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Old 01-14-2009, 10:55 AM
Rogthedodger Rogthedodger is offline
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Default The North American Horse Racing Industry Can Blame Itself for It's Demise..By Hartley Henderson

It was recently reported that attendance and interest in horse racing in North America is at an all time low. As someone who grew up with a love for the sport of kings, the news is somewhat disheartening, but at the same time it was foreseeable. I recall well going to the horse races as a child with my family; each outing was an event and a guaranteed fun time. Once you paid your admission and walked through the gates it was all about racing. The touts were selling their sheets to any suckers that were willing to pay, the racing form salesmen were peddling their paper and opinion and the horsemen were clearly distinguished from the rest of the crowd due to their fancy attire. If you had a little extra money and were dressed appropriately you could go to the clubhouse where service was a little more personal. More importantly there was something for everyone to do. Between races the tracks often put on a show for the fans and there were always activities for kids, whether it was horse rides on the backstretch, a free arcade with a horse racing theme or other family activities related to racing. Furthermore, on days when there was a big event, if you weren't fortunate enough to get a reserved seat you had to arrive very early. Unreserved seats were scarce, and if you were able to nab one you stayed put and enjoyed the day. Waiting for the race card to start sometimes was long, but in the end it all worked out. When the races began you knew you were in for a good show and, if you were lucky, won some money.

While the lively atmosphere added to your experience, what drew you to the track was the quality of the product itself. Field sizes were almost always in the double digits and relatively competitive. Most importantly, you knew the animals were sound. It was unusual for horses to run with any ailment, since the track veterinarians checked the horses thoroughly before the races and medicines like lasix and bute were outlawed at almost all the major tracks. Consequently when a horse did break down it was usually due to a misstep. As well, horses tended to race exclusively at their home track, which allowed the local horseplayers to get to know them. When horses did succeed they would often travel to other cities to compete in major races, but invariably they would return to the home track for stakes races. I recall well a sense of national pride when local horses at Woodbine, like Deputy Minister, L'Enjelour and Runaway Groom, went on to win major races in the United States. And it was particularly exciting when Sunny's Halo won the Kentucky Derby. Regardless of the success and opportunities elsewhere, the horses' owners always rewarded the local fans by returning back to the home track for major stakes races.

Around the late 1980s, however, it was easy to sense a shift in the direction of horse racing. The young families that once were a major part of the track began to disappear. The excited children who would run to the rail to see the horses in the post parade dwindled. The pony rides, arcades and other activities at the tracks vanished and were replaced by a new clientele. Fans under 50 were rare, especially on weekdays. Even the adult demographic was shifting. Families, well heeled professionals, and young couples were replaced by predominantly unaccompanied men. Consequently, interaction between fans and jockeys, as well as interaction with each other, was becoming a thing of the past. Quaint and intimate tracks like Greenwood and Hialeah closed in favour of expanding less personal tracks like Woodbine and Gulfstream. Even the clubhouse was becoming irrelevant, and most closed altogether. The reason for the change was evident - the tracks became less about local horse racing and more about generating revenue by any means. Ticket takers were laid off in favour of ticket machines, the local touts and other sellers were replaced with information booths, and the greeters all but disappeared.

Perhaps most notable was that tracks now offered simulcasting from other courses. This ensured that the local horseplayers were always glued to a TV set and constantly gambling. Also, as states and provinces permitted, most tracks installed slot machines. This move caused a shift in public perception: rather than the track being seen as a place to go for a day of entertainment, it was now just another gambling venue. Naturally, this ended family weekend outings to the track. At the same time, as the focus of the track was changing, so too was the attitude of the horsemen. The connection to the local fans was not a priority anymore. A conversation with a Canadian trainer demonstrated this. A relatively famous Canadian owner moved all his horses with the most potential to Florida hoping to gain notoriety stateside. "That would never have happened in my younger training days," the trainer told me. "Unless there was a really good reason to move, the owners stayed put and rewarded the fans. It seems now the owners see the fans as nothing more than chattel, and it's all me, me, me."

The shift from an entertainment entity to a purely gambling venue would be acceptable if tracks had the product to back it up, but in reality, as a form of pure gambling, horse racing is lacking. If one wants some fast paced action, casino gambling is a better alternative. If one wants to take a shot at the big bucks for a low outlay, then lotteries offer higher payouts. In fact, nowadays with the exotic bets tracks are pushing, such as the superfecta, super high 5, pick 6 and the like, horse tracks resemble lotteries. And the high takeout from those bets is in line with what the lottery holds. Furthermore, if one wants to use their own handicapping skills to outsmart others and enjoy some entertainment in return for their action, then nothing beats sports betting. And unlike horse racing, sports betting offers more realistic odds of winning. In general, sportsbooks only hold 4% on bets. Horse racing on the other hand holds between 17% on win, place and show betting, and up to 30% on the exotics mentioned. Of course the tracks have this high takeout to pay for purses and track upkeep, but it doesn't change the fact that a 17% hold equates to a line of -140 both ways on a pick 'em sports match. What sports better in his right mind would bet an 80 cent line on a pick 'em game? As well, because only pari-mutuel betting is allowed in North America, one can never be sure of the odds they will get. In England horse racing not only has pari-mutuel betting, but it also works with bookmakers who offer fixed odds. Therefore you can lock in a price, and it is always far below the 17% hold at the North American tracks. In fact many bookmakers in England now even offer best odds, guaranteed. In better words, if you bet a horse early and the price goes up you get the better price. If it goes down you keep the odds you bet. Imagine something like that being offered at North American tracks! So by changing their focus, the tracks have managed to eliminate future generations of potential race track attendees, and at the same time have alienated the loyal track going base that no longer have time for the impersonal clutter of TV sets, slots and other chaos that now encompasses a day at the track.

In 1996 when Woodbine was to host the Breeder's Cup, the union that represented the ticket takers went on strike. David Willmot, the President of Woodbine Entertainment, considered withdrawing his bid to host the Cup. Upon hearing this I contacted Mr. Willmot and told him that if he did so he would pass up a golden opportunity to win a new generation of fans, and once again reclaim the families that would witness the great racing of the championship day. He in turn invited me to the offices at Woodbine to discuss the issue, telling me that he is indeed interested in the fans that became disenfranchised and that my demographic was exactly what they were trying to win over (20-30 something families with young children). We discussed numerous concerns, from lack of things for families to do, small field sizes, high takeouts, disassociation of the horsemen from the fans, lack of perks for larger horse bettors and many other issues. I mentioned about 20 issues, and he agreed with every single comment I made. In fact he told me of his grand plan to make Woodbine into the ultimate Entertainment complex. He envisioned family areas, slots for the single women who didn't want to attend the races, new betting options, perks for the regular attendees, lower takeouts for those who bet more and a better form of entertainment for all who come to the track. While off-track betting and racing on TV were starting to grow, Willmot agreed that the only way to get the next generation and those afterwards interested in horse racing again was to woo them back to the track. Only seeing the product live would win over those who aren't familiar with it. He listened to my arguments and comments, agreed with all of them, and implemented none. Yes, slots were added to the track, but those were already in the works prior to the meeting. Parking and admission prices, were dropped, but that was only because they couldn't charge people to play the slots. New betting options were added, but only ones that weren't winnable. I was talking about ideas such as horse matchups, and Woodbine instead opted for pick 7s and superfectas. As far as a place for women and children to enjoy themselves, Woodbine offers little; and on my travels to other tracks throughout the U.S., I noticed there was nothing for families there either. Plus, for the loyal race goer there are still no perks for them. In fact the only perks offered are for those who bet at teletheaters or by phone. Betting at the track gains the bettor nothing.

It was also a lack of interest in its traditional base, as well as pure arrogance, that convinced so many tracks to make decisions without consulting the race goers to see if it would affect their attendance. Several tracks chose to install polytrack and other synthetic surfaces without consulting the race goers, or presenting reasonable arguments for doing so. Most tracks that put down the synthetic surface cited arguments that it would cut down on horse injuries, but it appears that the amount of injuries has decreased only slightly. In the process they created a track style that has made all traditional handicapping irrelevant, and consequently lost a generation of horse players. Andrew Beyer stated in his column that he won't bet polytrack because it is unpredictable, and 2 elderly horseplayers at Woodbine that each went to the track at least 3 times a week told me that they may go once a month now, and even then tend to bet simulcasts from New York or Florida since their handicapping techniques still mean something on the dirt tracks at Gulfstream, Calder, Belmont and Aqueduct.

Lastly, it must be noted that people identify with a sport because of its stars. Golf was on the decline until Tiger Woods brought in a whole new generation because of his personality and his ability to break the colour barrier in what was considered a rich white man's sport. Boxing has been going through an era of disinterest because no names have come forward to entice a new generation. And, unfortunately for horse racing, there have been no horses in decades that have made anyone want to follow the sport. Forego, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, John Henry, among others, were household names in the United States---and Secretariat, Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Sir Barton and Man O'War were legends. It's difficult to even remember the names of the horses that won major races of late. And when a potential superstar horse does come onto the scene, it seems the horse always ends up retiring, or worse yet, being put down. Barbaro had the potential to win over many new fan,s and apparently the horse was generating a lot of young fan interest, but the trainer decided to run in the Preakness after the horse burst through the gate, and the result was tragic. Eight Belles was the darling of women everywhere, as she was the only horse that could keep up with Big Brown, but ended up being put down on the track. Smarty Jones was everyone's dark horse and Cinderella story, but he too had to be retired due to injury. Many articles have suggested that it's the current breeding and overuse of medicines that is causing these injuries, as well as the lack of concern by track veterinarians. As a result many of the younger generations see the sport as cruel, and the traditional horseplayers are just tired of seeing these beautiful animals racing a few times before they have to be retired. In fact a couple of very serious horseplayers in the MajorWager forums have suggested that they no longer follow or bet on horse racing because they don't like this new direction of speed at any cost. Regardless, without the superstar horses it is difficult to win over a new generation.

So what has horse racing's response been to the fact that most people are tuning out and seeing horse racing as a waste of time and cruel? The response has been to blame others. It blames offshore sportsbooks and Las Vegas casinos for "stealing" its signals and taking away customers. It blames the government for allowing too many casinos to eat away at its revenues. And it blames the race going consumer, for not understanding the benefits of its decisions, despite the fact that those race goers have stated over and over that they are not satisfied with the product. It seems the only place that avoids blame is the horse racing industry itself. Of course as I witnessed myself, you can tell the racetrack executives whatever you think, but in the end it will prove futile, even if they agree with everything you say. Horseracing may gain interest again at some point, but it likely won't be in my lifetime.

01-14-2008
Hartley Henderson
MajorWager.com
henderson@majorwager.com

http://www.majorwager.com/frontline-722.html
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Old 01-14-2009, 11:08 AM
Mr Memory Mr Memory is offline
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Restricted dissemination of the sport on free TV in the '50s and '60s essentially shut out a generation.

On the heels of that, state lotteries dealt a crushing blow, siphoning off a ton of "dumb" money.

The national spread of casinos of all stripes didn't help matters.

That's just off the top.

The boutique meetings in resort settings featuring top competition continue to thrive and prosper. But the lower rungs of the game are hurting, and badly.
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Old 01-14-2009, 11:13 AM
niltes niltes is offline
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very impressive, thoughtful article.
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Old 01-14-2009, 12:34 PM
Hartley Hartley is offline
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There are a lot of reasons for its demise Mr Memory but I wanted to highlight that it needs to look internally to cast blame. Successful industries adapt and put the customer first. The horse racing industry just assumed it would keep its monopoly on gambling and that families would continue to attend even if it chose to stop offering family activities. Plus I'm not the first to say that horse racing execs have ignored all requests and advice from its loyal base thereby alienating them. Bottom line is that if they are going to continue to promote themselves as an outlet for gambling rather than a place of entertainment they will just fizzle out because as a gambling entity horse racing offers a lot less than casinos or sportsbooks.
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Old 01-14-2009, 01:02 PM
Mr Memory Mr Memory is offline
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Racing currently presents the middle ground in terms of gaming leverage opportunities. Major casino table games (craps/21) offer the smallest takeouts, but only on the even-money props. You make one-roll bets on
2,7,11 or 12, you're getting raped. State lotteries, with their broad 50% drags, are indeed a tax on the stupid, though, sure, you can get hit by lightning, if you're dumb-lucky. Racing continues to offer the middle ground, as you can shoot for substantial trifecta/superfecta/pick 3/pick six payoffs with takeouts in the low-mid 20-25% range. The advantage of racing is that the odds aren't static on individual propositions, and when you can isolate races in which the favorite or favorites actually have little/no chance, the percentages swing entirely in a player's favor.
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Old 01-14-2009, 01:10 PM
howid howid is offline
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have to agree the proliferation of state lotteries is what killed the sport. people at one time pooled money to get some tickets on the local daily double or exactors because it was the only game in town, at least legally. when lotteries sprouted up a lot of the ''dumb money'' soon found its way there.
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Old 01-14-2009, 01:40 PM
Crony Crony is offline
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Comparing the hold on Horse Racing and side/total wagers in sports is a little innaccurate.

You can't really compare something with 2 outcomes to something with more choices.

Take the last seasons NASCAR race at Miami:

The Greek 19 choices totaling 136.28%
Players Only 34 choices totaling 147.39%
Pinnacle 19 choices totaling 130.0%.

Taking the Superbowl futures offered at the Greek right now, 4 choices.

Pittsburgh +1.15
Philadelphia +2.05
Baltimore +4.45
Arizona +6.25

Adds up to 111.44.
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Old 01-14-2009, 01:54 PM
Hartley Hartley is offline
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I recall for a while some tracks were offering head to head matchups for major races - they featured it at the Breeder's cup. One matchup had the favourite at 1-2 and the dog at even money. So they maintained the 117% for a 2 horse matchup. The same matchup at the greek was -140/+120. Is it any wonder it failed? I do know what you mean Crony but field sizes are so small nowadays the 117-120 is quite high. Anyways I do know what you're saying but there is a reason rebate shops are doing well and the hold is only a small reason for the decline. When they were the only game in town it was a lot easier to justify the small return.
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Old 01-14-2009, 02:21 PM
Mr Memory Mr Memory is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Hartley View Post
I recall for a while some tracks were offering head to head matchups for major races - they featured it at the Breeder's cup. One matchup had the favourite at 1-2 and the dog at even money. So they maintained the 117% for a 2 horse matchup. The same matchup at the greek was -140/+120. Is it any wonder it failed? I do know what you mean Crony but field sizes are so small nowadays the 117-120 is quite high. Anyways I do know what you're saying but there is a reason rebate shops are doing well and the hold is only a small reason for the decline. When they were the only game in town it was a lot easier to justify the small return.

The odds history in match races is similarly discouraging. Dragging
15% or so from the pot in a two-way proposition will result in brutally-short prices . . . only worth a look if you really, REALLY like the dog.
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Old 01-14-2009, 02:22 PM
Mr Memory Mr Memory is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by howid View Post
have to agree the proliferation of state lotteries is what killed the sport. people at one time pooled money to get some tickets on the local daily double or exactors because it was the only game in town, at least legally. when lotteries sprouted up a lot of the ''dumb money'' soon found its way there.

. . . and unfortunately, it's now much more convenient for Joe Schlub
to contribute to a state's lottery coffers than it is to bet horses when away from the track.
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Old 01-14-2009, 03:52 PM
Greedo Greedo is offline
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Great article. Touches on all the big reasons why this great sport is in precipitous decline.
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Old 01-14-2009, 05:57 PM
Mr Memory Mr Memory is offline
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The likes of Saratoga and Del Mar provide considerable family distractions.
The backyard at Belmont Park is a fairly nice place for a family outing on a summer's day, if the crowds back there during high season are any indication.
Even the likes of, say, Philadelphia Park and Monmouth have habitually provided face painting, pony rides, et al on weekends for a number of years.
And Arlington's as clean and pleasant a place for a family gathering as any plant in the country.

We ARE talking about the upper crust, here. Secondary tracks and racing aren't nearly as attractive, and the simulcasting and/or casino arms are
keeping those secondary joints afloat.
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Old 01-14-2009, 07:38 PM
Hartley Hartley is offline
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Believe me Nelson I asked numerous people who attend other tracks what they witnessed at their tracks before writing the article and for the most part they said they observed the same thing. Woodbine periodically has family events also but at one time there were family events EVERY day during the summer and every weekend in other months. Having family days a couple of times a year doesn't mean they are interested in that demographic. Saratoga and Del Mar are a bit different because they only run for a few weeks in the summer.

As for the casinos and simulcasting, I agree with you 100% but it doesn't change the premise of the article that the tracks have turned from a day of entertainment to a place to go and gamble. I know when I was younger I always justified a trip to the track as no different than taking $20 and going to a movie. You'd have to be pretty damned disicplined to go to the track for less than a hundred bucks nowadays and I rarely leave feeling I was entertained any more than I would going to a casino.
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Old 01-15-2009, 07:31 AM
Mr Memory Mr Memory is offline
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The broad rollout in U. S. state lotteries, which picked up steam in the early '70s, remains in my mind the single greatest weight on potential racing growth.

Before that, racing maintained a virtual monopoly on LEGAL gambling in the U. S. And there's not much like a virtual monopoly.

With the lottery, people didn't have to think, didn't believe they were going to be swindled . . . just step up, call out your numbers/pick up your scratch tickets, and go. Never mind you're paying 50% for the "privilege".

Racing has as long and involved a learning curve as any major sport.
You don't have to be smart to play, but you do have to have smarts/cunning to play the game well, and most folks don't have the time/inclination.
Too bad.
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Old 01-15-2009, 09:17 AM
Lost in the Ozarks Lost in the Ozarks is offline
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The slot inflated purses at many tracks illustrate how short-sighted race track management is. I personally begged the Delaware Park management several years ago to use some of this money to lower the take, rather than reward bad horses with huge purses. No - and no other states will do it either. $2,500 claimers running for $14,000 purses? Why? Did it occur to these morons to give the fans a break? After all, the bettors support every facet of racing. Another thing I have attempted to get corrected with no luck is simple: Let the fans know when the finish line is approaching on the TV feed, and let us identify the horses. The trakus system is great, used at Keeneland and Woodbine, and maybe Del Mar on a limited basis, but the traditionalists don't like it. I am stuck in the middle of Missouri, thank heaven for HRTV and TVG, but I challenge anyone to identify the runners in a late afternoon Aqueduct race with their wide pan shot and shadows. Bottom line, the bettors have always been the last priority for management.
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Old 01-15-2009, 11:13 AM
Mr Memory Mr Memory is offline
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New York State showed relative restraint in the straight take for a number of years . . . but now the statehouse is in the hands of grubby philistines,
so that day is over.
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Old 01-15-2009, 12:14 PM
Hartley Hartley is offline
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Lost I think there are 2 reasons they don't lower the take - one they'll admit to and one they won't.

First, they'll say that it's difficult enough to find Breeders of horses which is why fields are so short. A lot of good farms and breeders like Windfields Farms here are finding they get a better return selling the land or using it for other purposes than to raise horses. The only way they'll tell you to get people interested in breeding and purchasing race horses once again is to offer purses that makes it worth their while.

The other reason they won't admit to is that the CEOs at most tracks are horsemen. David Willmot owns Kinghaven Farms and you can go down the list to see that those in key positions are owners, breeders or connected to horse racing in one way or another. As such their primary goal is to pad the horsemen as much as possible and the fans are secondary. Any more than the unions from the car companies aren't willing to cut back employee salaries or perks to help the industry, the horsemen aren't willing to give back either.
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Old 01-15-2009, 01:30 PM
Total Square Total Square is offline
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Quote:
The trakus system is great, used at Keeneland and Woodbine, and maybe Del Mar on a limited basis, but the traditionalists don't like it. I am stuck in the middle of Missouri, thank heaven for HRTV and TVG, but I challenge anyone to identify the runners in a late afternoon Aqueduct race with their wide pan shot and shadows. Bottom line, the bettors have always been the last priority for management.
freehold has a basic video product that shows the entire order throughout the race. i think the product that woodbine has for the flats shows the relative position of each horse throughout the race which is an incredible product. when they say the traditionalists dont like it, somebody has to keep in mind that the traditionalists arent growing, and they wont leave just because of the product. where are they going to go???
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Old 01-15-2009, 09:58 PM
Hartley Hartley is offline
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Just got an email that the article may be picked up in the racing form - probably their news section. That would be interesting - I can honestly say I never read the form for the news :).
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