Churchill Downs doubles purse of Kentucky Derby to $2 million

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The purse of the Kentucky Derby, the country's marquee horse race, has been doubled from $1 million to $2 million, Churchill Downs officials announced yesterday in Louisville, Ky.

The Kentucky Derby is the first leg of the Triple Crown, the sport's most celebrated racing series.

The Preakness, the second leg, takes place at Pimlico, and the Belmont, the third leg, takes place at Belmont Park in New York. Since 1998, the three races have each carried a $1 million purse.

Maryland Jockey Club executives said they would evaluate the possibility of raising the value of the Preakness, but Lou Raffetto Jr., MJC chief operating officer, said: "We're in a tough spot right now."

The MJC has already cut stakes and racing days to keep its purses competitive with those at tracks in neighboring states with slot machines.

Raffetto said any decision to raise the Preakness purse would have to come from Magna Entertainment Corp., the Canada-based majority owner of the MJC.

Jim Gagliano, a Magna executive serving as head of racing operations in Maryland, said: "To continue the Preakness as one of the great American sporting traditions, everything's on the table."

However, Gagliano said, any possible increase in the Preakness purse likely would be contingent upon completion of a deal for television rights to the race.

In October, Belmont Park broke from its Triple Crown partners and signed a separate deal with ABC to broadcast the Belmont in 2006 and 2007.

Since 1986, the three Triple Crown tracks had negotiated a joint deal through Kentucky-based Triple Crown Productions. The current agreement with NBC runs through this year's Triple Crown series.

Gagliano said Magna officials had been working with their Churchill Downs counterparts in various areas.

He stopped short of saying the parties are working together to land a TV deal, but asked whether Magna would like to achieve a joint deal, Gagliano said: "We'd love to."

At $2 million, the Kentucky Derby will be tied with the Breeders' Cup Distaff and Breeders' Cup Turf as the second-richest races in the country. The $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic is the richest.

On May 7, the Kentucky Derby will be contested for the 131st consecutive year. The Preakness will follow two weeks later and the Belmont will culminate the series three weeks after that.

Ups and downs in '04

Racing 11 fewer days than in 2003, total betting declined 4 percent in 2004, the MJC announced yesterday. Betting totaled $868.1 million, compared to $905.7 million in 2003.

The daily average handle decreased 2 percent from $3.48 million to $3.41 million. However, out-of-state betting on Pimlico and Laurel Park races continued to be the high point. The daily average handle on the tracks' simulcast races increased 4 percent.

"This has been an up-and-down year," Gagliano said. "The high was clearly the Preakness, which saw a record crowd and handle. However, as we've seen throughout the years, the steady decline in handle has continued. ... The good news is that the amount of wagering on our signal outside Maryland continues to rise, indicating that the popularity of our live racing product continues to grow in other parts of the country."

Et cetera

Laurel Park likely will reopen for training Saturday, according to MJC officials. After reconstruction of the dirt racing surface and completion of other track upgrades, Laurel is scheduled to reopen for racing Jan. 22. ... Pimlico will simulcast two Group I stakes from Uruguay's Maronas National Racetrack as the 10th and 11th races of tomorrow's program. One of the races, the $100,000 Gran Premio Jose Pedro Ramirez, known simply as the Ramirez, is Uruguay's premier race and one of South America's most significant since its inaugural running in 1889.

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