just Derby. Both Gorman and Merlehan said there is a lot of upside to U.S. racing in Australia much as there has been with Aussie races filling our betting void at night after American tracks have called it a day.

“It’s a real positive from our sense with the timing of it,” Merlehan said. “American races that we bet on are on at around about 9 or 10 in the morning. They flow through for the punters. If they’re up early, they can bet on the American stuff first and then roll into the Australian racing.”

Taking it one step further, Gorman said a big part of his job is to fill the wagering day for Tabcorp’s 5,000 betting outlets nationwide, not to mention its TV, radio and app customers who number in the millions.

“That means in the morning time slot we bring in American racing to fulfill that breakfast time slot,” Gorman said. “That then leads into New Zealand racing about 10 o’clock our time. Then it goes into local racing, and we pick up Asian racing, and then later in the evening we pick up European and South African racing. We have racing that starts at about 8 a.m. and then it goes into about 4 a.m. the next morning.”

Because of all the red tape with the dozens of racing jurisdictions in the U.S., and because take-out rates are lower Down Under, bookmakers in Australia have resisted diving into the deep end of the combined betting pool. Rather than get into the messy co-mingling with the American handle, they set up their own pools – both pari-mutuel and fixed odds – independent of what will flash on the tote board at Churchill Downs or at sports books in Las Vegas. While the odds to win on Nyquist were not all that different last month – 4-1 at Wynn Las Vegas; 7/2 at Tabcorp – there was quite the difference with long shots – Shagaf, for instance, was 25/1 at Wynn; 35-1 at Tabcorp.

“I don’t think the bookmakers over here have quite got the perfect recipe of how to set the markets yet,” Merlehan said.

Gorman said that is to be expected, and it is part of the allure of betting the race in Australia.

“There could be value in a horse or horses over here that you may not necessarily see in America,” he said. “The way we view it, all the smarts are going to be locally in Kentucky on the day. Occasionally you might find some value on a horse in a stand-alone pool or a ‘B’ pool like ours that you may not get locally. Likewise you might get unders on something because of the fact a few people have backed it. But we’re in it now. We’re doing a lot more American racing now – six days a week, so that’s good.”

Of course, stars can drive betting, too. American Pharoah certainly did it last year, and not just in the U.S. From the Belmont Stakes on, Australian interest in American racing peaked whenever Pharoah ran. But also like here, the momentum from his Triple Crown may be fleeting.

“There might be some carry-over,” Gorman said. “You’d be brave to say it would be big. What American Pharoah probably did was bring a number of our customers along for the ride where they would not normally be showing interest in the racing given it’s early in the morning. I’d say there will be more customers interested in the Kentucky Derby than there were previous to American Pharoah, that’s for sure.”

If there is one thing that would make Kentucky Derby betting soar in Australia, the bookmakers there agreed it would be an Australian having a big role in the Run for the Roses. Say a visiting jockey, a trainer like Ian Wilkes or Brian Lynch, or better yet, a horse.

“We had So You Think racing over in there,” Merlehan said, referring to the Australian star’s sixth-place finish in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic. “That was probably the biggest spike we have had in American racing over here. That was really what made it grow in Australia. There’s certainly a much bigger buzz or vibe when there’s an Australian runner or some sort of connection to an Australian jockey or trainer there.”

With a huge majority of Australian races run on turf, it would be a long shot to suggest a horse from there would be put through the costly effort to qualify for the Kentucky Derby let alone ship across the Pacific and race in it. For now then, the appeal remains a big race in another land, in another season, giving racing fans something to bet on while enjoying Vegemite toast, a bowl of Weet-Bix and a flat, white coffee.

Not that the traditions that go along with the first Saturday in May are completely strange on Australia’s first Sunday after.

“Whenever ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ comes on, my mother gets very emotional,” Merlehan said. “My mum and dad went to the race a couple years. They lived in America a good 10 years. And I everyone here watching the Derby probably calls friends in America for a little bit of advice. They may not know much about, but people feel they’re the experts on the race when it comes around.”