Blood in Corpse Still Pretty Warm

“We’ve been on a death march for two days. Is (horse racing) valuable? If you don’t believe it is, it’s time to look for a different job. We need to educate ourselves about the things that work in this industry. We have a lot of strength and things going for us if we can get our crap together. I don’t think it’s dead or dying—or at least it doesn’t have to.”

The above was said by Susie Sourwine, vice president of marketing at Emerald Downs in Washington state, during the 2008 International Simulcast Conference. I didn't see Susie at this year's conference, but I can tell her this: Her comments are still relevant. That, of course, is no surprise.

On multiple occasions in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Oct. 12-14, it was said horse racing is dying or already dead. If the latter is true, we're walking dead, a zombie if you will. And if we keep telling ourselves that, chances are we are doomed.

That's not to say excellent points weren't made at the conference. For example, Eugene Christiansen, chairman of Christiansen Capital Advisors and a longtime observers of the racing industry, said the business needs "wholesale structural changes." Jeff Gural, who owns two New York harness tracks with video gaming machines, said horsemen and breeders view slots revenue as an entitlement and called them a collective "welfare recipient."

Christiansen is correct, but the industry must not agree, because very little has been done to alter the structure for decades. Gural's assessment is brutal but true; hundreds of millions of dollars in slots revenue have been wasted on an artificial fix when tens of millions of it could have been used to try to build the core business.

If we are dying, what do we have to lose?

Gural is a realist and has casino partners to answer to, but he keeps spending money to promote racing. For him, slots are a means to an end.

He noted closing day at Tioga this year produced record business with the slots play at $400 per machine. About $10,000 was spent marketing racing that day, and pari-mutuel handle was up 50%. But the track earned $2,000 in revenue from handle, and $40,000 in revenue from slots.

"If I didn't have slots, I couldn't justify it (to the partners)."

Fair enough, but an effort is being made at a racetrack in a remote location. It's not hopeless.

Here's a bright spot: State Fair Park in Lincoln, Neb., posted double-digit gains in attendance and handle for its 37-day meet this year. Mike Newlin, director of racing operations at the track, said it charged admission but instead gave out live past-performance programs for free. Interesting, and perhaps part of the reason on-track handle increased 17%?

Small price to pay, huh? Pompano Park in South Florida just announced it will start giving away live programs to encourage wagering, another encouraging move at a time when the cost of track-owned data is becoming prohibitive to purchase.

Someone at the conference told me Daily Racing Form costs $7 on Saturdays in New York; at Saratoga Gaming and Raceway last weekend, a NYRA program that included Belmont and Keeneland sold for $4.50. Yikes. And if you wanted to play other tracks, you had to spend $5 for a DRF simulcast program that doesn't even have the third-place finisher in past-performance lines.

This is the kind of stuff that discourages and ultimately kills players. It can be rectified with a simple mindset change: Eat the cost now and benefit down the road.

(Interestingly, two guys from Accumark Digital Racing Programs in West Pittston, Pa., were on hand displaying their multi-track Equibase-style programs. The number of their clients continues to grow, they said.)

There were some upbeat folks at the conference, including Andrea DeLong from Capital OTB in New York. She talked about "hybrid" fans and cultivating their interest in horse racing. She said such customers want to be valued, catered to, respected, and educated. She took a small poll that showed only 11% may wager at first, but the ones that do aren't $2 bettors; they bet $10, $20, or more.

Sounds like a somewhat captive audience.

There were other good stories about using and to attract newcomers. And if you look around the country, smaller tracks like Canterbury Park and Emerald Downs still put a premium on on-track business. If Turfway Park can attract 3,000 people on a Friday night in January for dollar nights, there's still a pulse.

Most people, I believe, really like horse racing. But I wonder sometimes if racing industy honchos truly appreciate it and what it can be.

"Groups are forming because they love horse racing," Thoroughbred Racing Associations executive vice president Chris Scherf said. "They have surprising interest in building our business. Our industry could use a little health care. Sometimes I think we are surrounded by death panels."

Exactly. Racing needs to change, contract, streamline, reinvent--take your pick--but it doesn't appear near death to me.

And let's take Susie Sourwine's advice from last year: Let's get our crap together.



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