University of Arizona heats up horse racing industry

Dec 31, 2014 3:02 AM

Organizers of the 40th annual symposium on racing and gaming event presented by the University of Arizona bombarded attendees with numerous real and available options for accelerating change in their moribund industry.

Now with 28% international attendance, the undertone (and in some cases overtone) at the four-day event at the Westin LaPaloma resort in Tucson, was a carefully orchestrated syllabus to make waves, cast away old and failing concepts, enjoin technology now, and advance in bold, intelligent steps.

NYRA’S CEO Christopher Kay, keynoter, opened the festivities by thrusting theme park and retail marketing strategies into the race track milieu: “We must push the envelope to bring new people to our sport.” (He also announced Aqueduct will begin Monday racing in January with Wednesdays being dark).

Other initiatives: Long celebrated turf writers exhorted the jaundiced racing media to quit ignoring the illegal and quasi legal practices around every track for the betterment of the athletes involved. Security and regulatory experts invoked new strategies to level the playing field such as colorful, new TV screen graphics with easy to read and understand data-employed, web-based design. Wizards of social media and gaming insisted there is untapped potential in racing.

TV producer Andrew Yex of Go Go Lucky’s new reality show “Horseplayers” showed high intensity clips from the 10 hour-long episodes following top handicappers from local track handicapping competitions (Gulfstream Park, Churchill Downs, NYRA, Keeneland, Delaware) to the Daily Racing Form’s Nationals in Las Vegas.

NBC’s new Esquire Channel (formerly “Style”) carries the show starting Jan. 7. Several cast members joined the session, including Peter Rotondo, vice president of media for the Breeder’s Cup, Michael Beychok, winner of the Championship $1,000,000 last year, and super handicappers Matt Bernier and Christian Hellmers.

Paul Estok, vice president Harness Tracks of America, moderated an intense and detailed panel on new strategies regulating races – especially Olympics-influenced out-of-competition investigations and testing. Andrew Turro, an attorney, brought the interested audience up to speed on the long standing parrying for intense backstretch issues in New York.

Team Valor (Animal Kingdom) and founder Barry Irwin presented veteran turf scribe Ray Paulick with the annual Stanley Bergstein Writing Award for his investigative piece “Keep Me Out of It” in the Paulick Report. (Bergstein, a harness racing giant, was a longtime writer for GamingToday until his death in 2011 at age 87.)

Florida figures: November numbers were confusing, initially being down from October (a true anomaly), but under scrutiny, in fact, UP again – over $4.5 million (about 13% in Net Slot Revenue). The addition of Hialeah’s racino gets most of the credit.

Mid-year totals and year-to-date trends will be available with the December gaming report. It is a sure bet the NSR and the Florida’s tax revenue will be in the plus column. Going into the March legislative session this is a very desirable posture for the industry.

One very interesting fact: November’s NSR was higher than any month except the mid-winter season’s March in 2012-2013. The usual leader for NSR, Isle at Pompano, produced over $10.2 million, followed by Calder at over $5.9 million. However, Calder was down from the previous year by 4.1%.

This is partially due to recent competition from Gulfstream and Hialeah and to a lesser extent Magic City (Flagler), which was down 7.9% from last year. Gulfstream Park with its new, summer-fall live racing was up 5% and Casino Miami Jai Alai was up over 2%. Mardi Gras (Hollywood), which had a terrific October, was fractionally up for the month.

These trends indicate an on-going, clear cut redistribution of play in Miami-Dade County racinos, a recurring theme for the past two years as new venues come on line.

Word from Tallahassee is both the House and Senate are working on bills for the expansion of gambling, but from two very different directions. The House draft reportedly proposes a constitutional amendment that all future gambling expansion require a statewide vote. The Senate draft is difficult to pin down; however, sources expect the creation of a meaningful, high powered gambling/gaming commission is a high priority.

Officials of Calder parent Churchill Downs Inc. and Gulfstream parent The Stronach Group have remained in contact with a hope of reaching an agreement that could end their head-to-head summer/fall racing. But neither side is optimistic about the prospect of a deal.

Some observers have suggested Calder could race Mondays through Wednesdays to reduce overlap with Gulfstream. Calder feels the national pool of bettors is not attractive on those days.

Gulfstream Park’s 2014 Graded Stakes: (Listed are the best events slated)

Jan. 18: Sunshine Millions with the $500,000 Classic and five other stakes for Florida-breds.

Jan. 25: $400,000 Holy Bull (gr. III);

Feb. 8: $500,000 Donn Handicap (gr. I), $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf (gr. IT), and two other graded stakes;

Feb. 22: $400,000 Fountain of Youth (gr. II) for 3-year-olds;

March 29: $1 million Florida Derby (gr. I), $300,000 Gulfstream Oaks (gr. II), and five other graded stakes.

Baird Thompson and William Hutchinson bring a combined 80 years of gaming marketing and administration experience to Gaming Today. Contact them at [email protected].

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