Kentucky Derby Traditions Endure, Boosting PA Horse Racing and Online Betting

Written By Kevin Shelly on August 28, 2020 - Last Updated on November 26, 2020
Kentucky Derby as relevant as ever for PA horse community

There is something about the Kentucky Derby,  its history and traditions, even for casual fans who have never visited Churchill Downs.

COVID-19 concerns have reshuffled but not scuttled the race, traditionally run the first Saturday in May.

This year, the rescheduled Derby will be run Sept. 5, but without spectators. Just a limited number of owners for each horse in the now-19 horse field are allowed into the two-minute race for three-year-olds.

Instead of being the first leg of the Triple Crown, this year, the Derby is the second leg. Usually, the Belmont Stakes is run third and last, but not in this peculiar year. That last race will be the Preakness Stakes on Oct. 3.

Parts of what makes the Derby a massive draw will still stand even in this twisted-up year, which will bring the most unique Derby since the race began in 1875.

Betting on the Derby: an age-old tradition with new avenues

One of the most dominant Derby traditions remains placing wagers on the race. A complete Derby Day program run at Churchill Downs (CDI) has brought in more than $209.2 million in wagers, with the Derby alone pulling in $139.2 million, the largest betting day in flat racing.

That activity is easier and more accessible than ever with the growing popularity of online horse betting. Recent financials released by Churchill Downs show great growth in online horse betting via TwinSpires.

Despite the Kentucky Derby not running in Q2 as usual, CDI reported an $18.3 million increase in earnings (EBITDA) for the quarter year-over-year. Handle rose $100.7 million from Q2 2019, a 21.6% increase. The Derby’s new date in September should contribute to a year-over-year boost in Q3 too.

In Pennsylvania, wagers will come in at simulcast off-track betting parlors (OTBs) and primarily online through sites like PABets and FanDuel Racing.

Kentucky Derby is history, tradition, Americana

Besides betting, many are drawn to watching the Derby for various other spectacular reasons. Even those who don’t normally follow horse racing can appreciate the many traditions the “Run for the Roses” offers. Among them:

  • Hats: Johnny Weir in a striking bonnet. And Angela Bassett. Both on the red carpet.
  • Dress-up finery, finally proving that Bill Belichick owns at least one suit.
  • Juleps: Bourbon, simple syrup, crushed ice, mint leaves.
  • Parties: Think home versions in front of the tube this year.
  • Celebrities from old-school Bob Hope to Kim Kardashian looking surprisingly understated.
  • Politicians: Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan all attended, but only Nixon was president at the time.
  • Royalty, including horse enthusiast Queen Elizabeth.
  • More than 16 million TV viewers.

Tiz the Law is center stage

Another Derby draw is getting to watch the top racehorses of the time and potentially witness history if a horse can pull off the Triple Crown by winning all three major races.

This year, Tiz the Law handily won the shortened Belmont Stakes on June 20. The race is usually 12 furlongs, but this year it was just nine. Still, the win made Tiz the first New York-bred horse to win the Belmont since 1882.

Tiz’s win also brought the spotlight back on his trainer, Barclay Tagg, and his allied partner, Sackatoga Stables. At the age of 82, Tagg is the oldest trainer to ever win the Belmont.

The owner/trainer partnership produced Funny Cide, a rare gelding and winner of both the 2003 Derby and the Preakness, but third in the Belmont. He’s retired now.

And Tiz offers Tagg and Sackatoga another shot at winning the Triple Crown 17 years after Funny Cide. So far, he’s the heavy favorite in Kentucky Derby odds.

There’s a strong dose of PA riding with Tiz

While Tagg has not operated from PA in years, his role has again spotlighted PA in the horse community.

Tagg grew up in Lancaster and Ambler and got a degree from Penn State University. Like his assistant trainer Robin Smullen, who grew up in Chester County hunt country, Tagg began in steeplechasing in the region. And Heather Smullen, Robin’s niece who also helps out with Tiz’s training as an exercise rider, grew up on the same farm as her aunt.

And seven of Tiz’s more than 30 shareholders live in PA. Due to restrictions on in-person fans, it remains unclear just how many of those PA residents will be watching in person.

PA-bred Derby winner Smarty Jones at stud in PA

One Pennsylvanian who knows he’ll be watching from home, even though seeing a Derby is on his bucket list, is Rodney Eckenrode, not exactly a well-known name outside Keystone State horse circles.

But his Equistar farm‘s guest celebrity, Smarty Jones, is instantly recognizable even to casual fans.

Devoted fans sometimes cry when they meet Smarty, said Eckenrode, who runs his 60-acre operation with wife Sharon. The 19-year-old horse gets Christmas and birthday cards.

Smarty won the Derby and Preakness in 2004 and came in second at the Belmont. He has lifetime race earnings of more than $7.6 million, and he continues to earn as a stud at Equistar, not far from Penn National Race Course.

The horse, bred in Chester County at Fairthorne Farm and trained by PA horseman John Servis at what is now Parx racetrack just north of Philadelphia, came home to PA two years ago after standing stud elsewhere, including South America.

Smarty’s return was facilitated by Brian Sanfratello, leader of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association. He brought the horse back at the request of Pat Chapman, Smarty’s owner, who still lives part-time in PA.

Derby brings attention to PA horse community

“Smarty is like her kid. It’s like seeing her baby,” Sanfratello said of Chapman having Smarty back in the state. Under PA’s breeding incentive program, she earns incentive rewards when Smarty’s progeny win PA races, he added.

Eckenrode said all the connections Tiz the Law has to PA are “pretty cool” and that “it is gonna take a special horse to beat him. I hope he’s the next Triple Crown horse.”

Sanfratello said he understands the enduring appeal of the Derby.

“It is the one day of the year you can enjoy seeing the best horses in the country, if not the world, run. Everyone is dressed up. There’s a party. And a buildup. It is a great, fun day. Everyone likes to have fun and do something they don’t normally do.

“The Derby puts them in another world.”

The Derby also underlines the importance of the horse community in PA in a year where the coronavirus, racing’s related hiatus and a proposal by Gov. Tom Wolf to take a bite out of the industry by reallocating support money still have horsemen skittish as racing handle continues to drop.

Lead image credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

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Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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