Horseplayers in Nevada have gone two months and counting without being able to bet legally on daily races. But at least now they have double the places to wager on the Kentucky Derby.
Circa Sports made its first foray into horse racing Tuesday, adding Derby futures to the betting menu on its mobile app. It represents the first competition for William Hill Nevada in this market since last year’s Triple Crown.
“All the stars aligned for it to be done now,” Circa Sports risk supervisor Paul Zilm told VSiN. “There’s a smaller sports betting menu right now. But also with the Derby being pushed back to September it allowed us 3½ months, so why wouldn’t we do it when we’re really trying to build ourselves on our futures business?”
Zilm also said that within the next week or two Circa expects to post futures for the Belmont Stakes, which was shortened from 1½ to 1⅛ miles and pushed back two weeks to June 20. The race became more attractive to Circa because, for the first time, it will open the Triple Crown.
“We actually talked about it when they announced the new distance and the new date,” Zilm said. “But we wanted to get the Derby off the ground first. We also want to get a little more of a feel of the horses that will get to the Belmont.”
Nearly a year after supplanting William Hill to post its first home-grown sports odds at The D and Golden Gate casinos, Circa has established a reputation for creative and aggressive bookmaking. The Derby futures are no exception. Other than the short price that it placed on its favorite – Arkansas Derby winner Nadal – Circa showed longer odds than William Hill on most of the other 87 horses that it listed.
Its top 12 choices offered a snapshot:
325 400 Nadal
595 400 Tiz The Law
685 450 Charlatan
850 500 Authentic
18-1 11-1 Maxfield
18-1 12-1 Honor A. P.
22-1 12-1 Sole Volante
32-1 20-1 King Guillermo
40-1 25-1 Enforceable
40-1 20-1 Basin
50-1 35-1 Été Indien
55-1 45-1 Gouverneur Morris
Of course the Circa prices are not colored by the seven months of liability that William Hill has absorbed since opening its Derby futures. But Zilm said that for Circa sportsbook director Matt Metcalf and him, this is not just about exposure.
“If you look at all of our future pools I think we’ll put our hold percentage up against anyone,” Zilm said. “That’s a belief that Matt has really brought to the company, that this is what we want to be known for.”
It is a toe-in-the-water to start, though. Since known customers must use their apps and cannot yet make face-to-face requests to bet more, there is a $200 limit on Circa’s Derby futures. But Metcalf and Zilm have also written yes-no props on Florida Derby winner Tiz The Law and trainer Bob Baffert’s big three as to whether they will win the Derby:
325 –450 Nadal
595 –990 Tiz The Law
685 –1160 Charlatan
850 –1500 Authentic
Each of those has a $500 limit.
Another way that Circa has set itself apart is by hanging a price on an unraced horse – in this case Baffert’s $3.65 million colt Cézanne. After working five furlongs from the Santa Anita gate in a bullet time of 59.0 seconds last Thursday, Circa posted him at 55-1 to win the Derby.
“I noticed that William Hill didn’t have him listed and that he is 33-1 globally,” Zilm said. “When we released (opening odds) we didn’t have that horse in there. Then someone Tweeted at our social-media director and asked about him. So I said that I was comfortable putting that horse in, because I think he is ultimately going to be on the trail. We’ll see if there’s interest, but he won’t be anywhere near where Justify was at 300-1.”
That was a reference to the odds that cost the Wynn Las Vegas dearly in its last Derby futures before director Johnny Avello left nearly two years ago to run DraftKings Sportsbook. But it was the sort of daring bookmaking that endeared Avello to futures players, leaving a hard act for William Hill and now Circa to follow.
“Since Johnny stopped doing it at the Wynn, there’s been a niche out there that we thought that we could go for,” Zilm said.
Circa’s new activity and the ever changing prices at William Hill represent the only places that Nevada horseplayers have been able to bet since the pandemic forced casinos to shut down in March. Although some sportsbook apps offer daily racing in normal times, none has restored that option, and it looks like it will stay that way until Gov. Steve Sisolak allows casinos to reopen.
Even then Churchill Downs pari-mutuels remain unavailable to Nevada bettors, because a seven-month impasse drones on between track management and the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association that represents racebooks. But that stalemate actually benefits futures players.
Sources with direct knowledge of negotiations told VSiN that if and when the two sides ever end their dispute over how to split their pieces of the action, futures betting at any NPMA book would have to stop at the insistence of Churchill Downs Inc. But since Circa is not part of the NPMA, it presumably would not be affected. Representatives from CDI, the NPMA, Circa and William Hill would not comment on or confirm these possible outcomes.
In that sense futures players may hope that CDI and the NPMA never sign a new deal – at least not before Derby week. Until then, the Circa and William Hill apps remain open for business.
Racing notes and opinions
With another weekend of rain forecast for Louisville, the highly regarded, well-rested Godolphin colt Maxfield (5-2) is the morning-line favorite for the $150,000 Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes, a one-turn, 8½-furlong Kentucky Derby points prep Saturday at 5:44 p.m. EDT at Churchill Downs. Out seven months because of an ankle chip, the deep-closing colt by Street Sense out of a Bernardini mare races for the first time since he won the Breeders’ Futurity (not to be confused with the Breeders’ Cup) by 5½ lengths last October at Keeneland. Maxfield’s class stands out, but in sloppy conditions a value play would be more attractive. A pacesetter like Louisiana Derby runner-up Ny Traffic (10-1) or a horse getting first run in the stretch like the poorly drawn maiden winner Major Fed (5-1) are worth a long look, especially if the tote board resembles the morning line. The winner of the race gets 50 qualifying points toward the Kentucky Derby, and those might be enough to run for the roses on Labor Day weekend.
On. Off. On. Now back off again. This time it looks like Mr. Monomoy will stay off the road to the Derby for keeps. His owner Michael Dubb told the ESPN racing podcast “In the Gate” that the colt trained by Brad Cox recently had ankle chips surgically removed. “I think making the Kentucky Derby in September would be pushing it,” Dubb said. “None of us involved in the horse will do that.” But Dubb said that since the Preakness was pushed back to Oct. 3, “that is a strong possibility.” Mr. Monomoy has not raced since Feb. 15, when he won the Arkansas Derby. He was first diagnosed with his ankle trouble afterward and taken out of Kentucky Derby consideration. With the coronavirus postponement came hope that the colt by Palace Malice could be ready to go at Churchill Downs on Sept. 5. But then the surgery wiped out that hope. Mr. Monomoy is listed at 24-1 in the William Hill futures and had opened at 40-1 at Circa before being taken off the board there.
With the reconfigured Triple Crown schedule, consider what changes there will be in traditions.
* None of the races will be in the spring, and the Belmont will be on the first day of summer. Since there will be more daylight available than any other time of year, might NBC Sports want the race run as late as sunset at 8:31 p.m.? Or later? It would not be the first time that the network has strong-armed horses to run in the gloaming. See the 2019 Pegasus World Cup – if you can.
* The Belmont will be a one-turn race for the first time in 100 years. That 1920 running was also the last time that the Belmont was right-handed. That’s right. The first Triple Crown winner – Sir Barton in 1919 – was the only one that ran the last leg clockwise. That is nothing compared with 1963-68, when the Belmont was run around three turns at Aqueduct while the Belmont Park grandstand was being rebuilt – very, very slowly.
* The garland of flowers that is presented to the Preakness winner is actually made of painted daisies, not the signature black-eyed Susans that are not in bloom until late the spring – later than the third Saturday in May. With the race scheduled for Oct. 3 this year that garland might be made of real black-eyed Susans.
* Even with the Derby pushed back from mid-spring to late summer, mint juleps will still taste like a blender full of Colgate.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning – more frequently for big races – at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. On the current episode of the RFRP, racing journalist and publicist Jennie Rees discusses the new Triple Crown schedule, trainer Greg Foley talks about Major Fed’s bid to win Saturday’s Matt Winn Stakes, and Duane Colucci of the Rampart Race and Sportsbook and Kate Hunter in Japan handicap weekend races in Kentucky and Tokyo. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.