Churchill Downs hints at new Derby sponsor

Churchill Downs Inc. might announce a new sponsorship deal in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

CEO and chairman Bob Evans told stock analysts Thursday that sponsorships for the Oaks and Derby are up in general, indicating the possibility of a financially strong Derby.

"The sponsorship deals, we were able to grow a bit this year, so we feel pretty good about that," Evans said. "We may have an announcement in that area over the next week and a half, so keep an eye out for that one."

No details were announced.

Churchill spokeswoman Courtney Norris said she could not say when more information might be forthcoming.

Louisville-based restaurant company Yum Brands has been the presenting sponsor since 2006; in 2011, the company announced the renewal of its sponsorships, with terms undisclosed, for five more years.

Derby Week is the biggest moneymaker of the year for Churchill Downs racetrack, which does not have any alternative form of gambling. The race meet opens Saturday with its "Opening Night" event, then racing resumes on Thursday ahead of the Oaks on May 3 and the Derby on May 4.

Evans said the main metrics that Churchill follows — sponsorships and ticket sales — are both in good shape.

"The big wild card is what the weather does on Oaks and Derby days," Evans said. That has a major impact on how many people show up to crowd the infield, he said.

The other wild card: competitiveness of the field. With a full 20-horse field likely this year and no overwhelming favorite, wagering could be healthy.

Although Churchill did increase ticket prices some this year, the major change will be The Mansion, the $9 million exclusive new seating area for 300 lucky people.

Even at top-dollar prices, The Mansion essentially is sold out, Evans said.

But another new Churchill venture, which was first hinted at during last year's Derby, has had a slow start.

Luckity, the online gaming platform that rewards players with cash, debuted late last year but isn't quite ready for prime time, apparently.

Churchill said Thursday that the company spent $800,000 refining the games in the first quarter and has yet to really promote them, said Bill Carstanjen, Churchill Downs Inc. president and chief operating officer.

A major ad push is expected later this year, Carstanjen said.

"The focus to date has been spent on refining the product, meeting expectations and improving redeposit," he said. "We have been encouraged that we're getting better. ... The most positive thing we're hearing is that there is a niche for a product like this."

Evans said customers who play significant amounts of money are beginning to sign on.

"And they are redepositing. Not just playing once, but playing it again," he said.