The Devil You Know is Better than the Devil You Don’t

by Ed Meyer

posted on September 10, 2014 in Blogroll, General Discussion, Handicapping, Horse Racing, | No Comments >>

Racing has long lived in the past. Where everything was good, and the only problems we faced was having enough grandstand space. But you’re grandpa’s game is gone like the smoke from his cigar and the pork pie hats that filled the aprons. Fast forward some 100 years later, and you’ll see another view of the sport. These were the best of times, and the worst of times. Well maybe not as dramatic as the Charles Dickens classic “A Tale of Two Cities,” but there are some comparisons that still fit the situation today: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Charles Dickens/A Tale of Two Cities.

*In the 1950’s, the top three sports were horse racing, baseball and boxing. Lucky fans were treated to maybe one baseball game or the boxing match of the week. Racing could be found at the track or seven digits away  with your local bookie. There was the racing wire where players could gather and hear a stretch call of a race that was all ready official. These were some of the golden times, and they have gone the way of the dinosaur.

*The 1960’s and 1970’s were a time of Triple Crown dreams and the glamour of the game. The connections of the horse took center stage, and were as watched as the Thoroughbreds themselves. Bookies still ruled the day, and tracks would be filled to the brim.

* The 1980’s were a time of double-header race cards and full fields. There was a distant talk of ITW wagering where tracks would be able to accept a race or two from a marquee track far away. About this time you were able to open a phone wagering account, and the bookies started dropping off as they growing older and the new throng of bettors were a  younger crowd who had no sense of loyalty. Players would bet with bookies and be thefirst to collect, and if they got hooked. They couldn’t be found with a search warrant. Times were a changing.

* The 1990’s ushered in a full scale assault of full- card of simulcast wagering. It started off by taking inter-state wagers and quickly accelerated to having every signal in the country. The betting model used to be 80% of handle was generated on-track and 20% came from outside sources. Race books were being built and Las Vegas started feeling the pinch. This was just the beginning of the domino effect. Tracks either were making hand over fist, or they struggled to keep up with the competition. You now started seeing tracks going out of business, and the greed of mega-giant corporations came on the scene. They came disguised as the saviors of the sport, and the public started distrusting the mega-giants like indie music fans disliking major air play for their coffee house bands. Times were changing.

* The 2000’s sounded like the new golden age, but it has been anything but. Competition grew so quickly, and the wagering dollar only went so far. This translates into working twice as hard for half as much money. Fans were treated to Vegas-style reward programs, and they graduated from being a loyal fans to players  playing one track against each other with unrealistic expectations of rewards. The handle model has switched a bit, and 80% come from off-track sources and 20% came from on-track players. Casino companies from Atlantic city and Vegas started buying up tracks in hope of lobbyists swaying the mind of politicians to allow casino-style gaming at race tracks. This was the beginning of the big changes for the new tomorrow. Promises of big purses, major tracks facelifts, and player reward programs filled the ears of struggling giants who used to weigh the money wagered. The hook was baited with a golden worm, and track managements starting selling their souls at the crossroads. The winds that were blowing where officially gale force verging on a major hurricane.

* Present day has a bevy of casino and racinos everywhere. The player is the temporary winner and you get to jump from one place to another. Just think, a free buffet for sitting in a comfy chair blowing your kids college money. Racing has become the evil “Cinderella” that is being used as a means to get legislation passed. The product initially had a boost and there where purse payments from casino coffers. State governments were sold on the idea of jobs, taxes, and expansion of  tourism destinations. This all sounds good, but if you look closer you will see purse cuts, less racing days, and the lavish race books are being replaced with smaller operations that are not able to accommodate racing fans. There is little to no “cross-promotion” of racing and casino players. They are kept apart, and the right and left hand have no clue what the other is doing. The handle model is now 90% from off-track sources, and 10% on-track. Times are tough and the lagging economy can only be blamed for so much. Malls are going under, and wagering at home in your man cave has become the new method of placing a horse wager. -ADW pools offer co-mingled wagering on Hong Kong racing, where the average pools are around $17 million per race. An average day of Hong Kong racing is larger than Breeders’ Cup day. Field sizes are dropping in the United States, and the home of the six horse field is not just Golden Gate anymore. Have you watched any races from Churchill yet?

Tracks were receiving monies (subsidies) from the casino side of the business. Here is an excerpt from the Daily Racing Form: “However, the wagering patterns should be an “ominous” sign for horsemen at tracks that receive subsidies, according to Chris Scherf, the executive vice president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, a racetrack trade group that includes both subsidized and non-subsidized tracks. The reason, Scherf said, is that the weakness of the subsidized tracks in the pari-mutuel market could lead legislators to cut off the subsidies, using the argument that the tracks are not being supported by the public.” – Translation, the money tracks are receiving are going to be cut off. How many business models allow for the profitable side to carry the dying side of the business ? None. – Tracks need to adopt a nation wide system of watching the product signals. How many times have you watched a (G-1) race and a stakes race going off at the same time ? – This can be helped by having communication between tracks in the form of a wagering commission. Impossible ? Watch Australian racing, and  U.K. racing.  No stepping on toes, and it offers out a menu of delivering races in a timely manner with little time between. This allows players to handicap, and you can pick and choose which track to play. For the mega-companies that offer TV coverage, you can adopt a program of grouping ” A” tracks together, and “B” tracks in the evening. International racing can be offered later in the night, an they regulate their own product. Off days such as Sunday – Tuesday can be when ” C” level small tracks run. Players will be able to choose, and the handle goes up without stepping on any other toes.

There is no easy answer, but here is a start. How about having roving clerks that walk around the casino ? – I was having a beer in a casino bar when I asked a server, “Where is the racing channel?” His answer knocked me on my butt. “We don’t want to turn the place into a bookie betting parlor.” Now I recognize his mis-understanding of wagering, but this is just one of the problems. “Yes, we do want to turn the place into a betting palace.” How many times have you walked through the casino and seen a bank of TV’s with some self bets or a clerk?  Yep, me neither. There needs to be a cross promotion of the two, because there would not have been the one arm bandits without racing. How about utilizing the use of tablets, and phone wagering at the track/racino? I have seen one try their hand, but it is the most guarded secret that is easier than finding out the secret sauce of your favorite burger joint. Allow players to wager from slot machines on the races by having a small betting screen embedded in the multi-game monster. Mountaineer Park was one of the first I saw years ago, and it was more fun than the law allowed.

We need to re-think our present course or we’ll face extinction. That is a no drama filled statement as I’m watching the over-saturation of gambling squeezing each other out. There is not enough to pay the bills, but there is more money than ever to take part in the sanitized entertainment of gaming. How about instead of subsides, racinos offer up bounce back offers for slot players who venture into the race book and vice-versa ? This sounds like a complete house of gambling, you will find yourself enjoying the slots, a few races, and having drinks in the “bad-ass” bar that has music, a thousand TV screens showing the big games, and the races. There is still a chance to heal the new wounds, and if you are one of the lucky facilities that are doing well. I think it will only make it that much sweeter. Forget the old corporate belief system, and think over the idea of change. Las Vegas was once a stop-over in the desert for military men on their way to California. Wow, maybe changing the corporate vision isn’t such a bad idea after all.