Archive for racetracks

Is Racing’s Love Affair With Slots Over?

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Andrew Beyer of Daily Racing Form…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Slots-racing marriage on the rocks

At a time when the horse racing business has suffered serious a decline, one segment of the sport is enjoying a bonanza. These are great times for horsemen in states where purses are subsidized by revenue from slot machines.

Owners and trainers at Parx Racing — the former Philadelphia Park — must think that they have died and gone to heaven when they run a bottom-level $5,000 claimer in a race with a $25,000 purse — plus a bonus if the animal was bred in Pennsylvania. Horsemen at minor-league tracks such as Charles Town (W.Va.) Presque Isle Downs (Pa.), and Zia Park (N.M.) regularly compete for big-league purses because of slot money.

These windfalls exist because many states, when they legalized slots, opted to install them in racetracks and decided to aid the sport by earmarking a certain percentage of revenues for purses and breeder awards. But what the state gives, the state can take away, and many are taking a fresh look at their largesse to the horse business:

◗ In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed cutting $72 million of subsidies to horse racing and breeding to pay for other agricultural projects.

◗ In Ontario, the provincial government has proposed ending all slots payments to the horse racing industry as of 2013.

◗ In Indiana, the state’s inspector general advocated slashing the subsidy for horse racing.

◗ In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie ended state support of racing and blasted leaders of the sport for “extorting the taxpayers for millions of dollars in subsidies to their industry.”

Horsemen have reacted with shock and outrage to such proposals, but they should have seen these haymakers coming. Many state governments are under severe financial pressure and are struggling to maintain basic services for their citizens. As politicians look for sources of revenue, they can’t ignore the millions of dollars now flowing into horse racing, and they can readily frame populist arguments that the money is being misallocated. Christie said: “I am no longer going to permit millionaire horsemen to take money . . . from the taxpayers of the state to fund their industry.”

In Ontario, Education Minister Laurel Broten sent out a press release declaring, “We simply can’t afford to support . . . horse racing subsidies . . . when the . . . money could get better health care for our seniors and full-day kindergarten for our 4- and 5-year-olds.”

In most places, the racing/slot machine relationships developed along similar lines. In some cases, a racetrack couldn’t survive on its own merits, but it was such an important part of its community that the public supported legalizing slots to keep it alive. (This was the case at Charles Town.) In others, proposals for legalized slots faced a lot of not-in-my-backyard opposition, and the perfect answer was to put the slots in an existing gambling facility – a racetrack. The track, of course, got a percentage of the profits for running the operation. The rationale for allotting money to purses and breeders’ awards (rather than, say, health care for seniors) was to revive the sport by improving the product and attracting more fans.

But every racing fan knows what happened instead. When slots were legalized, the machines proved to be so lucrative many track owners lost interest in the sport and viewed it as a nuisance. They made no effort to improve the game or attract new fans; slot players are more profitable customers. The day-to-day racing at tracks such as Parx and Delaware Park is just about as dreary as it was before slots inflated the purses. One track that has made the most of slots money is Woodbine, in Toronto, which offers some of the best daily cards on the continent and uses its resources to promote the sport and to create new horseplayers. But Woodbine is a rarity.

More often, slot money props up tracks that have virtually no fan base and couldn’t exist on their own merits. This is true of most harness and dog tracks, and some Thoroughbred operations – such as Presque Isle Downs. Two previous racetracks in Erie, Pa., went broke from lack of support. Presque Isle was built when slots were legalized in the state, and it had to be a racetrack to get the machines, but its racing business is as pitiful as that of its predecessors. The track’s average attendance last season was 705, and those customers bet an average of $35,000 per day on the live product. Yet Presque Isle pays huge purses – more than $200,000 a day.

While the money has benefited owners, trainers, and Pennsylvania breeders, it has done nothing to popularize or improve horse racing. On the contrary, it has hurt the sport in some ways. At a time when almost every track is suffering from a shortage of Thoroughbreds, the horses who go to Erie could be running at viable tracks, helping them to offer a better product, instead of racing in a place where almost nobody watches them.

Too many people in the Thoroughbred industry are content with the status quo. In the crowded Mid-Atlantic region, racetracks should agree to pare down their schedules, offering fewer races with larger fields that fans want to bet. But horsemen habitually resist such cutbacks, and most tracks continue to lose fans.

However, the status quo is unsustainable because more and more politicians will be asking: Why should we subsidize a sport that so few people care about? Why should we help an industry that won’t help itself? And Thoroughbred racing can offer no good responses to these questions.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

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Does The Renovated Gulfstream Park ‘Get it Right’???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Mitchell of The Blood-Horse…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

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Eclipse Award winners seemed to be reading from the same playbook this year. Several, at some point during their acceptance speeches Jan. 17, touched on the need for Thoroughbred racing to get fans more involved and engaged.

Mike Repole got the ball rolling while accepting the Eclipse Award for his 2-year-old champion colt Uncle Mo.

“Without you guys, there is no sport,” he said. “We have to do more to be more accommodating.”

A big step toward making racing more inviting would be to upgrade our racetracks. This issue of The Blood-Horse contains a top-notch feature on the state of year-round racing. A key point made in the main article by Jacqueline Duke is that we have a saturation of live racing; more product than demand. The days when tens of thousands of people regularly spun the turnstiles to watch live racing don’t exist anymore. The big crowds are reserved for boutique meets and main events, such as the Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup, and select grade I races. Otherwise, our large, rambling grandstands are sparsely populated and not very inviting.

One racetrack did reinvent itself and got it right—Gulfstream Park.

I recently visited the Hallandale Beach, Fla., track fully prepared to hate it. My memories of Gulfstream Park have roots in the 1989 and 1992 Breeders’ Cups and several Florida Derbys in between. Standing on the wide concourse above the grandstand seating offered a sweeping view of the track enhanced by mild South Florida breezes coming off the Atlantic. A wide apron stretched along the rail where fans soaked up the sun and got close to the action.

Former owner Magna Entertainment (which has since gone bankrupt and transferred the track to current owner MI Development) tore down the old grandstand and replaced it with a much smaller facility that opened in 2006. Company founder Frank Stronach’s vision was to create an entertainment destination by building a more modern facility with an adjacent retail development filled with restaurants, bars, and fashion shops. Stronach has taken a lot of criticism over the years for his visions, but at Gulfstream Park his vision works.

Granted, grandstand seating and the large apron are gone, and the track is no longer suited to host an event like the Breeders’ Cup without a lot of temporary seating. Another knock against the new track is a majority of the seating is indoors where a seat in the simulcast parlor or clubhouse will cost at least $10. But no one pays anything to park, and there is no admission fee.

What the renovated Gulfstream Park does offer is a bright, clean, and modern facility with some unique features, such as several rows of stadium seating surrounding the saddling paddock. The grandstand also wraps like a horseshoe around the paddock, and balconies on the upper floors provide race fans with an easy view of the horses.

The more compact grandstand with its Spanish architecture is easy to navigate and the Village at Gulfstream Park with about 40 shops, which opened a year ago, is literally across the street. The Village offers a good variety of places to eat and drink; a glitzy New York-style nightclub, a quaint Irish pub, or the Cadillac Ranch with a mechanical bull. For people who are more interested in shopping than racehorses, there is Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, A-Brand, Bobby Chan, and Claudio Milano.

An exercise rider told me the Village has done a lot to attract people in their late 20s to a racetrack they would have otherwise ignored.

“I grew up around horses my whole life, but my friends like horses just because they think they’re beautiful,” he said. “Where before they wouldn’t come here, now they do because they can enjoy a few races, bet a few dollars, and then go to the bars.”

Judging strictly by ontrack handle, the experiment seems to be working. In 2010 the ontrack handle averaged around $530,380 for the 79-day meet. For the first 11 days of this year’s meet, the ontrack handle is averaging around $595,300.

Gulfstream Park also has the draw of slot machines, which are tastefully integrated into the grandstand. No one is knocked over the head with the casino operation.

Most track owners cannot afford to tear down their facilities completely and rebuild, but Thoroughbred racing has to upgrade the experience at the racetrack if the goal is attracting new fans. For the sport to grow, we simply cannot afford not to.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?