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Derby was rosy for betting, but not TV, Churchill CEO says

Despite flooding along the Mississippi River that threatens a money-making casino, Churchill Downs' financial picture looks rosy, executives said Tuesday morning.

Last weekend's Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby gave the company much to smile about, said Bob Evans, CEO and chairman-elect.

"We set an all-time record for Derby attendance with 164,858, eclipsing the previous high set in 1974 with the 100th anniversary of the Derby," Evans said.

Total Oaks and Derby week attendance, from the opening of the meet on April 30 through Derby, was 359,690, up 8.6 percent over the same week in 2010, he said. "The big kicker," Evans said, was moving the opening to Saturday night instead of that day, which drew attendance of 38,142, about 25,000 more than in 2010, he said.

And there was some joy from bettors as well: Oaks Day wagering from all sources totaled a record $37.5 million, up 4 percent from last year, and Derby Day wagering from all sources was $165.2 million, up 1.5 percent from last year, making it the third-highest Derby Day wagering total on record, Evans said.

Betting online, through Churchill's advance-deposit wagering platform, Twinspires.com, was up 8 percent on both Oaks and Derby days, Evans said.

And there were 47 percent more new accounts set up on Twinspires.com, he said.

All of that counts as a big win for Churchill at a time when racing is experiencing an 8.5 percent decline in overall wagering as an industry.

Churchill maintained its Derby wagering numbers despite Friday's withdrawal of star Uncle Mo from the betting pool and from a field of horses that was generally considered relatively lackluster.

But the lack of a strong story line may have hurt with casual viewers who were not drawn in despite extra hours of coverage on NBC and its sports network, Versus.

Evans said TV ratings for the Oaks coverage were down 8 percent, and ratings for Derby coverage were down 6 percent compared with last year. "We were a little disappointed with that," Evans said.

But, he said, Churchill was encouraged by increased page-views on its KentuckyDerby.com and KentuckyOaks.com Web sites, and there are now more than 157,000 members in its Derby Nation page on Facebook.

Any new eyeballs are important: They allow Churchill to sell new sponsorships, such as the Vineyard Vines "Derby cam" that allows Downs visitors to find and tag themselves in a giant online photo of the Downs.

Evans said such revenue sources are expected to ultimately generate an additional $5 million to $6 million in revenue this year.

"Greater sponsorship and admission revenues were the primary causes of the year-over-year increase," Evans said, "with greater TV rights fees, wagering commissions, food and beverage and licensed merchandise also showing positive variances, as well."

Now, Churchill Downs Inc. is turning its attention to its Harlow's Casino in Mississippi, where flooding along the river has closed all casinos for now. The Mississippi River is expected to crest at 64 feet; Evans said Churchill has built a temporary levee around its property that they say will protect it up to a crest of 68 feet.