Regardless of California Chrome's success in breaking a 36-year Triple Crown drought at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, bettors might shatter records of their own.
"We're certainly expecting a big receipt," said Ed DeRosa, marketing director at Churchill Downs property Brisnet.com, who works closely with Churchill's wagering website Twinspires. "Based on what we've seen we think the casual bettors will come out for this."
California Chrome will attempt to sweep horse racing's prestigious trio at the Belmont in Elmont, New York. If he grinds out a win on the grueling 1.5-mile track, California Chrome will become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont.
California Chrome's bid has generated buzz among casual fans. Though analysts and professionals can't point to exact Saturday estimates, wagering behavior at past Belmonts with Triple Crown implications shows betting volume could approach record highs for the race. Triple Crown contenders can boost general interest and "handle," or the total money wagered, at the Belmont, said Robert Shore, a gaming analyst at Las Vegas-based Union Gaming Advisors.
"It's definitely good for the sport," Shore said.
Total handle for a day of races accounts for wagers placed on and off track. The Belmont Stakes saw its largest total handles in 2004 and 2008, when Smarty Jones and Big Brown, respectively, vied for but couldn't complete the Triple Crown, according to the New York Racing Association.
In 2008, total handle skyrocketed to more than $100 million from roughly $75 million the year before. A horse competed for the Triple Crown every year from 2002 to 2004, and total handle never fell below $93 million during the stretch after hitting about $68 million in 2001.
The chart below shows wager volume and attendance at the Belmont from 1996 to 2012, denoting years horses raced for the Triple Crown.
(*denotes year when a Triple crown was on the line in the Belmont.)
Twinspires' Belmont wagering starts Friday, DeRosa said. California Chrome is the second horse to try for the Triple Crown since Twinspires' founding in 2007.
DeRosa expects Saturday's total handle to outpace the 2008 race and approach the Belmont record of nearly $111 million set in 2004. Twinspires' handle on Saturday could approach its $21.5 million record from this year's Derby, as well.
DeRosa compares California Chrome's popularity to 2004 contender Smarty Jones. The Triple Crown bid and his "underdog" pedigree bring an allure to the race.
"That's good news for the Belmont and good news for us," DeRosa said. "Big Brown wasn't as popular."
DeRosa and Shore agreed that most horse racing fans want to see a Triple Crown. But not all bettors, especially those eyeing a big payout, will throw their money at Chrome, who will run out of Gate Two with 3-5 odds.
Based on early expectations, DeRosa thinks Tonalist, a locally trained horse, will receive interest. He will run out of Gate 11 with 8-1 odds
Tonalist didn't run in the Derby or Preakness, but won his last race at Belmont Park. Fresh legs could give him an advantage at the track, which, at 1.5 miles, runs longer than the 1.25 mile Churchill Downs and 1.19 mile Pimlico.
DeRosa said Wicked Strong will be a popular choice, as well. The horse will run from gate nine with 6-1 odds.
Wicked Strong came into the Derby as a strong contender before finishing fourth. He will also bring fresh legs into the Belmont as he didn't run in the Preakness. (The horse that spoiled Smarty Jones's Triple Crown bid, Birdstone, also had raced in the Derby but not the Preakness.)
For bettors reaching for larger payouts, the Derby and Preakness runners-up may prove appealing. Ride On Curlin, the Preakness runner-up, sits at 12-1, while Commanding Curve, the Derby runner-up, has 15-1 odds.
Bettors may want to put their money behind an underdog this Saturday, because historically, favorites haven't performed so favorably at Belmont. The last favorite to win Belmont, Afleet Alex, ran in 2005, according to the NYRA.