Community Economy

 

The Run for the Roses will happen without spectators in the stands this year, but that won’t prevent gamblers from placing millions of dollars in bets. In fact, one researcher predicts that even without fans at the track, this year’s Derby could see more money wagered than ever before as gambling moves online. Online gambling has already seen dramatic growth amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Financial records from Churchill Downs show that while the postponement of Derby pushed its overall second quarter revenues way down, revenues from online wagering grew from $96 million in 2019 to $121 million in 2020 — that’s without a Kentucky Derby, fewer races overall and the absence of spectators.

Louisville resident Jayce Walker has loved Derby since she was a child. This year, she plans to watch the race from home, and place her bet using Churchill Downs’ TwinSpires app.

“I always thought I was kind of lucky because as a kid we would go to Derby parties, and I would always pick the winning name out of the hat,” she said.

Walker isn’t a big gambler. She usually just places a few $2-bets around Derby time, picking her horse based on its name or the jockey’s silks. She loves how involved it makes her feel in the race and the moment.

“You’re surrounded by people that are just so excited, and you’re getting to watch the horse as you’re holding your ticket — it’s just the whole movie-feel of it,” she said.

But as much as she loves the excitement of the track, Walker said she bets more when she’s using the app, even if it’s just a few more dollars.

“It’s just like online shopping. It’s so much easier to spend your money when you’re not watching it,” she said.

The ease of the app may be one reason why TwinSpires is taking off. Last year the app’s handle on the Derby grew by 23%. The pandemic appears to have further accelerated the app’s handle.

In the second quarter of 2020, the amount wagered through Twinspires grew even as the number of users fell by more than half. Individual players are betting and losing far more online than they were before the pandemic. Churchill Downs says the net revenue per active player nearly tripled in the second quarter compared to the same time last year.

“It is pretty amazing how gambling in general has increased during the pandemic,” University at Albany-SUNY Psychology Professor Edelgard Wulfert told WFPL News. Wulfert studies gambling addiction and provides treatment.

“I can only imagine that in part it has to do with the fact that many of us feel lonely, so we crave interactions, and we cannot have these interactions,” she said.

Wulfert said a combination of loneliness, extra free time and boredom may be fueling the growth of online gambling. But she believes most of the growth comes not from social gamblers, like Walker, but from people who struggle with gambling addiction.

“People who really are high-level gamblers, I mean beyond social gambling, I think they are looking for ways at this point to find gambling opportunities,” she said.

Those opportunities are now almost exclusively online.

With the pandemic-fueled rise in online-betting by experienced gamblers, the ease of the app and the potential for a triple-crown winner, Wulfert said she thinks more money could be wagered on this Derby race than any before it.

“People are bored, they don’t have an outlet. They have probably money to spare because they have not spent money on other things. So I would predict that yes, the amount of money that will be bet on Saturday will increase compared to last year,” she said.

Last year’s Derby set an all-time wagering high for the race. Gamblers bet $250.9 million on the Derby race alone. $30.2 million was wagered through TwinSpires.

Churchill Downs did not respond to interview requests for this story.

If you or someone you know need help with gambling addiction, you can call or text the National Helpline at 1-800-522-4700, or visit https://www.ncpgambling.org/.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.