'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.


Leave a Comment:


Always amazed at the CRT TV's at Saratoga.

15 Feb 2011 12:58 PM
Kirk S.

Mr. Fenton gets right to the point.  It is all about the basics, a strong foundation.  

Think about all the sport cliches about "fundamentals."  They are all true.  If you don't have a basic foundation there is nothing to build on.

It doesn't help the sport when alledged leaders spend a fair share of time playing the "blame game."  Blame greedy owners, high takeout rates, mismanagement and the economy.

It all falls flat when you look at history.  Horse racing was one of the most popular sports when our nation's economy was at it's lowest point during The Great Deperession.

People can point fingers at each other all they want but until we get the basics right, we have no one to blame except ourselves.

15 Feb 2011 1:14 PM

Go Gary....excellent!!!

As a counselor (and long ago retired exercize rider) who deals with addictions ...when an activity  is done every day, complusively .. it's an addiction.  Sorry folks.

The up side ... not all addictions are harmful.  We eat every day (unless you totally tapped out on the late double).

If gambling has progressed to an addiction, it's fed by action.  You receive "action" every time you pull a handle.  Lets say every 5 seconds.  That is a pretty high reinforcment schedule.  So, action every 5 seconds vs. 45 minutes between races is no contest.  Even if we did have cross over we bust the $2 better before the 5th race.

I DON'T know if this is true but I believe, like the claiming horse, the $2 bettor is the backbone of the racing handle.  If tracks ARE looking for cross over, slots will kill them in the long run.

One more thought...again I don't  know, a major reason we loose fans is that to win at the track you have to know how to read the form ... REALLY read the form, you have to watch past races and understand trip - recognize a rider who is not really asking a horse or a trainer who runs horses to fitness.  

I believe the American MTV/i-pod/comuter game mind is beyond that kind of consentration and retention rate.  It's much easier to graspe the odds of a football game where you've watched the quarter back for for years...than a 12 to 1 maiden in a specail weight.

15 Feb 2011 2:21 PM

crooked jockeys--oweners wanting  run UNFIT horses (life at ten)--

-trainers either doing MILKSHAKES OR SPONGES--young people want the speed of a computer NOT 30 min. between races--there are not 364 rookies of the year in any other sport--and of course the brake down of a horse on TV.

15 Feb 2011 6:48 PM

As I walk to work each week dodging the walkers and wheelchairs while the IDIOTS put on wiener dog races and other extraneous baloney, I grieve for the future of the game. START to do something quick to instill the magic that infected me and many others when I was a youngster or there will not be a racing game in a very few years.

15 Feb 2011 7:42 PM

Good article and on target comments. Those of us who have been around racing for a number of years ( I am one of those referred to above as dying out) I never cease to be amazed at the lack of insight brought to the game by racing commissions and "blue bloods". None seem to be aware of what I see nearly daily from my casual racing friends... they are still waiting for the Life At Ten situation to be explained....good job KY! They want to know how a trainer can train 100 plus horses at tracks across the county and really know what is going on with each horse. How does a horse race not for purse money or betting? When the talking heads on sat TV do their daily handicapping, why don't they have to disclose their own financial interests in racing and why isn't there a running talley of their successes posted daily for the fans? We all they are gifted talkers but are they really any better at handicapping then you and I?

Good luck for the racing industry... it seems to be hopelessly stuck in the 1950's or 1960's management style which isn't going to work. Crossover wagering is not the answer ( look at the TV spot for the Charlestown casino and note the furnishings and clothing worn by customers... really looks the part of a race track crowd doesn't it?)

16 Feb 2011 9:02 AM
The Kid

Good article, it gets right to the point.  I have no super solution to all of the industry's woes, but it seems to me that we could learn a lot from the Japanese.  Less is indeed more, as proven at Monmouth.  Very few tracks have 10-12 horses in EVERY race, but they did.  Made it a more interesting meet, that is for sure.   Yes, there will be some bloodshed in the form of track closings and jobs, but if the goal is to save the sport and make it something people want, you first have to make it available to them - and weekdays is not the answer.  I can't go to the track during the week, I have to work surprise !).

In regards to people watching/betting from home - if it makes it more convenient for a fan, embrace it.  People watch TV shows in their phone while sitting at lunch - why can't we watch horseraces (for FREE) in the same manner ?  No, we have to pay for everything.  The sport needs to embrace the new technology or it will die.  Do you want an industry with only a few major racetracks ?  I don't think it's such a bad thing - and pooling advertising dollars would help them all.  

16 Feb 2011 12:12 PM

one of racing's biggest problems is the fact the people running racetracks have no love for the game and have never bet $2 in their lives.

17 Feb 2011 12:18 PM

Two words:  Tampabay Downs.  No slots needed.  Full fields.  Full stalls.  One of the most popular simulcast signals.  One of the top turf courses in the country.  They have been doing almost everything right for years.

17 Feb 2011 10:56 PM

I'm sure most of you at one time or another have been to other sporting venues( MLB,NFL,NHL, NBA,etc.).How many times did you have to leave your seat

(exception of restroom call)? When you visit the track you may go to the paddock, stand in line to place your wager and stand in the concession line. All time consuming, who wants to stand in line & wait; you're there to watch horse racing. At the other sporting venues, I'm sure you've seen the person who goes up & down the aisles offering various food items. At the MLB stadiums, they have someone who'll take your order and bring you your food.

Why can't horse racing provide the same thing ? How about a roving teller who can take your wager while you remain in your seat, place your bet without standing in line ? Today's technology has Iphones& Ipads. Why can't the roving teller have something called " Ibet ", where they take your bet and a ticket comes out from the Ibet machine ? Isn't that what happens when you go shopping and use " plastic ", swipe your card and you get a receipt on the spot ? Without leaving your seat you can eat & place your bet. Perhaps that will cut down the amount of time between races. Make it pleasurable for the racing fan. It's the little things that make you happy.

18 Feb 2011 9:13 AM
Bob Rosenthal

Gary Fenton..."BULLSEYE"

The best article I've read in recent years on the demise of racing nationally, and the shakey "fixes" that racing leadership??? is promoting. I've been a devoted fan, owner & breeder for over 60 years, and it breaks my heart what's happening to our beautiful sport.

18 Feb 2011 8:28 PM
Everything Zen

I think tracks could take lessons from Keeneland.  It is a short meet, always crowded, they have roaming tellers so you can make bets from your chair, they have drive-in betting so you can bet when you arrive, beautiful paddock, nice clean track.  It is a beautiful track and a pleasure to go there.  Nothing about Keeneland feels old or seedy.

20 Feb 2011 10:04 PM
Jeff Rosen NYPD retired

One of the biggest problems in my opinion is promotion.  I remember in the 70's every single bus in NYC had a gigantic poster "The fastest animal in the world".  People would argue if it was true or not BUT THEY KNEW WHAT THE PRODUCT WAS.  Ask any person on the street of Manhattan where Aqueduct is (or even what it is) and 90% won't know. Commercials and racing shows on TV & Radio all the time.  I can even still hum the Yonkers Raceway jingle and I don't even like the trotters.  

One reason Saratoga gets such crowds still (other than the obvious racing fans from all over the world) is they still promote.  Turn on any radio station in the Albany/Saratoga region and they're talking about the meet.

Did racing really promote Zenyatta vs. Rachel?  In any other sport that would have been a natural.  How many people even know who Zenyatta is?  

I doubt with all the competition we will never return to the days of 50,000 plus on an average Saturday to see Forego but with some saturation advertising we can definitely at least try to build a new fan base.

21 Feb 2011 9:04 AM

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