'Slot Money Will End' - By Gary Fenton

(Originally published in the February 19, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)     

GARY FENTON is the managing partner/CEO of Little Red Feather Racing, which
is based in Los Angeles

One of my favorite things to read goes something like this: “The X State Y Report shows that over $1 billion in new revenue will occur from installing slots…”

No kidding.

 Why don’t we just add marijuana dispensers while we’re at it?

Any business—from car dealerships to Starbucks—could say, “If we could only add a few slot machines, revenues would go up!”

I can’t argue that slots have not helped purses, but there’s no argument that slot money is anything but a handout from a subsidiary business, paying a vig. It has little to nothing to do with actual horse racing, and there has been no crossover marketing because slot players have not become horse players.
There are no free lunches, horse fans.

Either we figure out how to stand on our own two feet or the downward spiral will continue. We are welfare to the slot companies, living on borrowed time, and we need to get our house in order. How long do you think we have before more states such as Indiana decide the added purse money could go to better places—such as schools?

I have also read a few other proposals that make me laugh.

“Hey, let’s build a mall next to the race track.”

I actually like this one. What else am I supposed to do waiting 40 minutes between races? But that’s a bridge with traffic going the wrong direction. The track is simply a kiosk. Do Crate and Barrel shoppers leave a little extra time to catch the fifth race? I doubt it.

What about this one: “If only we could privatize and create a league like the NFL!”

Good one, people, but if you think the government….excuse me the nine different governments are collectively going to deregulate their biggest revenue generator—gambling—then let’s all start our own lottery.

The solution is and has always been about building a better product to a new generation. Let’s get back to the basics.
Every day one of our (elderly demographic) customers is dying….and we are not replacing them. This is amazing, considering the sport has seen generation after generation pour into racetracks for more than 100 years.

What happened? Basics.

We stopped spending on infrastructure. Speaking of the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers just announced plans to build a new stadium with HD monitors in every seat that can also communicate with other fans. At the racetrack I still have to walk to a betting window (and wait behind someone handicapping at the teller) and then watch the race on my non-HD broadcast TV. It’s OK for a racetrack to have a 1950s feel, provided it doesn’t still look like the 1950s!

We haven’t upgraded the game. Name another sport or area of entertainment—besides a Wagnerian opera—that
a) takes five hours to complete and b) is played consistently during the workday? Every sport, including baseball, sped up games and moved to nights and weekends. Friday night at Churchill Downs isn’t a fluke. Sure, having 15 minutes between races may cause handle to go down, until, that is, twice as many customers are betting on the races.

We couldn’t even get it right when we got it right. Look at advance deposit wagering. It’s is the only form of legalized gambling online in the United States, and we’ve been fighting with each other since Day 1—and watching patrons leave the track for a better experience at home.

Finally, the leaders in our industry stopped…well, leading. We don’t need one main central office to oversee the sport. We just need one state to solve its problems and, trust me, the other states will follow. It wasn’t just me watching Monmouth last summer. The entire industry tracked its progress and was ready to duplicate it. We need one state to stand up to the unions and horsemen and breeders and ADW companies and track owners and take charge…in a positive way.

People, it’s time to wake up. Food Truck Day in the infield at Santa Anita is great…but not when the 5,000 added patrons do not find a sport worth coming back for.

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