Horse racing is dying in the US, but the Kentucky Derby, the sport’s signature event, is still going strong. The next running of America’s premier race is on Saturday, May 5 at Churchill Downs.
Horse racing was once the US’s most popular spectator sport. As recently as 1985, more Americans cited horse racing as their favorite sport than those who said golf or soccer. (In 2015, only 1% of Americans said racing was their favorite.) Regardless of its popularity for spectators, horse racing has long been among Americans’ favorite sports to gamble on. In fact, for most people in the US, it is the only sport they can legally bet on in their home state.
Yet as betting options expanded in recent decades, gambling on horse racing plummeted. The rise of online betting was not a major factor in this decline, as estimates suggest it comprises less than 5% of bets on races.
That said, the Kentucky Derby, the iconic race that first took place in 1875, is as popular as ever. Since 2003, the first year for which we have data, gambling on “the most exciting two minutes in sports” has been stable. In 2015, the Derby reported record betting on the race, but that is only because it didn’t adjust for inflation.
TV ratings for the Derby have been rising, too. Viewership fell in the 1990s, but thanks to a large investment in programming about the race by NBC, viewership soared in the 2000s. The audience stabilized in the 2010s at over 15 million viewers.
NBC has focused on attracting an “event-driven audience” rather than a sports-focused one. This might explain the Kentucky Derby’s resilience despite horse racing’s overall fall in popularity. In a splintered entertainment landscape, only the pageantry, storylines, and other trappings of a blockbuster event can cut through the noise.