One day last month, Matt Metcalf, Circa Sportsbook’s Director, brought a homework assignment to Paul Zilm, his risk supervisor: Create a Kentucky Derby Futures Board from scratch. And when you finish, knock out one for the Belmont Stakes.

Circa Sports Racing Futures
Circa Sports is the latest player on the horseracing betting landscape to offer Kentucky Derby Futures and Belmont Stakes Futures. Risk Supervisor Paul Zilm and his staff created the boards in a little over two weeks, including a novel yes/no Derby prop bet. (Image: Ryan Reason/Golden Gate Hotel & Casino)

Off Zilm went, spending much of the next two-plus weeks watching every Derby prep race and every 2-year-old race of consequence from last year. He watched races only the hard-core handicappers watched, “trying to relearn what I already knew,” as he told OG News.

And Zilm, a former sales executive at Churchill Downs who grew up watching racing at the late Playfair Race Course outside Spokane Washington, knew plenty. He took the results of his homework assignment and created the downtown Las Vegas property’s first Derby and Belmont Stakes futures books. The Derby futures came out late last month. The Belmont Stakes board came out last Friday.

Homework assignments like this come easy when you’ve built your property’s foundation on the we’ll-try-anything-once school of business. Located at the Golden Gate Hotel on the west side of Fremont Street, Circa Sports just celebrated its sportsbook’s one-year anniversary. Zilm said they wanted to mark the occasion by putting up more betting options across the sports spectrum.

“When you’re new, you’ll have things that are home runs and things that kind of flop,” he said.

Count this thing in the home run category. The COVID-19 pandemic created an inadvertent opportunity to build a Derby Futures market in an area that is literally a desert for horseplayers.

Building a Betting Oasis for Horseplayers

During the two-plus months casinos throughout the state closed due to the coronavirus, Nevada horseplayers literally had no wagering options other than William Hill’s Kentucky Derby Futures Board. The racebooks were closed and Nevada prohibits advance deposit wagering (ADW), the M.O. of horseplayers throughout the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If the Derby was at its normal time, we wouldn’t have done it this year,” Zilm told OG News. “But with the sports shutdown and the lack of a wagering menu, we knew we’d have 3 ½ months to build a future book on this that people will bet into and have fun with. Matt wanted to give it a shot.”

“I started working on how many horses did we want to have? What did we want to offer? Some future boards offer 20 horses and an (all others) field bet. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to list as many realistic horses as possible. It took a couple of weeks to go through all of them, but we launched it two weeks after deciding we wanted to do this.”

Creating a Prop Bet Nobody Else Has

Being around horseplayers for much of his life, the outgoing Zilm knew Derby futures appealed to everyone: casual horseplayers who pay attention to the Triple Crown races and little else, and the more avid horseplayers constantly seeking big paydays for small wagers. At the same time, Metcalf and Circa Sportsbook Manager Chris Bennett — who created Circa’s encyclopedic list of Super Bowl prop bets – wanted more. They wanted to create a Derby prop nobody else had.

The result was a yes/no wager that allows bettors to fade the top seven favorites. You can lay -1,000 if you think Santa Anita Derby winner Honor A.P. won’t find the Churchill Downs winner’s circle the first Saturday in September. Zilm said the genesis of the bet came about via Circa’s philosophy of creating props that are “fun, creative, original, but something that will not just draw attention, but action.”

Circa Sports Kentucky Derby Props

                             Yes                    No

Tiz the Law        +400                    -580

Authentic           +600                    -1,000

Maxfield             +600                    -1,000

Honor A.P.         +600                    -1,000

Sole Volante      +1,500                 -2,800

King Guillermo   +1,500                 -2,800

Cezanne            +1,500                 -2,800

Bettors who faded former Derby favorite Nadal, or his Bob Baffert stablemate, Charlatan, are likely calling attention to themselves for their savvy wagering. Barring anything unforeseen in terms of equine medical miracles, the injuries to both horses means those bettors are holding winning tickets they can cash after the Sept. 5 Run for the Roses. Both are off the Derby Trail: Nadal with a broken condylar bone and Charlatan with an ankle ailment.

“This was all Matt and Chris with the yes/no,” Zilm said. “They’ve always said every place offers futures on different things, but why don’t they offer a ‘no’ bet as well? Yes, with some of those horses, you have to lay a lot to win a little, but these bets give the sportsbook flexibility and the bettor flexibility. It gives them more options and we’ve come to learn bettors like options.”

How About a Derby-NASCAR-Korean Baseball Parlay?

Because of those options and because of the crushing juice of laying -2,800 on, say, Sole Volante or King Guillermo to lose the Derby, Zilm said bettors are devising creative parlays. They’re linking fade bets on Derby horses with everything from other Derby would-be also-rans to Korean Baseball games and NASCAR races.

As you might expect, Zilm’s homework on this front never ends. He monitors the numbers constantly in ways that go beyond just paying attention to Derby preps or absorbing heavy action. For example, when Maxfield’s trainer, Brendan Walsh, announced on Monday that his horse is bypassing the Belmont Stakes, Zilm moved Tiz the Law from +120 to -120 on the Belmont Stakes board.

Circa’s Belmont betting limits are $300. Taking two limit bets ($300) on Tiz the Law made Zilm and his staff’s line-lowering decision easier.

Cezanne Illustrates Zilm’s Flexibility

Nowhere was the numbers game more fluid than with Cezanne. Zilm included the $3.65 million Bob Baffert prodigy on his first Derby Futures board, but took him down right before going live. He reasoned Cezanne hadn’t raced, and that he could always add him later. Two hours after the initial odds went up, the first query about Cezanne’s board whereabouts came in.

Zilm studiously avoids piggybacking other lines, but he was curious to see what the offshore books listed for Cezanne’s odds. When he saw numbers in the 30/1 to 35/1 neighborhood, he settled at 55/1 and sat back to see what would happen. What happened was that within two days, an avalanche of money came in, prompting Zilm to drop the line to 25/1.

When more money came in at that price, a surprised Zilm dropped it to 18/1. When he arrived at work last Saturday before Cezanne’s debut race at Santa Anita Park, Zilm was greeted by the news that more action knocked the price down to 15/1.

“I think 15/1 right now is the right number,” Zilm said. “Baffert horses are always going to have interest. If Cezanne was trained by Joe Q. Sample, there’s no way he’d be 15/1. But there’s always some public interest when you have Baffert’s name attached to a horse.”

Belmont Stakes Futures Gaining Traction

With the retirement of Nadal and the injury to Charlatan keeping him out until the Oct. 3 Preakness, at the earliest, Baffert doesn’t have any horses in the Belmont. Even with that, Zilm said the Circa Sports Belmont futures board is beginning to generate some action less than a week after going live.

Circa Sports Belmont Stakes Futures

Tiz the Law                      -145

Sole Volante                    +575

Dr Post                            +610

Tap It To Win                   +1,000

Modernist                        +1,200

Gouverneur Morris          +1,400

Farmington Road            +1,500

Max Player                      +2,200

Basin                               +2,600

Shivaree                          +3,000

“We’re really happy with where this is all at,” he said. “With the revised schedule, we’re excited to see where this all takes us.”