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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

RACING NEEDS TO EMULATE THE NFL WHEN IT COMES TO EDUCATING ITS BETTORS

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?

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16 Responses

  1. John…great piece…racing…while hoping to be in the same regard as NFL and MLB…Imo, still treats itself as in the time when cashing a bet on trainer Bennett’s “inside information” was the game instead of where we are today with purses, simulcasting and online sports betting.

  2. Thanks for checking in Tom, and you make a good point. I agree that outsized purses available in this era make it unnecessary for trainers to cash a bet in order to survive.

    We enjoy handicapping as an intellectual exercise and would like to learn more about the animal since we don’t live with them the way horsemen do.

    More and clearer information would help to achieve that and perhaps even attract a wider, sports betting audience.

    Hopefully someone is listening…

  3. One of the big problems in racing is that trainers commenting on their horses is by and large a waste of time.If we could get legitimate information like you mention in the article, that would be a start. The way the game is played and policed at this time, the information is forwarded from some knowledgeable players to other players and friends. This information is rarely passed on to the public. For instance, shoe information was bought by big bettors, but never printed or mentioned in the Form. We were more likely to get this information after the race, than before.Also comparing horse racing to the NFL is ludicrous. One is a sport and gambling game. The other is a gambling game and no longer a sport.

    1. I feel your pain Aaron, racing is a gambling game and is no longer a ‘sport’ – in the traditional sense.

      But saying it’s no longer a sport belittles the equine athletes and, more significantly, the athleticism of jockeys.

      If steering highly strung thousand-pound animals through close spaces at 40 miles per hour, and to do so successfully, is not an athletic achievement, sport, then I don’t know what is.

      1. Agree with your analysis of the so called sport. I really believe jockey’s are tremendous athlete’s and the horses are amazing,but sadly to compare racing to a major sport,no longer works.Racing has been knocked off stations by bowling and rodeo’s. That is pretty far down the list. Hard to believe at one time racing was right up there with the major sports.

        1. Aaron, when racing was king of American sports, along with boxing and football way back in the day, it was college foot and not the NBA that held sway. Notwithstanding the fact that an athlete has been be so good on Saturday that only the best get to play on Sunday., good marketing and education never hurt anyone’s product. Indeed, times change and, sadly, not for the better.

  4. JP–I agree with you that the more info for bettors, the better. I remember when Sports Eye came along and provided useful info like whether a horse was wearing front bandages. And that bandage info was subsequently incorporated into the DRF. So why shouldn’t info on blinkers be expanded to include what type of blinkers a horse is equipped with? Or whether a tongue tie or throat surgery has been performed?

  5. Exactly the point, Chuck. These types of improvement were discussed before but publications considered it a logistics problem: Where would the new information go? It would make the data too busy, make it more difficult for new fans to learn.

    Again, why not give bettors more comprehensive information so they can decide what’s useful and what is not?

    Excellent observation vis a vis throat surgery…

  6. In Massachusetts:

    The Good news: Legal sports betting starting on Jan. 31 in 3 retail locations at the casinos & slots parlor. (Everett, Springfield, Plainville).

    The Bad news: In a Jan. 7 referendum, voters in the town of Hardwick overwhelmingly rejected a new thoroughbred horse racing track.

    Unfortunately, for horse racing fans, that illustrates the trend.

  7. I suppose if the good people of Massachusetts couldn’t muster up enough enthusiasm to keep storied Suffolk Downs viable, a new race track wouldn’t have much of a chance. Sadly Dan, this doesn’t qualify as surprising…

  8. (Received this yesterday via personal email from our sports partner Marc Lawrence–who, incidentally, went 6-1 ATS on Wildcard Weekend and is a Gulfstream Park weekend warrior)

    Nice commentary, John. And yes its about time horse racing caters to the audience rather than subjugate them as simply onlookers.

    At minimum, the greedy NFL realized it’s the fans that keep the sport vibrant. By implementing human-interest elements to the game – i.e.- instant replay, overturning bad calls, changing archaic rules, sports wagering education – they allow the fans to better identity to the game, while making them feel as though they are an important part of the way the game is presented.

    Horse racing needs to come out of its cave and let the players wrap their arms around the sport as fans and bettors. For without them, the game will likely go the way of dog racing.

  9. Thanks for checking in on this Marc.

    You, and most of the HRI Faithful, realize that the industry no longer can take its customers for granted and must do all it can to better service the ones it has and educate sports bettors that there is synergy between handicapping sports and horse racing.

    But it first better introduce fixed-odds wagering as a more viable alternative to parimutuels which has outgrown its utility in the computer syndicate age. Racing will never attract sports bettors–the crossover it will need to maintain in the future, in our view–unless gamblers know the price they bet is the price they get.

    Wild, last-minute odds fluctuations already have driven customers out of the game. Let the rebate shops continue to play parimutuelly but give the rank and file player more of a level playing field.

  10. John,

    First, to provide a more accurate, and pungent perspective on the decline in wagering, consider these facts:

    In 2003, all-source US wagering handle reached an all-time high of $15.18 billion. By 2021, it had declined to $12.216 billion. Inflation adjusted (to 2021 dollars), the 2003 all-source US wagering handle was actually $22.35 billion, which means that the 18 year decline was not 19.5%, but 66%. That’s SIXTY-SIX percent!

    Secondly, while we see things similarly in the broad sense, I am extremely pessimistic about the possibility of fixed-odds wagering being a savior. I am a big proponent of peer-to-peer wagering (e.g. Betfair type exchanges), but fixed-odds wagering, as it has been, and is likely to continue to be implemented and promoted in the U.S., appears to me to be a dead-end.

  11. Thanks Tink,

    Peer to peer is similar to fixed odds in that you get what you pay for. But that is for more experienced players, sophisticated enough to know that not every none-favorite is value, as most television analysts lead you to believe.

    For some reason, the American horse industry, as a whole, wants fixed odds wagering as much as they want HISA to succeed. It tells you more about the problems of implementation that it does outside-the-box thinking that could possibly turn racing’s economic fortunes around.

    I say let the computer mobs cannibalize each other parimutuelly and give the rest of us a more level betting field…

  12. I could Never compare two sports so different ! One,football,uses a ball,played by large,fit humans while the other has equine athletes at the mercy of trainers,owners,pharmaceuticals,track/stable conditions while at the same time relying on their feet,heart ,breeding. . I’m glad that the well run Meadowlands gets a positive notice about their successes even if they are not like they were some years ago when IT was The Place for standard bred racing even if it offered night flat racing for a while. Still,the best place for harness today but some of us miss the nights of Campbell, La Chance and many other drivers who were leading the sport to its climax.Yonkers? Still seems like a bad MGM $ 800 mistake now surrounded by casinos,racinos that came up within a few miles of that atrocious,old ,boring Yonkers location. AS one “Dean” of NY handicappers would add several times; Is that horse ready to win today ? Only the vet knows for sure ! ” Rip,Russ Harris ..

    1. Some other Meadowlands drivers were; Ray Remmen,Jack Moiseyev,Ronnie Pierce,Bill O` Donnell,a trotting specialist,Ron Waples,,,today is Yannick Gingras getting most of the favorites and a huge gap .Yonkers had the crazy but talented Walter Case,Oullette and a gap with the others to the point that many bettors would automatically bet them both in Boxed exactas. Those were the days of drugs,more fixed races,live Saturday night races with Stan Bernstein,Ross and Jack Lee making the calls,,,,,In memory of my late father who, since we had a pizza joint next to a new OTB parlor ,bet with me and we both watched the main races while eating ice cream. DAB : 412. Niatross, Seatrain….Thanks for the Cherished memories.

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