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Saturday, December 08, 2012


Presque Isle Experiment Could Teach Industry a Lesson


SOUTH OZONE PARK, December 7, 2012—Pending approval from the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission, Presque Isle Downs & Casino will shift its racing program to a Sunday through Thursday schedule and drop racing on Friday and Saturday.

Weekend programs normally draw bigger crowds, of course, especially when first post is 5:25 p.m. So then why drop those popular days? Because destination venues and boutique race meets notwithstanding, the live gate no longer assures viability.

The popularity of a simulcast signal is no longer a luxury; it’s an absolute necessity. If simulcasting fails, slots are the last resort, but tracks like Presque Isle need viable racing, too. And if that fails, yet another shopping mall becomes the reality.

It matters not that tracks get a bigger slice of the wagering pie from the live product than it does from its simulcast product, not when “all-sources” rules. If a racing model is to succeed, betting handle, not Lotto receipts, must fuel purses.

There’s still a big place for on-track handle, of course, but only if you own a destination venue, or run a boutique meet, or have the right location…location. Think Oaklawn… Oaklawn. That’s the sad fact of life in this brave, not-so-new simulcast world.

In no small way, then, is it ironic that the 21st Century racetrack has a much better chance to build its brand through the simulcast marketplace than in their own back yards.

Why concentrate on Erie, Pennsylvania when you can target the world?

And that’s what Presque Isle is attempting to do with this move. Schedule changes have worked at other tracks and it can work for them, too. The track will find out if it gets that opportunity when the PSHRC convenes next Thursday.

Reality dictates that the Presque Isles and Parxes of the racing world cannot compete with the Aqueducts and Churchills; Hawthorne on a Saturday afternoon is no match for Gulfstream. Quality of competition and branding matters.

While it’s true that large fields of claiming horses will out-handle small fields of allowances horses, selling platers are no match for class masters when placed on even footing at the entry box, everything else being equal. The Jockey Club has studies to prove it.

Presque Isle management gets this and is taking proactive steps. The elephant in the room is: What’s taking the rest of the B-level and C-level tracks so long to figure this situation out? Apples can compete with other apples, but they won’t beat oranges.

In fact, here is the first bold prediction for 2013: More smaller tracks will change their schedules to fill the simulcast void left by the majors on Dark Mondays and Tuesdays. If they are to remain viable within the racing community, it’s inevitable.

In fact, smaller tracks can do for racing what racing has failed to do for itself. Smart scheduling will have the same effect as the creation of major and minor leagues. It will be no different than when tracks schedule post times not to conflict with parimutuel rivals.

With B and C level tracks competing with other B and C tracks, all will be on equal footing with no thousand-pound gorillas to take on. Tracks such as Parx and Presque Isle, and next-level venues such as Laurel and Delaware could OWN Dark Mondays and Tuesdays.

Consequently, tracks might figure out a way to cooperate instead of compete. A 10 percent, 50-Cent Pick 5 shared among three or four tracks, similar to the Stronach wager wager a few years back, could attract significant handle by bundling the best races. Low takeout rates could be sold to state houses as a “marketing” expense.

And if this long chance ever became a reality, simulcast coordinators and racing offices should guard against making the races impossible to handicap.

In their greed for short term handle, tracks fail to realize that many serious handicappers eschew impossible sequences but rather are attracted to those offering potential “singles” and a reasonable chance of success.

Think of it this way: Whales want minnows in the pools.

The Pick 4, for instance, even with a 50-Cent minimum, can be too costly for the average fan that has the capacity to wager “only” $200-$300 per day. Force him to stretch his bankroll chasing a score and churn goes up in smoke, along with most tickets.

By the way, the 50-Cent Pick 4 offers a reasonable chance of success, especially when compared to the $2 Pick 6, but the bet is no gimme.

We congratulate Presque Isle for using a common sense approach to competition and wish them success with their experiment. That might lead the way for other smaller tracks to own their share of the racing week and build their brands simultaneously.

There’s only one Saturday and so many weekend warriors to go around.

Written by John Pricci

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