Racing needs more innovation to survive

Racing needs more innovation to survive

September 12, 2017 3:11 AM

Thoroughbred racing continues to receive mixed messages from the general public as to its long-term viability. Those of us who enjoy it love it dearly. Those who don’t could not  care less.

As Las Vegas handicapping legend the estimable Professor Gordon Jones, a man of great wisdom and a keen observer of the sport, has said over the years, “Thoroughbred racing is not a dying game, it’s a changing game.”

Adding to the confusion over thoroughbred racing’s future are the statistics from the recently concluded meetings at Del Mar, Saratoga and Ellis Park in western Kentucky.

At Ellis Park, wagering exceeded last year’s record-breaking meet with even stronger numbers. Total handle on the 31-date session that ended Labor Day moved up 15 percent over 2016.

“We had quality racing. We had a whole bunch of great trainers bring their horses here. We had a great jockey colony, and we had some exciting races,” said Ron Geary, Ellis’ president and majority owner. “Our purse money was up over the previous year. The result is we think this was our best race meet probably in my 11 years. And I think it’s just going to get better and better.”

Hardly considered one of the capitals of the sport and even considered a “backwater” track by old timers, a record $38,380,549 was wagered on Ellis Park, on-track and from off-track and online outlets. What business wouldn’t be excited about that kind of increase in patronage?

At Del Mar, the seaside thoroughbred mecca rebounded from a 2016 meeting that was generally regarded as disappointing, with a 2017 session that was up in handle, attributable to high-quality racing and increased field size.

The track reported handle was up by 5.1 percent from a year ago for the 36-day season, which also concluded Labor Day. Handle averaged more than $12.5 million per day. The strength of the Del Mar summer session was, despite racing five-days weekly on a circuit that usually only races four days a week, an average of 8.6 runners per race were loaded into the starting gate, well above the 8.3 average of a year ago. At Santa Anita, in metro Los Angeles, officials were forced cancel some Thursday cards because of a lack of entries, creating a scant three-day race week.

At Saratoga, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) reports setting a new record for all-sources handle. NYRA says a remarkable $676,709,490 was bet on the 40-day meet also ending Labor Day. This year’s handle was up 4.5 percent over last year’s figure of $647,322,503.

Paid admissions, for the summer came in at 1,117,838, just off the record of 1,123,647 set in 2016.

“We were extremely pleased with this year’s handle,” Chris Kay, NYRA president and chief executive officer, told the Daily Racing Form. “It’s a real credit to everyone in the organization, but in particular the racing department that we were able to generate such handle.”

These are encouraging numbers to be sure. However, most observers of the economics of sports will tell you, despite the uptick in business over the summer, the growth of the thoroughbred game nationally is somewhat stagnant.

The solutions for racing’s problems have been hashed over many times by more knowledgeable people than yours truly. Less racing is often suggested. That common idea is usually shot full of holes because the governments in the various jurisdictions that oversee the sport want more taxes, not less. Where “weekends only” racing has been tried domestically, such as Monmouth, there’s been some success, however in reality Monmouth cannot truly flourish again unless sports betting in the state is legalized.

However, when other states finally join Nevada in offering individual team legalized sports betting will horseracing suffer from the new competition or will there be no noticeable change because those horseplayers who want to bet sports are already doing it, albeit illegally?

Are new ways of playing the ponies the answer? So-called exchange wagering is available in New Jersey, but the concept is difficult for many players to digest and its success has been mixed.

Reduced takeout on Pick 5 wagers has also juiced the handle, where offered. However, an across the board takeout reduction last year at Canterbury Park in Minnesota failed to increase handle significantly and was scrapped this year.

Perhaps new ways of playing the horses will help at The Meadowlands where management is introducing the Pick 10 Survivor wager. The first-of-its-kind bet will debut when the New Jersey harness track opens its Fall/Winter Meet on Saturday, Nov. 4. If it does, look for other tracks to copy it.

It works this way: The Pick 10 Survivor requires the selection of the winner in the first 10 races on the program. The unique twist in the wager is ticket holders that correctly select the winner of Race 1 will advance to Race 2 while those tickets that fail to pick the Race 1 winner will be eliminated. Then all live tickets after Race 2 will advance to Race 3 while those that failed to pick the Race 2 winner will be eliminated. This continues until there is only one correct ticket (“The Survivor”) or all 10 races have been completed.

The lone surviving ticket will win the entire pool minus the wager’s 15-percent takeout. If there are multiple tickets that survive through all 10 legs or are the last surviving tickets eliminated at the same time, they will split the net pool. It’s a 20-cent minimum and begins each night on the first race. There is no carryover associated with the wager.

The bet carries a guaranteed wagering pool of $10,000.

Another new wagering idea is now being tried at Kentucky Downs where a bet focused on the riders and not the horses has been unveiled to an audience that may need more time to embrace it. Listed as race 11 in the Kentucky Downs program, the jockey wager requires bettors to pick the jockeys who will perform best on races 4-10 of each program. The bet closes when the first horse enters the gate for race 4 and settles following the 10th race. Jockeys earn points for their finishes in each race on a 25-12-9-5 scale with a single point added for a late scratch or non-starter.

I have enough trouble with all the traditional wagers that are already offered, but innovation is important. Just look at how all the proposition bets have stimulated sports wagering. In Nevada, the jockey bet was not offered where I play the horses. It’s not known right now if the new Meadowlands bet will be offered. I hope it is.

Horseracing needs innovation more than ever. More than just praise for new ideas, monetary support by the players and the industry is what’s needed. Succeed or fail, let’s keep trying to strengthen horseracing.

Hope for a reinvigorated Sport of Kings is not lost. Not yet. The only way to truly fail is to stop trying.