I tell ya, gambling never agreed with me. Last week I went to the track and they shot my horse with the opening gun. — Rodney Dangerfield
Two years ago, the Kentucky Derby and the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao megafight in Las Vegas took place on the same weekend, fueling a betting frenzy for horse racing and boxing.
However, the confluence of main events — followed by American Pharoah ending a 37-year Triple Crown drought — did little to stem the steady decline of two sports with deep roots in America’s gambling history.
While Nevada’s sports betting handle has enjoyed explosive growth from $2.6 billion in 2007 to $3.4 billion in 2012 to $4.5 billion in 2016, the state’s racing wagering handle has suffered a dramatic drop.
The total race book handle has been sliced almost in half, falling from $596.5 million in 2007 to $399.7 million in 2009 to $310.3 million in 2016. The numbers are even lower for parimutuel racing minus the money wagered on the prop and futures bets offered by race books in an attempt to generate more action on what Wynn race and sports book director Johnny Avello calls “this game that I love.”
“I still enjoy it. I got into it at a young age. I used to go with my parents to Saratoga when I was 5 years old,” the native New Yorker said. “The whole problem with horse racing is there’s just not a lot of good content. You can’t have races where there’s four or five horses in the race. It’s a lack of product, No. 1, and a lack of interest, No. 2.
“The younger generation has decided they’re not betting into a hold percentage which ranges from 16 to 25 and where you’ve got to pick one out of eight or 10 horses, if there’s that many in a race. Versus where you’re picking a game where you’ve got to decide between team A or B. You’ve got an argument and you’ve got a better shot.”
Avello, who posts matchups and other props on the Triple Crown races — including Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore — said the game needs an overhaul.
“I’m optimistic,” he said. “In our ever-changing world, there’s always something new for everything. I’m hoping that horse racing will have something new.”
While the Derby features a 20-horse field and huge wagering pools and payouts, the Preakness will feature a 10-horse field typically dominated by the favorite.
“It’s a tougher race to bet,” Avello said. “Usually the Derby will give you more value. In this race, there’s usually less value because the favorite will be really short-priced and the favorite has done well.”
Derby winner Always Dreaming opened as the 4-5 favorite and will break from the No. 4 post, alongside Classic Empire, the 3-1 second choice, from the No. 5 post.
The Derby winner has won the Preakness in three of the past five years and 10 of 20, while 18 of the past 33 Preakness winners lost in the Derby.
“Always Dreaming is going to definitely be the favorite. He’ll be close to the pace again,” Avello said. “But I look for a horse like Classic Empire, who ran into all kinds of trouble in the Derby. I think he’ll be right there with (Always Dreaming). He’s not going to let this horse get away.
“I could see him going off close to the favorite.”
For sleepers, Avello suggests taking a shot on Gunnevera, the No. 6 horse (12-1) that ran the Derby, and Multiplier, a new shooter in the No. 1 post (15-1) that won the Illinois Derby.
Much ado about nothing
While Conor McGregor said Thursday that he and the UFC had reached an agreement allowing the UFC star to fight Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a boxing match, it won’t happen unless Mayweather agrees to terms.
If the megafight comes to fruition, oddsmakers expect it to be a total mismatch.
“If it’s strictly boxing, give me a break,” Avello said. “Mayweather will kill him.”
That hasn’t stopped bettors from backing McGregor. The Westgate sports book opened Mayweather as a minus-2,500 favorite in February, with McGregor a plus-1,100 underdog. After 40 of the first 42 wagers were placed on McGregor, the line has moved to Mayweather minus-900 and McGregor plus-600.
“The only reason boxing is taking a little bit of a hit — the UFC held it up and Mayweather-Pacquiao held it up — is because the heavyweight division is nonexistent,” Avello said. “In this town, the biggest heavyweight fights were big events. They’re just not around anymore.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-266-6080. Follow @tdewey33 on Twitter.