If Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale gets his wish, many people will be sleeping comfortably the evening of May 1 – himself included.
The horse owner and Houston furniture magnate said April 28 he intends to bet between $2 million and $4 million on the favorite in Saturday's Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs. His wager is insurance to cover a promotion his Gallery Furniture stores offer that calls for those buying a mattress valued at $3,000 or higher to receive their purchase for free if the Derby favorite wins.
McIngvale's bet, believed to be one of the largest in Derby history, is one of numerous seven-figure sports wagers he has made in recent years. He reportedly lost more than $13 million in major league baseball bets on the Houston Astros in 2019, wagers that were also tied to a sales promotion, though the publicity his stores received may have offset at least some of that.
"It's another day at the furniture store for me because I have done this so many times," he said in a telephone interview. "Obviously, I have a vested interest in the favorite winning because if the favorite wins, the customers get free mattresses, and they give us positive PR and word of mouth for the next 10 years. So I have a very vested interest in the favorite winning. But let's put it this way – a two-minute sweat is a lot less stressful than a three- or four-hour baseball sweat."
Any sweating he does will be in person at Churchill Downs. After traveling to Kentucky, he plans to watch his horses train Saturday morning at The Thoroughbred Center near Lexington and then enjoy the races in Louisville that afternoon.
McIngvale won't arrive with suitcases of money. He plans to wire $4 million to Churchill Downs Wednesday afternoon to use at his discretion later in the week as he formulates his betting strategy. He has advisors guiding him, and may opt to place some exacta wagers, he said.
In one significant difference from his prior sports bets, his funds are going into a pari-mutuel pool. This will impact the odds on the favorite, which the vast majority of observers, McIngvale included, believe will be Essential Quality.
How much impact? According to Darren Rogers, senior director of communications and media services for Churchill Downs, approximately $6.9 million of a $41.8 million win pool was bet on 4-1 public choice Improbable in the 2019 Derby, the last time the Derby was run on the first Saturday in May.
Estimating how a $2 million wager would have affected that year's win pool, Rogers theorized Improbable's odds would have dropped to 3-1 if a total of $8.9 million in wagers had been placed on Improbable from a pool of $43.8 million.
This does not account for how lower odds on Improbable could have channeled wagers onto higher-priced runners as alternatives.
News of McIngvale's wager contributed to oddsmaker Mike Battaglia predicting Essential Quality would be pronounced favorite on his morning line. Morning-line odds are an estimation of how the public will bet a race.
"I was between 5-2 and 2-1 and did opt to go lower," Battaglia wrote in a text message.
"When to bet it is the key question," McIngvale said. "Obviously, if I bet $2 million on Friday (when early betting opens), the odds will go down to 1-9. I'm trying to provide value on these other horses for bettors to get odds more normalized on Essential Quality."
McIngvale won't go through an advance deposit wagering platform or off-track betting location to make the wager, he said, noting that an on-track wager will do the most for Kentucky racing.
"I've had a lot of calls from across the country from guys wanting me to bet with them, and the money not going back to the Kentucky horse racing fund," he noted. "But I'm going to bet all the money at Churchill Downs, not only for what they do for horse racing – but I'm a horseman, first and foremost, before a gambler – I want the money going back into the tremendous purses."
McIngvale, whose horse Runhappy was the champion male sprinter of 2015 and is now a sire at Claiborne Farm in Central Kentucky, is known for his philanthropy and for promoting Runhappy in sponsorship. Derby contender Rock Your World, for example, won the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby.
Despite that achievement, there is no mistaking McIngvale's preferred Derby choice: Essential Quality.
"Hopefully, it will be a lot of fun, and I'll see my friend Jimmy Bell (Godolphin USA president) and the Godolphin folks in the winner's circle," he said.