Racing’s fickle future

Feb 27, 2007 5:23 AM

If you have heard this one before, don’t stop me. This time it is part of a larger picture.

In 1980 Daily Racing Form asked me and 99 other racing guys to predict what racing would be like 20 years from then, in 2000. I wrote that it would feature horses 12 or 13 inches high, racing across TV screens.

A decade later, at a convention of what is now called Racing Commissioners International but then was known as the National Association of State Racing Commissioners, held in of all places Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, R. D. Hubbard startled the crowd. He had just taken over control of Hollywood Park, and he told the assembled racing commissioners that Indian gaming was coming, that casinos would surround racetracks, and that they had better get a piece of the action.

Hubbard, in short, saw the need for racinos.

His prediction, and mine, were not lucky guesses. They were shadows on the wall, visible in the right light.

Hubbard didn’t just make a speech in Coeur d’Alene. He went back to New Mexico, where he owned Ruidoso, and started working on legislation for slots at the track. And he got it done.

So, 27 years after my prediction of simulcasting, and 16 years after R. D. Hubbard’s prediction of racinos, what lies ahead?

It depends on where you are, and how enlightened your legislators are, or more accurately, how much they care about racing.

If you live in Delaware, sports betting may lie ahead for tracks. The man who made racinos possible in Delaware, an influential state legislator named Bill Oberle, still is a powerful figure in the state. He is a racing man, a breeder and owner, and he made sure, when he introduced his slots legislation, that racing’s share was written clearly into the bill.

At the time, there were no slots in Pennsylvania and none in New York.

There are now, of course, and Oberle sees Delaware’s former huge advantage melting away. That advantage sent purses soaring at Delaware’s three racetracks — thoroughbred racing’s Delaware Park and the once tiny but now major league harness tracks at Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway.

Oberle is not a legislator who sits and broods or twiddles his thumbs. He is an activist, and a convincing one respected by his colleagues. He wants sports betting. Unfortunately his governor, Ruth Ann Minner, does not.

Delaware is one of only four states in the country that legally can bet on sports, having been grandfathered in federally when all others were ushered out, because Delaware already had legalized sports betting. Nevada and Oregon also made the cut.

There have been attempts in New Jersey to legalize sports betting, but they went nowhere, and are not likely to go anywhere.

So sports betting, unless American law is changed, is not a likely prospect for future predictions.

Table games are a possibility, and West Virginia has been locked in a legislative struggle to get them for the state’s four tracks now that neighboring Pennsylvania usurped West Virginia’s slots monopoly.

But for horse racing, and ultimately for casinos, there is a darker possibility.

What if people merely decided to stay at home and bet on the Internet?

They already are doing this in alarming numbers as far as racing is concerned. Why venture out into the cold, or into the night, if you can sit in your warm and cozy living room and bet from there?

Big bettors are doing this regularly, and their money in most cases, goes overseas, to rebate shops with no bricks or mortar, no stable areas to maintain, no purses to pay.

Racing has gotten itself into this mess with the pricing of its simulcast product.

David Willmot, the CEO of Woodbine Entertainment in Toronto and the most articulate voice in North American racing, has warned racing at convention after convention — and most recently in Dubai — that unless it changes its pricing, and continues to sell its product at less than cost, it faces doom.

I don’t know what R. D. Hubbard is predicting these days, but I’m not about to venture 20 years into the future on this one. It is downright scary.