The Kentucky Derby is the most celebrated sporting event in which the participants have no earthly idea that they’re actually competing, and the only one where a stray plastic bag blowing in the wind might introduce an element of riotous catastrophe to the proceedings. It’s also one of the biggest draws on TV, with the Run for the Roses in recent years serving up a bigger audience than the deciding games of the World Series and NBA Finals.
Boosted by out-of-home deliveries, which amplified the vanilla TV impressions by nearly 20%, NBC’s coverage of the race portion of last year’s Derby averaged 15.8 million viewers, which marked the eighth-biggest turnout going back to the dawn of the Nielsen People Meter era back in 1987. Rich Strike, an 11th-hour addition to the field, covered the 1.25-mile course in just north of two minutes, winning the big blanket of roses as an 80-1 long shot.
Immediately after running away with the biggest upset at Churchill Downs in the last 100 years—a bay colt named Donerail (91-1) set the standard for improbability in 1913—Rich Strike tried to eat the outrider pony who’d been called in to try and cool his jets. It’s one of the immutable laws of the paddock: Win the Derby after going off at 80-1, and you get to bite anyone you want. (This in no way excuses Luis Suárez, who is not a horse.)
Last year’s race out-performed Game 6 of the Warriors-Celtics title tilt on ABC (14.0 million viewers) and left Fox’s broadcast of the Phillies-Astros clincher (12.6 million) in the dust. The 148th running of the Derby finished 88th among all TV broadcasts, giving NBC’s 36 advertisers a whole lot of bang for their bucks. According to iSpot.tv data, NBC generated some $34.1 million in ad revenue over the course of the afternoon, which kicked off at noon EDT and wrapped seven-and-a-half hours later. In exchange, the Derby scared up 1.07 billion ad impressions among viewers age 18 and up.
Among the top spenders were a handful of brands that will again be featured prominently during tomorrow’s race. These include: TwinSpires, the horse racing betting site owned by Churchill Downs, and the small-batch bourbon Woodford Reserve, which returns for its sixth year as the Derby’s presenting sponsor. Earlier this year, Woodford Reserve extended its Derby deal through 2027; the brand has held bragging rights as the venue’s official bourbon backer since 1999. Together, the two sponsors poured $6.68 million into NBC’s coffers, accounting for 20% of the network’s Derby Day haul.
Also in the mix is White Claw, which marks its fifth year as the Derby’s official hard seltzer partner. The Chicago-based tipple was the fourth-biggest advertiser in 2022, trailing the aforementioned affiliated brands and Ford, which, per iSpot, led all comers with its $4.92 million investment. (A reminder to fans of the seltzer’s unofficial slogan/rallying cry, “Ain’t No Laws When You’re Drinking Claws”: There are laws, and you should abide by them. That goes double for any horse who isn’t Rich Strike.)
Because the pageantry of the Derby—the hats! the mint juleps! the infield revelry!—is one of its many selling points, advertisers were encouraged by the return of racing aficionados to Churchill Downs. Last year 147,294 people made their way through the turnstiles, and while that was up considerably versus 2021, when attendance was limited to 51,838, the crowd fell a bit shy of official projections. If Bill Carstanjen has his druthers, more than 170,000 fans will turn out for Saturday’s race; during a call with investors last week, the Churchill Downs CEO said, “Based on advanced reserve ticket sales and other metrics available at this time, we expect to deliver record results.”
Carstanjen went on to say that all the covered stadium seats at the track have been sold, while more than three-quarters of the indoor reserve seats have been spoken for, “with the remainder selling quickly each day.”
Attendance at the Derby peaked in 2015 as a record 170,513 passes were redeemed. As the on-site crowd has swelled, so has the volume of dollars wagered over the course of the afternoon; last year patrons placed $273.8 million in bets, good for a 9% lift over the previous high-water mark set in 2019. As for the Triple Crown race itself, $179 million was bet on the pari-mutuel pool, up 17% versus the 2021 handle and 8% higher than the previous record of $166.5 million in 2019.
One notable personality who won’t be making an appearance tomorrow is Bob Baffert, the trainer of six Derby winners. (Baffert was stripped of his seventh title in 2021, when Medina Spirit was disqualified after testing positive for a banned substance.) As a result of the medical violation, Baffert is serving out a two-year suspension from Churchill Downs.
Baffert’s horses have been big TV draws. On the way to securing the first Triple Crown sweep in 37 years, American Pharoah in 2015 helped NBC serve up 16 million viewers during the Derby race segment. (Baffert repeated the feat three years later with Justify.) In 2009, American Pharoah’s sire, Pioneerof the Nile came in second, finishing 6¾ lengths behind longshot Mine That Bird. That race was seen by 16.3 million viewers. Despite the unconventional character sequence, Pioneerof the Nile most assuredly was not allowed to pick out his own name.
For all his success, Baffert is not the reigning king of 21st century Derby deliveries; that honor goes to Todd Pletcher and his horse Super Saver, who joined forces to win the first leg of the Triple Crown in front of 16.5 million viewers in 2010. That marked the largest Derby audience in 21 years and the second-biggest draw of the modern Nielsen era. In 1989, Charlie Whittingham’s Sunday Silence earned a trip to the Winner’s Circle as 18.5 million viewers tuned in to ABC.
NBC’s coverage of the 149th Kentucky Derby kicks off Saturday at noon EDT. Mike Tirico returns as the host of the afternoon, while Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey will serve as analysts. Long-time NBC horse racing producer Lindsay Schanzer will saddle up for her second stint as senior producer of the Derby, and NBC News national political correspondent Steve Kornacki will be on hand to let viewers know if 3-1 favorite Forte has enough votes to take Wisconsin.
Schanzer earlier this week told reporters to expect the unexpected in Louisville. “After a string of unpredictable Derby days, we know full well that anything can happen on the first Saturday in May,” Schanzer said Tuesday during an NBC Sports teleconference. The EP went on to say that NBC has a slew of special features in the works for Derby Day, including a special recognition of the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s Triple Crown victory and a sit-down in which NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Bailey, a retired jockey and current NBC analyst, deconstruct their respective racing strategies.
For the signature race, NBC will offer an eagle-eyed perspective courtesy of a camera mounted on an aircraft hovering 2,500 feet above the track. The overhead view of last year’s race underscored the electrifying nature of Rich Strike’s jaw-dropping homestretch run, and the video went viral. In the first 36 hours after making its way to Twitter, the clip garnered 12.8 million views.
Should a horse in this year’s field decide to up the adrenal stakes, NBC will be there to document it. “Last year really reminded me there are great things that happen in this sport,” Schanzer said. “We were lucky to experience what we did, and hopefully we gave audiences the best seat in the house and the most thorough coverage of it.
“I think I speak for everyone when I say we can’t wait to find out what this year has in store.”