Is The Derby Purse Fair? Opinion From The Industry

Coady photo


In the Sept. 30 edition of the Thoroughbred Daily News, we ran an interview with John Sikura in which he raised questions about the funding mechanism and purse of the Kentucky Derby.

In the article, Sikura says:

“(The Kentucky Derby is) “The single event that drives the commerce of the industry. The point of entry to virtually everybody that owns a horse: 'I want to win the Kentucky Derby.' If you're fortunate enough to do so, there should be a financial reward that recognizes that–not just pride in achievement. A purse of $3 million, with $1 million dollars in fees and nominations, is an embarrassment to the sport. A huge windfall is given to a corporate entity, which they're entitled to. Corporately, they've been brilliant stewards of their brand and stock value. But they have to recognize that they're in a sport that has many participants–and that those should be rewarded.”

We asked several leading industry figures how they felt about what Sikura said, and also asked Churchill Downs, who had not responded by the time of publication of this article.

(To submit a reply of your own for consideration for publication, email [email protected].)


Mike Repole, owner

“I disagree with John Sikura that it's embarrassing that the Kentucky Derby purse is $3 million. It's not embarrassing-it's beyond embarrassing. But not only do we put up a third of the purse with fees, but the way the owners get treated is an embarrassment. We buy our own tickets, and if you want more than 10-15 people, you have to buy your own seats. I have to run second in the Kentucky Derby just to break even. I'm 0-for-8 without a first or second, so every time I'm in it, I end up losing money. I doubt when a team makes the Super Bowl they have to worry so much about accommodations for their friends and family. So it's beyond embarrassing between the purse, and what owners pay to try to share the experience with friends and family. What happens when a syndicate makes it into the race with 30 owners? I think if it's going to be as prestigious as it is, the purse should be $10 million. The Saudi Cup is $20 million, the Dubai World Cup is $10 million, and the Breeders' Cup Classic is $6 million. I also disagree that they should allow 20 horses in the race. It should be 14. We're all concerned about horse safety. Is 20 horses in one gate safe? I don't think it is. This year, I have been blessed by having so much success, and it should be the most fun I've had in racing, but the frustration is starting to overcome the enjoyment. And the more I reflect, the more I'm starting to really realize that the blame of this lies with the owners and the trainers. As long as we keep letting tracks make the rules, and HISA with no real horse racing experience make the rules, and be ruled by the ineffective associations that represent owners, trainers, and jockeys in the sport without really having done them justice, the more we have to look ourselves in the mirror. If they lowered the purse to $500,000, they'd still get 20 horses, and that's on us. There's so much great that can happen in this game, but we're at a crossroads. This is self-inflicted. And we have let this go on for too long.”


Elliott Walden, President & CEO, WinStar Farm

“I think the Kentucky Derby purse should be $10,000,000 and the Oaks should be $5,000,000. The Derby has been raised twice in the last 20 years (300%). The Churchill Downs stock price is up over 1900% in the same time frame. I think our real problem is we are too busy fighting amongst ourselves with two horsemen's groups (the HPBA and the KTA), and not negotiating effectively with Churchill Downs as horsemen. It is the way the system has been set up. If I were CEO of Churchill, I would like it that way. Churchill Downs reported they had increased revenues of over $20.0M on last year's Kentucky Derby weekend alone. I am sure their argument would be that we can split up the purses any way we see fit.  I think this is more about having an equitable split on all revenues for the weekend and not just handle.”


Eric Gustavson, Owner, Spendthrift Farm

I read John's article. Of course he's right. I remember many years ago when I found out how much it cost to nominate your horse to the Kentucky Derby, should you be among the few to make to the starting gate of that illustrious race. You might think that the nomination would be covered for the lucky 20. But no. I was shocked as I did the math and realized the disproportionate percentage the nominations made up for the purse of arguably the world's most famous horse race, let alone our country's. A Derby purse increase is decades overdue.

Anyone who has ever tried to take a group to Churchill on Derby Day knows the king's ransom it takes just to get seats. Add on the seat licenses, the handle and just that one day alone is quite a haul for Churchill. And good on them! They deserve to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and the blessings that come with owning the premier day in our sport. But, as John stated, they could bump the Derby purse to $5 million tomorrow without batting an eye. That would put it on par with the Breeders' Cup Classic, which should be a minimum. But if you're Churchill, don't you want to be the class of the sport that offers American racing's most stout purse?

The powers that be at Churchill Downs should step up and reward the Derby runners commensurately with their achievement.


Kenny McPeek, trainer

There's no question that a race of that caliber, the purse should be larger. Worldwide, it don't think it ranks in the top 25 purses in the world. It's not in the top 25. For me, it's always been a bit of a head scratcher.


Tom Ryan, SF Bloodstock

The business behind the Kentucky Derby:

  • $3 million purse
  • 15 million viewers
  • 150,000 attendees
  • 93% hotel occupancy
  • $189 million in wagers in 2023
  • $400 million economic impact

The glaring issue here is the winning owner of the 2023 KY Derby takes home $1.5m after jockey and trainer take 10%.

Based on the current $3m purse, CDI doesn't care to preserve the sanctity of The Kentucky Derby by bringing it into line with the rest of the world. We should have a $10m purse structure with plans to increase incrementally as we evolve.

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