Horse Racing Industry Hopes To Sustain Newfound Momentum As Events Return

Posted on June 1, 2020 - Last Updated on August 10, 2020
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If it’s not already trademarked, Alex Waldrop should consider it.

“We were the original sports bet. We’re still here. And we’re still going strong.”

And with COVID-19 keeping sports contested by humans off their fields of play, the chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association earnestly hopes one of the United States’ original sporting passions can extend a moment it has inherited since major professional and college sports went dormant in mid-March.

While new-age virtual games such as eSports and iRacing have also had their moment, horse racing — for one of the first times since its slow decline in popularity began decades ago — has so far had the bandwidth to satisfy a national appetite for betting markets.

Horses can’t contract the novel coronavirus that has led to more than 100,000 deaths in the US. Expansive track facilities and a relatively small amount of humans needed to conduct the sport has allowed track operators to hold meets that were generally an online wagering enterprise and devoid of spectators anyway.

So while Russian table tennis has found a novelty following and a virtual NFL Draft flared and faded, the national pari-mutuel industry has so far surged. While national handle figures for May are not yet available, April revealed that horse racing had made some hay.

According to Waldrop, pari-mutuel wagering handle was down 24 percent from April 2020 as compared to April 2019, “but that is remarkable,” he told PlayUSA, “because we had a 72-percent decline in the number of races and race days. That tells you that we had much less racing product out there for horse players to bet on, but they were betting a lot more.”

The average wagering per race day, he added, was up 176 percent to $7.5 million. That was with a small collection of tracks including Gulfstream Park, Fonner Park, Oaklawn Park, Tampa Bay Downs and Will Rogers Downs. Now larger venues are about to open with social-distancing restrictions and governmental sign-off.

“Larger tracks, like Churchill Downs, Santa Anita has been back and operating for the last week or so, Maryland starts this weekend, [New York] starts sometime in early June,” Waldrop added, “so the major race tracks are about to crank back up and we should see an increase in the number of races and race days, which hopefully will translate into recovery, putting handle back to where it was or above last year.”

Attempting to maintain this momentum, the Breeders’ Cup and Jockey Club on Thursday launched a national campaign specifically targeted at sports bettors that are bolstering its coffers.

And at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, where a horseman’s lawsuit was the first maneuver in the campaign that eventually made legal sports betting a national possibility, track operator Dennis Drazin is about to unveil the device he has long seen as the bridge from sports bettors to horse players: fixed odds wagering.

Even with the Kentucky Derby rescheduled for just the second time since 1875 and its signature Triple Crown scrambled and delayed, horse racing is generating promise.

When will horse racing hubs open nationally?

California
Del Mar: July 18-Sept. 7
Santa Anita: underway through June 21

Florida
Gulfstream: underway through Sept. 27
Tampa Bay: underway through May 30, then Monday and Wednesday in June after an extension was granted by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Kentucky
Churchill Downs: underway through June 27; Sept. 1-5
Ellis Park: June 28-Aug. 30
Keeneland: July 8-12

New Jersey
Monmouth: July 3-Sept. 27 (not yet approved by state of New Jersey)

New York
Belmont Park: June 3-July 20.
Saratoga (NY) – July 16-Sept. 7

When are the Triple Crown races in 2020?

Belmont Stakes
June 20 (moved back two weeks and from final leg to opener)

*Note: The longest race of most thoroughbreds’ careers will not be on the resume for this crop of 3-year-olds. To alleviate injury concerns in a disjointed approach to the Triple Crown, stewards have reduced the race distance from 1 ½ half miles to 1 ⅛ miles. The Belmont goes from the longest to shortest Triple Crown race for this season. The Kentucky Derby is 1 ¼ miles and the Preakness 1 3/16. … The purse will drop from $1.5 million to $1 million because no spectators will be allowed.

Kentucky Derby
Sept. 5 (originally May 2)

Preakness Stakes
Oct. 3 (originally May 16, second leg)

Horse industry launches national campaign to retain sports bettors

The “Still. Running. Strong.” campaign, launched in conjunction with the NTRA, TVG network, which is an affiliate of the FanDuel Group; the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association will attempt to leverage “broadcast, digital, and social media elements,” according to a release to exploit heightened exposure even with the Triple Crown delayed more than six weeks. NBC Sports and FOX Sports have already filled programming gaps with live racing, providing a natural entry point for the effort.

A focal point of the digital and social media campaign is legal online horse betting, centered around educational materials at a new America’s Best Racing website.

“We’re going to be turning sports bettors, because we know there are lots of sports bettors out there that are desperate for content. They’re not able to bet right now. There’s not enough sports,” Waldrop said. “But horse racing is still going strong. And we have our ADW platforms, those online platforms which allow people to watch and wager, do it every.

“Certainly, now that opportunity is at a premium because many sports bettors don’t have that opportunity. It raises our profile. That’s the purpose of the awareness campaign. It’s the oldest form of sports betting.”

Horse racing getting a leg up as human sports shelter in place

Johnny Avello would have preferred that horse racing’s renaissance as a betting market was spurred by something besides COVID-19.

As head of sportsbook for DraftKings, he fully comprehends the impact of the pandemic shutting down the sports that would normally have comprised the vast bulk of his sports betting and daily fantasy sports company’s offerings. But even as a Las Vegas transplant, the product of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., longs for his annual pilgrimage to the Saratoga summer meet, and with MLB, the NBA and NHL still in the planning stages of a return to play, Avello hopes horse racing can capitalize on the opportunity. Because so far, he told PlayUSA, that’s worked well for the industry at large at a crucial time.

“Horse racing was getting dinged pretty good there with all those deaths of horses at San Anita, and I was really frightened for the game, especially in California,” he said. “California racing has been such a great product for many years. You’ve got Del Mar and then you got Santa Anita and then they go to the fairs during the summer.

“But I was concerned and I thought that this could be a good thing for horse racing because it could isolate them and as long as things went well, which they pretty much have, with the isolation, people could just concentrate on betting on horse racing because it was one of the few games that they were very familiar with.

Crucial, Avello said, is that the Belmont Stakes, traditionally the final leg of the Triple Crown, but now the opener, has the weekend of June 20 relatively to itself in terms of other major events.

“Talk about isolation. There won’t be a lot of sports going on, most likely,” Avello said. “So, I think that race is going to get a lot of exposure.

“And as we move forward here, you’ll have the Belmont, you’ll get a couple other races in between. You’ll have the Travers, which is normally in the end of August, probably going to shift the dates there and that’s probably going to be a prep for the Kentucky Derby. Hopefully, some younger people have gotten involved lately. Let’s hope that momentum continues. I can’t say it will for sure, but I’m hopeful that it will.”

Another reason horse racing and betting are still thriving

Though the disruption of the one annual period when horse racing becomes at least a passing mainstream interest represented a loss for the sport, Waldrop said, horse racing still holds an industry-wide advantage on professional team sports. Though its classics have been impacted, it’s daily business has been able to restart quicker despite local shutdowns.

“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,” Waldrop said. “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 feels shapes up.

“Our awareness campaign is really focused mostly on sports bettors than the casual fans who generally learn about us on national television. But it’s all about converting people from casual fans to fans who’ve watch and wager.”

DraftKings has a license to offer pari-mutuel wagering through its association with the Scarlet Pearl sportsbook in D’Iberville, Miss., but couldn’t capitalize on the rush because the state hasn’t legalized mobile and online wagering.

A report released last week by Infiniti Research claims that the “horse and sports betting market is poised to grow” by $139.52 billion, progressing by a nine-percent compound annual growth rate through 2024.

The first day of the delayed Churchill Downs, contested without fans posted a 183% increase in handle as compared to the same night, one replete with customary Louisville opening festivities, in 2019, according to WDRB television.

The home venue of the Kentucky Derby wasn’t the only park awash in interest. The handful of tracks open and running without fans – Gulfstream Park, Fonner Park, Oaklawn Park, Tampa Bay Downs and Will Rogers Downs exploded by 129 percent through the first few weeks of the meet.

At Santa Anita, the total handle for nine races on May 15 was $11,207,076, a 61-percent increase from an eight-race card on the same date a year ago.

While an increase of interest is a boon for the tracks, it has hardly been a financial windfall, with tracks being hit with the type of financial loss the major pro leagues could face with fanless games. The reason: tracks receive only a percentage the handle their tracks generate via simulcast and away from their betting windows.

The boom is also being experienced internationally with a Swedish government minister noting that “horse betting has exploded” during COVID-19 while debating regulations on the online casino industry there.

Horse racing resurgence amid COVID-19 shutdowns

Various sports and events have experienced an increase in exposure during the novel coronavirus pandemic. There was the wildly popular virtual NFL Draft, eNASCAR and eSports.

That horse racing — a vestige of America’s 17th-century agrarian past — and eSports, a digital vanguard of our presumed gaming future, were key among them created a fascinating spectrum for sports’ ecosystem. Both became focuses because they happened to be left standing for differing reasons when college and professional team sports were forced to go dormant. eSports can be conducted in relative confinement even though large arenas are being erected to present the spectacle of events like the Fortnite World Cup, pre-pandemic. Horse racing, which has fallen into a sad state of decline, where the Kentucky Derby is generally the only event to resonate with the general public, didn’t have many fans to turn away.

A collection of tracks remained open during the shutdown, notable among them Oaklawn Park, which hosted an expanded Arkansas Derby on the day the Kentucky Derby was originally scheduled.

In a perverse sign that business seemed to be as usual, the Bob Baffert-trained Charlatan, a runoff winner in one of the two races that comprised the event is said to have tested positive for illegal substances.

Can fixed-odds wagering bridge gap from sportsbooks to horse tracks?

Drazin knows their frustration. He’s absorbed it through their emails and voice messages: Dabbling horse player bets a filly at Monmouth Park at long odds. Filly wins. Dabbling horse player is surprised to find a pedestrian payout waiting at the window. Late money had come in on her, the odds plummeted. The payout decreased.

That quickly, a winning bettor and potential repeat customer had a bad experience.

Standing at the nexus of sports betting and pari-mutuel wagering, Drazin has long advocated for fixed-odds wagering as a means to appease those dabblers and perhaps retain sports bettors disinclined to accept that a lot of late money generated online and as smart as theirs ruined a payday. And their fun.

“They bet the horse at 7-1, then it’s 5-1, at the gate and 8-to-5 and by the time it breaks out of the gate it’s 3-to-5,” Drazin said. “They say ‘What happened?’ And that’s not because there’s anything improper going on, it’s just all these wagers that are made by computer and otherwise the last minute being added to the pools. But I don’t think it gives the public a good feeling. I think the public would feel better if they’d bet at 2-to-1 and they got 2-to-1. So I think that will help bring some people back to racing.”

So in February, the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and Darby Development LLC, which operates Monmouth Park, entered a 10-year deal with BetMakers Technology Group to facilitate fixed-odds wagering for that track. The Australian company will initially offer just win, place and show bets.

Fixed-odds betting has been credited with stimulating the horse racing industry in Australia and is expanding worldwide, but has been resisted in the United States because of the differences in takeout structure between sportsbooks and pari-mutuel pools. Tracks often hold up to 20 percent of handle to feed pools, while sportsbooks take less. Proponents of fixed-odds horse wagering assert that players will make up for the shortfalls with their increase volume of wagering.

“These are issues that happen not just on a state by state basis, but really on an operator-by-operator basis. People are moving cautiously in the sports betting arena,” Waldrop said. “It’s too early to tell whether the fixed-odds wagering will gain traction.

“It should, it absolutely should. It provides some certainty to players, the kind of certainty they’re used to getting in the sports betting arena. But I can’t predict how quickly that happens. The revenue factors that have to be considered. The risk factor is not an element for parimutuel because you’re basically commission-based wagering and how to convert a sports wager into DraftKings offered fixed-odds betting on the Haskell Invitational card at Monmouth Park last year.

Any vendor with a skin in a New Jersey sportsbook, Drazin said, is eligible to contract for fixed-odds horse wagering. Waldrop said that TVG, whose parent company is Flutter Entertainment, is also “looking at” fixed-odds wagering.

Horse racing provides boost to sports betting, needs a residual effect

It was once ironic that the campaign that ultimately led to the possibility of legal sports betting in the entirety of the United States began with a horsemen’s association lawsuit in New Jersey. All those new consumers would have even less reason to turn their attention to an afternoon program at Monmouth Park. But now there’s a symmetry.

The horse racing industry collectively hoped after the repeal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in 2018 that newly cultivated sports bettors would turn the occasion dollar toward the flagging pari-mutuels industry, and for now, they have. While the industry faces the same sustainability questions as eSports and Russian table tennis markets once the “big four” return, the present is heartening.

“We love it,” Waldrop said. “We love it.”

Brant James Avatar
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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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