HALLANDALE, FL, January 16, 2023 – I thought of the damndest thing while watching wall-to-wall coverage of the NFL Wild Card Playoffs this weekend, such as: Why can’t racing innovate like other sports do?
I don’t know exactly when the hypocritical NFL – all of a sudden, catering to gamblers is top of mind – came up with the idea of “instant review” on questionable catch-incomplete pass plays, but it’s brilliant in its utility and facility.
Instant Review doesn’t needlessly interrupt the flow of the game while certifying that judgment calls made on the field are correct. Getting the play outcomes right matters, as does the familiar replay process whereby teams can challenge a call but only have a small window to do so.
The overtime rules changed too, albeit just for the playoffs, is another positive development. The idea that both teams will have a chance to get the ball in overtime no matter what the team that won the coin toss does on its first possession is equitable on its face.
I never completely understood the logic behind a touchdown ending an overtime game but somehow a field goal didn’t except, of course, in regulation. In our view, the new overtime rule should apply to the regular season as well.
Upon further review, I understand that the name of the game is scoring touchdowns but also think that on an overtime-touchdown game-ender shouldn’t depend more on calling heads or tails. Both teams should have an equal opportunity to win.
Another racing-related thought as we watched injured players being led into a sidelines tent for a cursory exam—which may be more about the lip-service optics to player safety than true injury protocols—is that it does send the right message.
In the burgeoning era of legalized sports betting, the NFL apparently wants its fans to be as well informed as possible. It wants to maintain it “King Football” status among sports bettors, preserving and growing market share that’s measured in television ratings. And ratings are all about the Benjamins.
Before it was legal, the league gave a wink and nod to sports bettors but now it’s all out of the closet. The league and teams openly promote gambling partnerships, many using celebrities to talk point spreads and parlays. The NFL knows legal sports betting will helps its bottom line.
With the exception of publicly traded Churchill Downs Inc., wagering handle on horse races is the only metric that horse racing openly promotes, yet does doesn’t do enough for the horseplayer. The “industry” leaves it up to the tracks and the states to do right by the fans.
When the industry was able to do something to benefit its equine athletes and the bettors, namely uniformity via the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, the asylum’s inmates—read horsemen’s groups and their well-paid executive cheerleaders—attempted to stop it via injunctive relief by gaming Constitutional law.
As everyone is aware, racing needs to do a lot more to attract new fans. Of greater import, however, it needs to keep the ones it has, and that starts with better information, educational data that players could bet on. Here’s one recent example of how it fails to educate its public:
On Saturday, following Tampa Bay Downs’ Gasparilla Stakes, winning trainer Gerald Bennett informed the track’s press staff that rider Jose Ferrer had breezed his filly, Tap Dance Fever, last week and that she was “better today than she was in her last race.
“She was flipping her palate a few starts back so we added a tongue tie, and it made a big change in her,” said the meet’s leading trainer.
Wouldn’t the players like to have known this information before the race? Aren’t they entitled to make the most informed decision possible, just as the latest NFL injury reports do?
Like sports bettors, helping bettors grows the bottom line. The tongue tie scenario is not on Bennett. Neither are other subtle equipment changes, such as changes in the type of blinkers worn by the horses, information that goes beyond the current standard “blinkers on” or “blinkers off.”
If a horse is wearing French Cup blinkers, it’s less likely to be distracted or intimidated by rivals; a Full Cup, similar but with small holes allows horses to better to see nearby competitors if that’s the goal; ‘Cheater’ Blinkers have no cups, allowing a full field if vision while providing a psychological security-blanket.
The type of blinkers a horse wears, or changes made to existing equipment, is information that can portend improved performance. Let bettors make decisions based on the most comprehensive information available.
Specifics regarding blinkers, or the addition of a tongue tie, can be mandated by rule that trainers must include this information on entry sheets when the races are drawn as is currently done now with blinkers on or off, to be noted in official past performance data.
Racing no longer can afford being regarded as an insider’s game and only more comprehensive data can alleviate that perception. The NFL does what it must to ward off the competition it faces from the NBA, NHL or MLB.
Racing had better take similar steps to help ensure its future. It must embrace the presence of sports betting and adapt. It can’t afford to run away from the competition as it did in the early days of Off Track Betting.
Horse racing must do what it can to compete with the burgeoning sports betting market. In the last decade, horse racing handle slipped from $16 billion annually to approximately $11 billion with wagering flat in recent years.
In September, Meadowlands Racetrack, in partnership with three sports betting retailers, surpassed $1 billion in sports gaming revenue. In time, if racing adopts fixed-odds wagering to replace parimutuels, there’s no reason why racing handle can’t flourish in the future.
Since inception, New Jersey has handled close to $19 billion. According to the American Gaming Association, 39 states and the District of Columbia have or are considering some form of sports betting. How long will it be before sports betting is legalized in all 50 states? And when that day comes, how many racetracks will have survived?