Kentucky Derby Prep Races: DraftKings Expanding Horse Racing App With San Felipe Stakes

The sign is subtle, yet unmistakable. Horse racing flaunts sports betting cache with help from big sportsbook operators, and that includes Kentucky Derby prep races.

DraftKings, through its DK Horse app, underscores that statement on Saturday by sponsoring its second major thoroughbred race over the past several months.

It’s the $300,000 DK Horse San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, CA.

This won’t match the headlines of an operator linking with sports like the NFL, MLB, and NBA. Nor will it tower above upcoming college basketball conference tournaments, March Madness, and the launch of North Carolina online sports betting.

But it’s a noteworthy display of financial clout supporting the Sport of Kings. It’s also an interesting choice by the operator.

More: Best Horse Racing Betting Apps and Sites in 2024

California Dreamin’

Besides DFS, legalized California sports betting hasn’t materialized. But colossal intangibles are underscoring the San Felipe sponsorship.

DraftKings made a bold move last year, obtaining permission from the state to operate its DK Horse app, allowing California horse racing enthusiasts to wager on horse racing.

This is one of the significant Kentucky Derby prep races. The winner of the 1 1/16-mile showcase will likely qualify for the $5 million Run for the Roses on May 4th in Louisville, KY.

The event occurs within a star-studded lineup at Santa Anita. The lineup of graded races:

  • Santa Anita Handicap (Gr I)
  • Frank E. Kilroe Mile (Gr I)
  • DK Horse San Felipe Stakes (Gr II)
  • Buena Vista Stakes (Gr II)

If the card is rained out, the race will be rescheduled. Nationwide bettors can play all the races at varied sportsbooks.

Santa Anita is a fabled track, host to the 2023 Breeders’ Cup Championships, the multi-million dollar two-day Super Bowl of thoroughbred horse racing. It has hosted racing’s biggest day 11 times.

DraftKings Boss Shares Company Strategy

“It’s been important for us to take that next step in California,” Johnny Avello, the director of race and sportsbook operations for DraftKings, told Gaming Today. “We already have a DFS presence there, and we are happy that residents can also download the app and play the horses. But we thought getting our name out there was a good idea. You must let people know what you have.”

Horse racing is a highly valued commodity at some sportsbooks.

FanDuel sponsors a Breeders’ Cup race every November on the sport’s highest stage. The exposure is priceless, and the theme to consumers is that the book will be a major player.

DraftKings entered this realm last summer. It had summer-long visibility at Saratoga Race Course in New York, one of the industry’s famous shrines, to celebrate the Empire State’s first year of legalized sports wagering.

The book also sponsored the $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes.

Benefits were enormous both in pre-race publicity and indirect messaging. The DK Horse name was placed on the far left and right sides of the gate horses entered to break from. With the race being televised to millions of people, that was a prominent advertisement.

It continued with race calls at the start and finish of the race referencing DK Horse. And, finally, it was Avello in the winner’s circle, congratulating the connections of Forte after an exhilarating photo finish. Forte nudged Saudi Crown on the last jump.

Avello maintains that race sponsorship was a strong win for the book because it tapped the fertile, newly-minted New York market to proclaim its identity. Avello said the book signed new customers, sparking wagering levels on all sports.

San Felipe Stakes Part of Kentucky Derby Prep Races

Although California is a lesser gambling market, the San Felipe generates national exposure on a major horse racing day.

It joins the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Florida and the Gotham Stakes in New York, revealing a slew of Kentucky Derby hopefuls. There’s a good chance that the winners of these events will be in Louisville on May 4th.

Enhancing the “race” part of his DraftKings title has long been a goal for Avello. He parlays brick-and-mortar knowledge with the connections forged in prior years with horsemen.

Avello served on the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association, developing relationships with race track operators regarding the dissemination of their signals to simulcast facilities, among other aspects.

Avello has been a chief negotiator with some of the same people as DraftKings expands its racing footprint.

“At the end of the whole process, you want to provide another service and another product to your customers, ” Avello said. “We are delighted that we get the whole year to work with in 2024 (DK Horse was launched last March and missed some of the Kentucky Derby prep season).

“Think about how nice this is to do business all spring, go through the Derby, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, the Saratoga summer circuit, and then the Breeders’ Cup. We intend to build what we have more every year. Eventually, I believe we will be doing horse racing in all the states we operate in.”

The book will likely annex bigger race sponsorships, although that remains to be seen.

How far DraftKings wades into this space will be interesting to watch. Like FanDuel, it has come to regard “They’re Off” as a phrase that pays.

San Felipe Stakes Winners

Some of the sport’s iconic performers have crossed the line first in the San Felipe. Many of them are in the Racing Hall of Fame.

Affirmed won the 1978 San Felipe and later seized the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. That Triple Crown sweep was not duplicated for another 37 years until American Pharoah did it in 2015.

Artax prevailed here in 1998 and later annexed a Breeders’ Crown championship.

Fusaichi Pegasus seized the 2000 San Felipe and later became the first Kentucky Derby favorite to win since 1979.

Point Given had a stellar 2001 campaign, parlaying the San Felipe triumph into victory at the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, and Travers Stakes. He became Horse of the Year, missing out only on the Kentucky Derby.

California Chrome followed victory in the 2014 San Felipe with triumphs in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

Life is Good won the San Felipe in the spring and the Breeders’ Cup Championship in the fall.

Will 2024 deliver another name to that list?


About the Author
Dave Bontempo

Dave Bontempo

Dave Bontempo is an award-winning writer and broadcaster, who has covered the sports industry since the 1970s. He won the Sam Taub Award for Excellence in Boxing Broadcasting by the Boxing Writers Association of America in 1997, and is in the New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame. Bontempo has broadcast major fights all over the world. The advent of legalized sports wagering shifted his focus to this exciting new industry in 2018.

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