NTRA Head: Horse Racing Aims To Retain Sports Bettors After Shutdown

Posted on June 8, 2020 - Last Updated on August 10, 2020

Alex Waldrop is as optimistic about the current and near-future state of the pari-mutuel industry as a president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association could be after the Triple Crown has been postponed, reshuffled, altered.

But with the Kentucky Derby moved from the first Saturday in May until Sept. 5, the traditional Triple Crown-capping Belmont Stakes shortened and pushed back to June 20 and the Preakness Stakes now the finale on Oct. 3, Waldrop sees a chance for horse racing to sustain some of the sports betting interest it absorbed during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Horse racing is uniquely qualified in the endeavor of enduring after decades of decline, and Waldrop believes it’s poised now to establish a new foothold.

PlayUSA spoke to Waldrop about this old-school sport will gallop into a digital realm of modern sports betting.

What has helped horse racing raise its profile since the major four sports were forced to shutter in March?

Waldrop: A couple of the things that we have done probably the strongest over the last couple of months is the fact that we have been on two national cable channels, FOX Sports and NBC Sports on Saturday afternoons, which has given us visibility, which we don’t ordinarily get beyond TVG, which is the primary television channel for horse racing.

 It’s available widely, but not widely on cable, generally on streaming live on the internet. But FOX and NBC Sports have both been showing us. In fact, NBC Sports has been taking TVG and rebroadcasting it on their own channel through all of their subscribers, nationwide. FOX Sports has done the same for some of the same tracks. Churchill Downs has exclusively on Fox.

So you have big platforms now that are showing racing that’s giving us visibility to people who don’t ordinarily watch racing horse racing as a sport. And then just [last week] we rolled out a new marketing strategy, a new marketing awareness campaign that is going to be focusing not just on television but also on digital and social media.

 And we have our [advance-deposit wagering] platforms, those online platforms which allow people to watch and wager every day. But certainly, now that opportunity is at a premium because many sports bettors don’t have that opportunity. From what I can tell, it raises our profile.

How have race tracks gone about conducting race cards safely while much of sports is shut down?

We’re doing it in a safe and responsible manner because we can social distance on these expansive back stretches. We’re not allowing fans in the stands. We’re protecting anyone who has to work on a daily basis there with all the hygiene protocols and social distancing protocols.

And the horses themselves, fortunately, the primary athletes, are not susceptible to the virus, so they can compete safely. And, we, of course, have to be mindful of the jockeys themselves.

Besides just being available, what has made horse racing an attractive option for bettors recently?

One of the things we have noticed, one of the other things that has gone up significantly, is the average field size, more horses per race, which we also think is a big factor here because that makes for a much more attractive betting interest. Bettors like full competitive fields because it means that the payouts will be better, on balance. And so as average field size has gone up, we’ve seen that handle increase, which is frankly what we had always known, that field size is important, hard to parse out exactly how important, but it’s very important.

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How important is it to exploit the exposure the Belmont Stakes should get on June 20 before other major sports return?

It was disappointing to lose our normal season, if you will. Horse racing season is really the lead-up to and including the Triple Crown. And it’s never good to lose that traditional season because that’s the one time of year when we were top-of-mind. The ability to come back now, later, is great. For the Belmont to be on a day when it’s the only game in town, literally, that’s also great. We’ll see how that field shapes up. It’s going to be a different race, a shorter race.

Is Monmouth Park’s foray into fixed-odds wagering in July potentially a game-changer for horse betting in a growing sports betting market? 

Well, it’s certainly going to be for a guy like [Monmouth operator] Dennis Drazin, who’s as creative as anybody in the business. We’ll see how that picks up across the country with other operators.

How crucial is bridging the two systems between sportsbook wagering and commission-based pari-mutuel wagering?

You have to have a high tolerance for risk. Horse racing thrived more than a century ago because of the commission-based structure that it had, which really for the operator removes that operator from the process, provides an element of security and also of integrity, but also makes it difficult for some of these operators to go back into this world where every wager they have to set a price.

They’re used to letting the people that set the price and that works. And while in theory, it seems great, we know that there are sports bettors out there, there are horse players out there that are really annoyed by the fact that they think they have one price when the horse goes out of the gate and then by the time that the race is over them, the price has dwindled some because of the late-changing odds on the board, which are not because of past posting, we call it, not because people are betting after the race starts, but it’s because we’re collecting wagering from some 2,000 sites around the country and that can’t be done instantaneously. It takes some time to collect all those wagers.

Then generally that late money is going to change the odds and smart guys wait until the very last to bet and so when that price goes down, it is sometimes the inclination of folks to think there’s some kind of shady dealing going on and in fact there are people out there just as smart as they are who figured it out and just put bet a little bit later than they did.

No one wants to think someone else had the same brilliant notion, especially if it came in late, right?

Right. Nobody wants that smart money. That’s why they love Derby day. That’s why people love the Triple Crown – bettors do – because there’s a lot of folks in the pools that aren’t as savvy as the everyday player.

Because dabblers with a julep in their hands are betting colors and their favorite horse names?

Yeah, so you get these massive win pools or just massive pools that are just there for the picking for the guy who can figure out exactly what’s going to happen. It makes for a great day of wagering, but day in and day out, it’s tough because there’s so much information available about our sport now. And so it’s hard to define that one nugget that the other guy’s not going to get and focus on.

We run the National Horseplayers Championship, NHC, which is conducted in Vegas every February. We deal with the best of the best because we name the horse player of the year and give that person an Eclipse Award. And, so, we see firsthand how savvy these guys are. They’re men and women. I say guys, I don’t mean to exclude women. Certainly there are many women who enjoy horseplaying as well. And so there’s a lot of folks that love our business and we’re trying to get more to understand the unique challenges.

Fixed-odd wagering is part of that. It’s hard for me to say right now just exactly how quickly that would catch on and to what extent that will take up what percentage of the handle. It’s hard to tell right now.

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Brant James

Brant James is a veteran journalist who has twice been recognized in the Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, most recently in 2020. He's covered motorsports, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball among a myriad of others beats and written enterprise and sports business for publications including USA TODAY, ESPN.com, SI.com.

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