Critics sound off as Derby wager goes forward

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

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As it accepts bets in Pool 4 this weekend of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, Churchill Downs denied refunds from the three pools that were conducted before the Derby was postponed until Sept. 5. (Churchill Downs photo)

Las Vegas

 

The search for value in this weekend’s fourth pari-mutuel Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool seems futile enough since the coronavirus forced the target to be pushed so far from its usual springtime horizon.

 

But that challenge is nothing compared with the controversy over whether the four-month postponement of the Derby should have forced Churchill Downs to refund the more than $1.5 million in bets from the first three pools.

 

“Following numerous internal and external discussions on how to properly handle future wagers for Kentucky Derby 146, we determined that we will continue to honor all bets made in the future wager pool,” Churchill Downs vice president of communications Darren Rogers said in an email Wednesday morning to VSiN. “We took into account precedents and how other sports betting outlets handle similar wagers on future sporting events such as the NBA. The final consensus is all bets are ‘action’ as long as a winner is declared in 2020.”

 

Rogers was responding to my question about refunds. Believe me, I was not the first to raise the question publicly.

 

When Churchill Downs announced Tuesday that it would be business as usual for Pool 4, social media lit up with complaints from Pool 1-3 bettors who demanded their money back after the postponement of the Derby until Sept. 5.

 

“Of course they should (refund),” one player wrote on Twitter. “This is like playing a futures wager on this year’s Lakers team and having the ticket carried over to the following year.”

 

Another wrote that “Churchill Downs ... is holding people’s money from a futures pool even after the terms of the wager changed. Wow.”

 

“Why would Churchill return the Derby future wagers?” asked yet another. “They won’t. They don’t care about the fans (or) the bettors. Just like any track they don’t care.”

 

Whether the bets should still be action is debatable even when reading the KDFW rules that were written by Churchill Downs and approved by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

 

There are three compelling points that either side may use.

 

1. The very first sentence of the rules says “The Kentucky Derby Future Wager consists of four separate wagering pools with the winner of each pool being determined by the official first-place winner of the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve on May 2, 2020.” That sentence with that specific date is the a-ha passage for refund seekers.

 

2. The third paragraph starts with the sentence, “No refunds will be issued.” Then the fourth paragraph says that “in the event the 2020 Kentucky Derby is not run or does not produce and official winner, all wagers in the (KDFW) shall result in a refund.” So as long as the Derby happens before we give the middle finger to 2020 at midnight Dec. 31, this is where Churchill Downs may build its argument.

 

3. The last paragraph takes into account the force majeure, a term that a lot of us are learning now because of the pandemic. “Should circumstances occur which are not foreseen in this section, questions arising shall be resolved in accordance with general pari-mutuel practice and at the reasonable discretion of Churchill Downs Inc. with the agreement of the stewards and the KHRC.” While the pandemic was certainly “not foreseen,” words like “general practice” and “reasonable discretion” create a hazy shade of gray.

 

The hue and cry aimed a Churchill Downs has been much louder than it has been for private bookmakers who have been taking fixed-odds futures bets on the Derby for months. William Hill Nevada posted openers in late October, not long after prices started to appear globally. SkyBet in England actually wrote 50-1 Derby tickets for Garth as far back as August. Searches of Twitter and Google News came up empty in attempts to find any bookie offering refunds since the Derby was postponed.

 

What complicates the situation for Churchill Downs is the fact that it runs a pari-mutuel wager. Where private bookmakers may make refunds to preferred customers or those who make a compelling case, giving money back from a pari-mutuel pool alters the math that determined the odds. So unless the track wants to assume the liability to maintain the final will-pays, it has to refund everybody or nobody.

 

And that is the rub when it comes to ordering a mass refund. The lack of noise from anyone holding a Pool 1 ticket for Tiz The Law at 11-1 or Authentic at 50-1 is conspicuous in its own way. Or how about someone who has a Finite-Charlatan ticket for the Oaks-Derby double at nearly 125-1? Those bettors might be screaming a different refrain if the KDFW’s first three pools were wiped away.

 

“The majority of tickets possessed have promising prospects and high potential,” Rogers said in his email. “More than 75 percent of the money in the three win pools of the Future Wager was on horses within (the Daily Racing Form)’s Derby Watch Top 20 when the Derby was postponed to Sept. 5 (announced on March 17).”

 

Historically, it takes a lot to cancel action on a futures bet in horse racing. The reward of higher odds comes with the risk that a horse might not get to the gate for whatever reason. But what happens when that gate is four months late?

 

“We will offer Pool 4 this weekend and additional KDFW pools this summer,” Rogers said.

 

On their merit the additional pools are a good idea. If the scheduling pattern is maintained, then we might expect to see Pool 5 run July 3-5 and Pool 6 either July 31-Aug. 2 or Aug. 7-9, depending on the potential rescheduling of races like the Travers. The added pools could make up some lost revenue for Churchill Downs, and they would give late KDFW bettors a view from the more familiar distance of four weeks to the Derby.

 

But additional pools have nothing to do with the status of the earlier bets. Betting on Pools 4, 5, 6, etc., comes with the knowledge that the Kentucky Derby will not be May 2, a fact not known to bettors in Pools 1-3.

 

This whole situation brings to mind the refunds for Thunder Snow. Remember him? He was the UAE Derby winner that bucked like a rodeo horse coming out of the gate as a 16-1 shot in the 2017 Kentucky Derby. When the race started, all pari-mutuel bets were action just as the futures bets already had been. Some Nevada racebooks and foreign oddsmakers made refunds, but they did not have to.

 

Through its advanced-deposit wagering platform TwinSpires.com, Churchill Downs even made refunds last year up to $10 per ticket for anyone who bet the disqualified Maximum Security to win the Derby.

 

Public pressure this year may yet force Churchill Downs to do the same thing. But there is room for debate over whether it is the right thing.

 

Racing notes and opinions

 

If the Churchill Downs morning line bears any resemblance to the reality of this weekend’s KDFW, overlays may be in the offing for Enforceable, Modernist and Three Technique. After a win in the Lecomte and an impressive second in the better division of the Risen Star, Enforceable (50-1 KDFW, 25-1 William Hill) drifted in fixed-odds futures because of his fifth-place finish two weeks ago in the Louisiana Derby. Bookmaker prices for Risen Star winner Modernist (50-1, 32-1) held steady after he finished third at 12-1 in the Louisiana Derby. After winning his last two races as a 2-year-old, Three Technique (50-1, 30-1) lost on wet tracks in the Smarty Jones and Rebel, and he might still be regarded as an overextended sprinter. The KDFW was due to open Friday at noon EDT and close Sunday at 6 p.m. As usual, the best advice is to wait until late to see how the odds look before making a wager.

 

Lacking any graded stakes this weekend in North America, the best racing available to U.S. bettors comes from Australia late Friday into early Saturday. That is when four Group 1 races are featured in the first week of The Championships behind closed doors on a rain-softened turf course at Royal Randwick, Sydney. Nick Quinn of Sky Racing Australia handicapped these top choices:

* Larimer Street (15-1 in Australia) with an each-way bet in the seven-furlong ATC Sires Produce for 2-year-olds Saturday at 12:15 a.m. EDT. (Note that an each-way bet in Australia is the same as a win-show bet in the U.S.; there is no equivalent bet in Australia to finish at least second.)

* Rosehill Guineas victor Castelvecchio (9-5) to win the 1½-mile Australian Derby for 3-year-olds Saturday at 12:55 a.m. EDT.

* Front-running Nature Strip (5-2) to win the six-furlong, weight-for-age T.J. Smith Stakes on Saturday at 1:35 a.m. EDT.

* A nine-time victor on soft and heavy courses, top weight Melody Belle (7-1) with an each-way wager against the boys in the Doncaster Mile handicap Saturday at 2:15 a.m. EDT.

Quinn’s reasoning for these picks may be heard on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. He will also be a guest next week to offer his leans for the second weekend of The Championships.

 

It was déjà vu Thursday with the suspension of live racing at Golden Gate Fields. Just like last week at Santa Anita, the track was shut down on orders from the public health department – in this case Alameda County’s. And just like last week the Stronach Group put out an announcement saying that it would comply, that the order would cost a lot of people their livelihoods and that there has yet to be a positive coronavirus test at the track. And finally, just like Santa Anita, this is regarded as a temporary closure. With that there are now six full-time thoroughbred tracks still running closed-door races in the U.S. – Fonner Park, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, Remington Park, Tampa Bay Downs and Will Rogers Downs. Quarter-horse racing continues at Los Alamitos, although there are reports that a shutdown there may be coming soon.

 

Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning – more frequently for big races – at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The longer road to the Kentucky Derby and betting on Group 1 racing in Australia are the focus of the current episode. XBTV’s Zoe Cadman handicaps this weekend’s Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Breeder Randy Gullatt discusses Florida Derby winner Tiz The Law. Nick Quinn from Sky Racing Australia has his picks for The Championships at Royal Randwick in Sydney. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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