Woodbine Excited About First Opportunity To Take Kentucky Derby Bets Via bet365

Written By Dave Briggs on May 3, 2024
Mage winning the 2023 Kentucky Derby. Woodbine's David Vivenes told PlayCanada he is excited about the opportunity to expose casual sports bettors to horse racing via the Derby.

Saturday will mark the first time the Kentucky Derby is available for betting on a legal sports app in Canada and Woodbine’s David Vivenes told PlayCanada he is excited about the opportunity to expose casual sports bettors to horse racing.

Last August, days before Woodbine’s premier thoroughbred event, the King’s Plate, the Toronto racing company launched betting on horse racing via bet365. To date, it’s the only legal sports betting app in Canada that offers betting on horse racing, other than Woodbine’s own horse racing-only apps HPIbet and DarkHorse.

Launching in August meant Woodbine missed out on Derby betting via the bet365 Ontario sportsbook app in 2023.

“[The Derby] is the biggest day for betting and engaging with racing, bar none,” said Vivenes, Woodbine’s Executive Vice President of Brand and Experience. “It’s sort of the March Madness of racing. Even those who don’t follow the sport closely are aware of it and engage with the sport and and that’s a lot of what, for us, integrating with bet365, and generally the rotation into sports apps, are all about.

“It’s all about reaching a new audience. There’s a significant number of people who engage with betting on sports, but many of whom have never tried or don’t engage regularly with racing. And we want to use every opportunity to showcase how amazing a sport it is, and hopefully have them add racing to the repertoire of the things that they regularly engage with. The Kentucky Derby has an amazing opportunity to do that.”

Why bet365 is the only legal sports betting app that has horse racing in Canada

Woodbine was a main catalyst behind horse racing not being available on any of the over 30 legal Canadian sports betting apps.

Prior to single-event sports betting being approved federally in 2021, Woodbine fought and won the right to exclude operators from offering pari-mutuel wagering in Canada. That meant Ontario online gambling operators could not add horse racing to their gambling mix.

“Horse racing remains pari-mutuel and with us being the only current pari-mutuel license holder in the province of Ontario, if they want our product, they have to come and get it from us,” former Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson told PlayCanada in August of 2022.

Pari-mutuel wagering is a system in which bets are pooled. The house take is deducted and the payoff odds are calculated by sharing the pool among all winning bets. The system is critical to supporting the costly exercise of owning and campaigning racehorses and putting on the horse racing product.

Fixed-odds betting is a threat to Canadian horse racing

Woodbine was concerned that bringing in the fixed-odds wagering that sportsbooks offer would lead to razor-thin margins and, ultimately, horse racing’s demise.

Michael Copeland, Woodbine’s current CEO, previously told PlayCanada the ban on other operators being able to offer pari-mutuel wagering directly was “specifically to allow the profits from racing to remain within the industry and not to leave through an expat entity.”

It’s a vicious circle.

Racehorses cost a lot of money to breed, acquire, feed, keep and train. Race purses are, mostly, derived from the track’s take of pari-mutuel wagering. The danger is a lower take for the tracks leads to lower purses. Lower purses drives owners out of the game of racing horses. Since field size is critical to driving handle, having fewer horses leads to smaller fields. That leads to a further decline in handle. And, in turn, that lowers purses even more and drives more horse owners out of the game.

And that could spell the death of horse racing, an industry that provides significant more than 20,000 full-time equivalent jobs in Ontario.

When will other Ontario sports betting apps offer horse racing?

Bet365 offers horse racing by taking the wager and routing it through Woodbine’s pari-mutuel tote system. Woodbine said the deal with bet365 is not exclusive and other sports betting operators will offer betting on horse racing at some point.

Vivenes told PlayCanada this week that while interest remains high, the process has been slow.

“A number of operators and leading operators are very interested [in adding horse racing],” Vivenes said. “We have an amazing technology department that is working on it and a partnerships group that is working on connecting the dots. So there’s interest and there’s a lot of work happening behind the scenes. I’m very confident that over the next 12 months, we will see the distribution of racing increase significantly versus where it is today.”

Vivenes said horse racing has the advantage of being a top five betting sport — no more so than on Derby Day. But the sports betting market is highly competitive.

“[Other operators] have a high level of interest, but it’s not seamless or easy to integrate on the surface because of all the technical challenges and this is not the only technical challenge that companies have,” Vivenes said. “So you always have to find the right opportunity the right timing, but it will continue to grow and it will only be beneficial to the sport in Canada.”

Sports betting was once a threat to horse racing, now it’s an opportunity

At one time, horse racing saw the proliferation of legal sports betting as a threat. Now, many in the industry believe sports betting provides horse racing with another opportunity for exposure.

As PENN Entertainment Vice President of Racing Chris McErlean told PlayPennsylvania this week, getting horse racing on sports betting apps, “can’t hurt. Anything, to expand the potential pie, or the, quote unquote eyeballs on horse racing, is a good thing.

“But, just have having it out there doesn’t necessarily mean people are going to instantly become horse racing fans. But, I think it certainly gives racing an opportunity to tap into that audience. You know, some people might become more interested in it.

“Compared to other sports, there’s literally 24 hours of horse racing — domestic and internationally. In sports betting, they’re looking for content for people to bet on at three o’clock in the morning. There’s a race potentially every 10 minutes or so somewhere. So, I think racing fills a void from that standpoint.”

Betting on horse racing could fill the gaps between other sports

Vivenes said horse racing’s competitive advantage, beyond 24/7 content, is, “that short [burst] of excitement in a couple of minutes.

“[With other sports] there’s a lot of downtime,” Vivenes said. “There’s a lot of times that people have two screens going. What better way to add to the excitement then checking out a race as long as we can make it for easy for them to engage on it and easy for them to know what to bet on.

“Part of what has kept a lot of a lot of casuals away, is that they perceive the sport to be complicated or they’re not quite sure how to get in. And that’s what we’re also trying to do right to simplify to provide content that engages and demystifies the race and kind of makes it easy for them to engage.”

Horse racing is reaching “thousands of players” through bet365

As for how Woodbine has fared with bet365 in the nine months since launch — being cognizant of the fact there is no live thoroughbred racing in Canada from mid-December until late-April — Vivenes said the partnership has been a fruitful one, with even better potential.

“It is overall incredibly positive and the opportunity is immense,” he said. “I don’t believe we have fully capitalized on the opportunity and the potential of it quite yet… Even though it’s been a few months, it’s a whole new model, a whole new way of distributing the sport, both for us and for them.

“In terms of the positives, we’re reaching thousands of players that we would have otherwise not reached. We have an amazing app with HPIbet. It is the perfect product for the core [horse racing] fan, the one that is engaged and understands the sport. It offers exclusive rewards and a number of other things that you cannot find anywhere else — technology and content and so on.

“But for the more casual fan, for that sports bettor, [bet365] is an opportunity to reach them in a place where they are already going to regularly and we expect in the future [that horse racing will be on] other sports betting apps as well. It is the way to go. You want to meet people where they are and that’s where they are engaging with a number of other tier one sports. We believe racing is an amazing product complementary to a lot of the other things that they engage with.”

Woodbine’s Kimura to ride T O Password

As for Canadian content in this year’s Derby, Woodbine’s own, Kazushi Kimura, will be riding Japanese horse T O Password.

Last year, Kimura finished 12th in the Derby aboard Mandarin Hero, another Japanese thoroughbred.

T O Password will start from post 10 in the 150th Kentucky Derby. He is 30-1 in the morning line.

As well, British Columbia-based breeders John Gunther and his daughter, Tanya, have their homebred Grand Mo The First in the Derby. The 50-1 longshot will start from Post 16. The Gunthers previously produced 2018 Derby winner Justify.

Derby post time is 6:57 p.m. (ET) on Saturday. The race can be viewed in Canada on Citytv.

Photo by Jeff Roberson / AP Photo
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Dave Briggs

Dave Briggs is a managing editor and writer for Catena Media. His expertise is covering the gambling industry in Canada with emphasis on the casino, sports betting and horse racing sectors. He is currently reporting on the gaming industries in Canada and Michigan.

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