Thursday, October 14, 2010

“Horse Racing: America’s Best Bet”

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, October 14, 2010--Yesterday’s post regarding an increase in takeout rates in California and a proposed horseplayer boycott generated many interesting comments from today’s sophisticated racing fans.

But there was one post that stated while this bettor understands the effects that high takeout rates have on churn, that models such as betting exchanges and lower takeout rates are overstated as a means to sustain and grow the game.

While I can disagree with both posits, I agree with the premise that a major factor is the failure to attract new users. I will take that to mean new bettors and not new fans of the sport.

Last New Year’s Eve, we posted an idea from another commenting contributor for a new wager that could attract new users because of its appeal to the non-thinking gambling audience, namely slots and lottery players.

Given that slots and lottery players exist in greater numbers, new horse bets that cater to that mentality certainly would be worth considering.
Clearly, the racing industry needs to try something different to attract new users, such perhaps luring players from the casino side of a racetrack over to the racino side. The following is an idea from Mark Mulier, edited from the original:

“The idea is to run separate pools with only random-number-generated tickets, no handicapping allowed, and only straight tickets; no picking your own numbers or boxes or wheels.

“You could run a "Pick 3", "Pick 4", etc., just like the lottery. It should be possible to create [similar] bets with odds so large that ‘rollovers’ would occur.

“For instance a Straight 8, or a Straight 10. You would have to have more runners for each race than the number of winning digits to allow for scratches [and the drawing in of also-eligibles].

“A scratched horse could be a free winning digit in the ticket sequence, or a substitute digit could be [made available].

“Some method of dealing with late scratches and coupled entries would have to be developed.

“This could be done in conjunction [or partnership] with each state's existing lottery, as [all] are all looking to generate revenues at this time.

“The existing Pari-Mutuel pools would continue to be played by people as usual;
handicapping and making logical selections.”

Mulier’s idea is a variation on a Quick Pick available at some tracks. But with a high payoff and a delivery arm as vast as a state lottery’s, non-horseplayers would be inclined to check race results, something they wouldn’t do ordinarily.

Should the concept work to the degree that it becomes moderately successful, a portion of the takeout could be earmarked for addition into the track’s straight pools which would effectively and painlessly lower takeout.

The reason for using the straight pools are twofold: The lesser the degree of difficulty, the lesser the learning curve, the easier for would-be neophyte handicappers to understand.

Additionally, tracks and simulcast venues could cross-promote the lottery-type horse wager with the predictive elements of traditional handicapping. The lower takeout rates could be advertised, literally and figuratively as “Horse Racing: “America’s Best Bet.”

Other outside-the-box wagers have been introduced with little success. Churchill Downs offered odds-evens wagering and an equivalent of an over-under total, achieved by adding up the winning program numbers of the first three finishers.

Breeders’ Cup has and is offering Jockey head-to-head action. A jockey “team racing” wager has also been offered.

While these bets may have been greeted with a collective yawn by horseplayers, the concepts were never really given a good chance to succeed. Churchill is a popular signal but it’s only one venue; Breeders’ Cup is a two-day event.

If a number of tracks banded together on a Saturday and made new wagers available to the simulcasting market, the concept might have a decent chance to catch on.

In order to get payoffs to significant levels, the degree of difficulty needs to be high. Whether it’s a Quick 6, or a Great 8, a 50-cent wager--even with a 25 percent takeout allowing for earmarks that lower the take on straight wagers--should increase both handle and liquidity, benefiting the players, tracks and horsemen.

Further, another portion of the proceeds could be designated for horse retirement programs and other worthy racetrack charities such as Belmont Park’s Anna House or the Disabled Jockey’s Fund.

A lottery-type racing wager is not only a means to introduce new people to horse racing but horseplayers could take a lottery shot, too, knowing they might get no-brainer lucky for a buck or two. If not, giving something back to the animals and people who make the game go might provide some comfort.

Like any conceivably worthwhile notion, it will take time to bear fruit. By cutting Lottery in on the action in exchange for wider distribution, more gamblers would be introduced to racing in a brand new way.

There would be many organizations, both in and outside the industry, with a vested interest in the success of a lottery-type wager for horse racing. It would provide impetus for positive spin, increased racing revenue for a state’s education coffers and for the community at large.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (15)


Thursday, September 30, 2010

ESPN’s Sports Center: If It’s News, It’s News To Us

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 30, 2010--Either ESPN hates horse racing, won’t recognize equine greatness when they see it, won’t acknowledge it or uses extremely poor news judgment on their flagship “Sports Center” broadcasts or all of the above.

Or maybe since the news that reigning Horse of Year Rachel Alexandra had been retired and won’t appear on its Breeders’ Cup telecasts that this news would take something away from the event. And that might hurt the bottom line.

I not even sure why Thoroughbred racing casts its lot with ESPN. Seems like a colossal waste of time and treasure. Suits on both sides can say what they want, but racing always seems to get the back of its programming hand.

I seldom watch Sports Center routinely, so they probably don’t care what I think. I will when there’s a major story, a game of national import on the professional or college level and, of course, the very occasional horse race.

I’ve given up on the idea of looking forward to racing telecasts since I don‘t know if I need to tune into ESPN Classic, ESPN News, ESPN 2 or ESPN, the mother ship. But “Sports Center,” that red zone compendium of highlights of modern look-at-me athletes? No thanks.

But I had a reason to tune in early Wednesday morning in addition to the pennant and wildcard chases; to find out if they reported anything beyond what I learned from press releases received after returning from dinner hours earlier.

There must have been some reason why Rachel Alexandra was suddenly retired one day after recording her second straight bullet workout.

It wasn’t until 4:05 a.m. before I could tune in, and here’s what I got--at 4:59 a.m. To paraphrase:

The host whinnies: “Hey, the Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra, has been retired, but here’s the good news. She’s going to be bred to Curlin.” Co-host: “I’d sure like to have some of that offspring.” Host whinnies again: “Good night.”

Obviously, there was no getting back to sleep. Besides, maybe I missed something in those first five minutes. I didn’t. From 5 a.m. to 5:05 a.m., not a word. And if there was a blurb in the left margin announcing upcoming stories, or a note in the news crawl below, I never saw it.

Now before some flak writes or e-mails to say the network is planning a Rachel feature on Saturday’s 90-minute broadcast on ESPN Classic from Hollywood Park starring Zenyatta--a race that also will be seen live on ESPN between football games--or that it’s planning an extensive interview with Jess Jackson during its Breeders’ Cup offerings, that won't be good enough. This is what’s called old news.

There was an interesting, well reasoned explanation of the ESPN-Horse Racing relationship phenomenon in a Jessica Chapel blog posted this week. In my view, it nails what the modern Entertainment and Sports Network is all about. To wit:

“Well into the 1990s you could say ESPN was a true sports network, with an eclectic line-up that included football, baseball, soccer, golf, bass fishing, and the X Games. If people played it, ESPN aired it.

“Changes came with ABC/Disney ownership, competition from other networks, and an ambitious expansion plan that rode the rise of cable and the web, turning ESPN into the TV-radio-digital-print behemoth it is now.

“There’s a downside to this dominance, though, a homogenizing of sport, an emphasis on the popular and lucrative. Think of it this way: ESPN is to sports as Playboy was to sex.

“Like Hugh Hefner’s groundbreaking men’s magazine, ESPN transformed an industry, becoming hugely influential to a generation of young men and radically reshaping their perceived interests.

“Along the way, it became less a celebration of all that is athletic than a platform for aggregating massive advertiser-friendly audiences. That means fewer small-market sports, whether hockey or horseracing, and more major league sports and specious news coverage.

“When all of sports was a niche, more sporting niches thrived. Gone mainstream, broadly appealing sports narratives gain prominence…”

According to a poll conducted recently by--wait for it--ESPN, horse racing placed in the lower half of the Top 10, ahead of NASCAR, a sport that television elevated to pop culture status. This apparently fails to impress “Sports Center” producers.

Not all this disinterest is the network’s fault; television isn’t the only industry that worships at the alter of the bottom line. A lot of it is the fault of the racing industry, one that’s fractured to its core.

It’s too easy to blame the National Thoroughbred Racing Association for doing a woeful job of promoting the sport. With the hits it has taken this year, the result of some of its major members pulling the financial plug, the industry is unable to bring racing to the masses in the manner of NASCAR.

According to industry sources, it costs $225,000 to put on a live hour of horse racing programming. And if the NTRA can’t afford to pay for it, or enlist the aid of organizations with a vested interest in the industry’s health, then who will?

Except for four days a year, racing creates no buzz on a national level. That’s the reality that allows ESPN and mainstream sports media to tell racing to buzz off. But this snub is about more than the sport of horse racing.

To ignore the fans of a Horse of the Year champion, a story that became national news during the 2009 Triple Crown campaign, is irresponsible at best, disgraceful at worst.

“The Sports Reporters” is an entertaining and informative ESPN program fueled by events of the day. “Outside the Lines” is a fine example of magazine programming excellence.

But then there’s Sports Center, which can turn a shockingly disappointing news announcement into a punch line. And a lame one, at that.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gulfstream Night Racing: Max Out After Dark?

ELMONT, NY, September 22, 2010--Taking a page from rival Churchill Downs’ playbook, it appears that MI Developments, parent company of Gulfstream Park, wants to get into the Friday Night Lights business.

Night racing, long believed to be a possible savior/future of the sport, is on a mini-roll. Even the not-quite-night twilight programs, such as the one offered the last two years in Saratoga, have been a positive experience.

Hollywood Park has done pretty well with its Friday night programs, too, and when Oak Tree-at-Hollywood opens September 30, Thursdays and Fridays nights will offer concerts after the last race.

Historically, racetrack concerts have not been home runs, but the notion that modern tracks are inspired to become destination venues with special events driving the action is sound, especially if the idea is to get new blood into the building. Once inside, racetracks must figure the sexiest way to sell its product.

Based on results, Churchill seems to have figured something out. Their “Downs After Dark” Friday programs drew nearly 30,000 fans per night on the three cards held under temporary lighting last year.

This spring, over 27,000 supported each of four Friday nights. More programs are scheduled for Fridays this fall, the first coming two weeks after Breeders’ Cup, November 19.

Now MID wants to target Thursday and Friday nights. And why not? The racing will be top class, or a reasonable facsimile, the Villages will provide an alternative to those who would rather shop while their mates partake of casino or racino action.

Or it just might be a good way for people, especially sun-tanning snowbirds, to become familiar with the facility after first having dinner at one of the many trendy Village restaurants: Anything to raise awareness beyond racing’s aging fan base.

Gulfstream Park will need a change in the state law prohibiting Thoroughbred racing after 7 p.m. And there’s some support in Tallahassee to do so providing there’s something in it for all other parimutuel entities in the state.

If the legislature grants permission for night Thoroughbred racing in Hallandale Beach, it would require permission from the Thoroughbred horsemen, which cannot happen without a new contract.

Both sides will have plenty of time to work out any issues since the legislature won’t discuss the possibility of night Thoroughbreds until the 2011 session opens in March. Gulfstream opens January 5, but light stanchions could welcome the opening day crowd nevertheless.

MID has figured correctly that it might be useful to make the game more accessible to a wider audience. Toward that end, it’s the reason they’re considering Thursday and Friday programs when Gulfstream opens in 2012.

When the subject of night racing at Gulfstream Park was broached in the past, the Florida HBPA leadership said that many trainers, including those from New York, New Jersey, Canada and the horsemen have no interest in racing at night.

But considering that those trainers don’t have a vested interest in Florida racing the other nine months of the year, maybe it shouldn’t be their call, no matter how influential or politically connected they might be.

More likely, the real concern is that the big ship-in outfits might consider winter racing at the Fair Grounds instead. There already has been some not so subtle pressure put on trainers that call Churchill Downs home.

Dennis Mills, MID Vice-Chairman and CEO, is on record as having been influenced by the overwhelming success of Churchill’s Downs After Dark program, and how MID indeed would be derelict of duty if they didn’t at least consider the option.

And everyone knows what his boss, Frank Stronach, thinks of racing’s current model. When it comes to increasing shareholder value, not much has gone right for them. That they have a duty to be creative in this area is to seriously understate the case.

Meanwhile, Calder Race Course, a CDI property, thus far has sat back, stalking the nightline pace set by Gulfstream while Tampa Bay Downs to the north is unlikely to have a dog in this fight.

The Oldsmar, Florida track has been transformed into a highly attractive simulcast product after taking advantage of the window created by Fair Grounds’ closure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But as the fictional Gordon Gekko has already instructed; money never sleeps, pal, and now greed is apparently legal.

There are plenty of other parimutuel industries; Florida’s dog, harness racing and jai alai frontons, and even the Seminole Tribe’s gaming operations, that have something to gain from legislation enabling night Thoroughbred racing.

The jai alai and dog racing interests currently are suffering from a malaise even deeper than the one effecting the Thoroughbred industry. With palms open, they will find their way to the negotiating table.

Gulfstream and its horsemen should embrace the opportunity to present night racing. The Monmouth “elite” and Churchill’s “night” experiments have provided something of a workable template for racing’s future. Big time Florida racing would do well to follow their lead.

Written by John Pricci

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