Get a Handle - by Dan Liebman

The single most significant number relative to a racetrack’s business is handle. Pure and simple. It not only fuels the second-most-important number—purses—but is clearly reflective of the acceptance of a track’s racing product by the wagering public.

In August 2007, Churchill Downs Inc. announced it would no longer publicly release handle figures for its four racetracks because it did not consider them an important metric of how the company as a whole is performing. Instead, it would discuss its complete financial reports during its quarterly earnings conference calls.

That decision, and the logic behind it, is ludicrous. But now comes an even more preposterous decision.

The Jockey Club Information Systems has discontinued providing The Blood-Horse handle numbers provided it by Equibase, making it more difficult to report racetrack’s meet-to-meet numbers.

Equibase was founded because, prior to its existence, racing’s data was collected by Daily Racing Form, a privately-owned enterprise. Racing wanted to collect and own its data, as it should.

Equibase is a joint venture of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, an organization comprised of racetracks, and The Jockey Club. To get the business off the ground, The Jockey Club provided $3.6 million in 1990, and the collection of data began the next year. Today, countless tracks provide their fans programs displaying Equibase past performances.

For several years after Equibase came into existence, it had chart callers at racetracks along with those from Daily Racing Form. This meant each race had two data collectors, which caused discrepancies in information. In 1998, the two reached an agreement for Equibase to collect the data; Daily Racing Form shut down its track and field operations.

Until now, there never appeared to have been a conflict of interest between the racetracks and Equibase. But obviously with TRA member tracks owning half the company, it can exercise leverage over what data is made available.

Equibase and Jockey Club officials claim there is a distinction, with racing information being data it collects and handle being data supplied by racetracks. In fact, the tracks are still supplying handle figures, but The Blood-Horse, rather than obtaining those numbers through a previously provided tool, would now, it is told, have to add the figures from race charts.

The Blood-Horse news story in August 2007 announcing Churchill’s change in policy contained comments from company spokeswoman Julie Koenig Loignon. According to the story, though Churchill would not release the numbers, Koenig Loignon noted the figures are public information and available through other sources, such as Equibase and state racing commissions.

They are available from Equibase, if one wants to add up numbers from hundreds of charts. As for state racing commissions, they do not get the information in a timely manner.

Handle numbers are important to handicappers wishing to see the size of pools they have wagered into. But they also are important to owners, trainers, and breeders who wish to see how a track’s business is doing. And they are important to the media, which not only has a duty but an obligation to report statistics and trends to the industry.

In the last week, numbers were released by several racetracks following the close of meets, among them major players such as Saratoga and Del Mar, and a smaller track, Evangeline Downs. Others also routinely provide similar figures.

Tracks that release such information, understanding the industry’s right to know, should be applauded. Those that do not, such as those owned by CDI, despite being a public company and government regulated, should have a board of directors that insists it do what is right.

Equibase and The Jockey Club Information Systems should realize they are not helping the industry by their decision. 

12 Comments

Leave a Comment:

OaktownABQ

Your comments are right on. I work as Electronic News Manager for the American Quarter Horse Racing Journal, and we still include handle and purse figures when we write meet wrap-ups.

The one thing I've noticed is that, almost always, handle and purse figures still closely parallel each other.

For example, if handle is down 5 percent, chances are the purses will also be down 5 percent or close to it -- even with tracks that have purse revenues from slots.

09 Sep 2008 1:07 PM
Horse and Justice Lover

what's in it for the Jockey Club to NOT give Blood-Horse the figures. Please don't let this be a one and done column. Keep pounding on them. It's a disgrace.

09 Sep 2008 8:27 PM
STEVE STONE

Hello Dan..Yes..you are absolutely correct in stating that CDI..et al rationale for not disseminating not only their daily handle figures..but attendance numbers as well is totally absurd...Other eastern tracks including Philadelphia Park and Delaware Park also fall into this identical mentality..This folly is just another example of why racing is in the state its in..So diffused and disparate..They possess and have such misplaced priorities...I sincerely hope you prevail here and perhaps an in person meeting w/The Jockey Club and Churchill Downs hierarchy will yield some vital and essential progress...After all..we are not talking about National Security and Foreign Policy here...Thank you always Dan for the window... Kindest regards..Steve Stone..East Hanover..New Jersey..

09 Sep 2008 11:12 PM
Tim Capps---University of Louisville

At a time when the racing industry's need for transparency has never been greater, we have yet another decision to restrain the availability of data that, among other things, gives everyone in racing a sense of the trend of the industry's business.

In reality, Equibase should be routinely providing aggregate figures on handle across North America to the trade journals and other media on a monthly basis, something that would be simple given the way the data is gathered and stored.

Attendance figures are spurious because so much wagering is now done off-track, but handle is the industry's "bottom line," and its trend lines are of vital interest to everyone and shouldn't be proprietary to anyone.

Your indignation is appropriate and widely shared.

10 Sep 2008 9:54 AM
Richard R

It is typical for this industry to promulgate "good news" and to let "bad news" die on the vine. Management of "news" by Equibase and the racetracks has its roots in the mushroom theory of management.  It is just one more example of the industry's indifference towards its customers while its product continues on the wane.

At the same time, since anyone vaguely familar with the business knows the direction in which its headed, the metrics are simply the devil in the details.  

10 Sep 2008 10:05 AM
David

The good news is racing is a 15 billion dollar industry.  The bad news it’s been a 15 billion dollar industry for the past 15 years.  Amid no, or negative, growth it seems that those men behind the curtain feel that no message is the best message.  The racing industry has suffered a major heart attach over the past few years and is walking about as if it’s still OK.

10 Sep 2008 1:23 PM
Reasoner

Aren't you really grumbling about your own laziness?

Charts these days are free to download from the internet.  You admit clearly that you could, should you want to, tally those figures from charts.

Your stance would have been of mild importance 25 years ago when at the very least it might cost money to avail yourself of the needed data.

In this day and age, handle really doesn't mean a whole lot because various tracks have customarily counted the same dollar multiple times in handle reports.

The UNeducated public (the media included most of the time) takes these numbers to represent a direct gain or loss in business vs. the previous year.

First of all, the previous year is always random and means nothing. Secondly, any differences may result in how many times the same dollar is counted.  Thirdly, because of the difference in takeout and revenue from various dollars, changes to the bottom line are NOT accurately reflected in handle fluctuations.

In closing, you should have listened to your mother when she told you:  "if you want something done, do it yourself".

10 Sep 2008 3:25 PM
James Mosher

Tim Capps hits it right on the head. So many in horse-racing don't want to deal with bad news until it hits them square in the face (and when that happens it's often too late to do anything but whine to the government).

Dan Liebman points to the fact that only the most diligent reporters will be able to marshal important facts. Some in horse-racing are counting on lazy reporters to overlook the big picture.

Slots are not boosting racing -- look it up. The number of foals is declining and there will be more shortages of horses as slots and table games proliferate.

Handle is down -- look it up. Yet racetracks and horsemen's unions are forming big conglomerates and raising simulcasting fees to casinos and OTBs. Wake up! Simulcasting is not the profit center of any casino. Cutting into casino simulcasting profit margins is a sure way to get casinos to shrink or eliminate their OTB facilities. Much more profitable for the casino to turn its race book into another slots room.

12 Sep 2008 10:03 AM
berttheclock

With Calder's announcement of cutting eight stakes races and purses for other, Bay Meadows being sold to a developer, Magna trying to dump several of their tracks, are we not close to those days of '71 in Seattle, where the signs read "Will the last one leaving, please turn out the lights"?  Seattle recovered; wish I could feel the same for horse racing.

13 Sep 2008 10:20 AM
wista

Reasoner: In situations such as these my mother, bless her gambling heart, always said ,"There is something they don't want you to know!" Given the current level of distrust by the average racing fan it doesn't sound like a smart move

14 Sep 2008 12:49 AM
Betty

The racing industry needs to be more transparent now than ever. The handle figures have always been made public and should continue to do so. The racing industry also needs to quit turning a blind eye to what happens to thoroughbred horses when they can't race anymore. Wake up folks: The horses deserve a portion of that purse money too.

14 Sep 2008 2:24 PM
TheFinalWord

Many folks seems to forget that the racing industry is the same as any other 'retail' business - they sell products (parking, programs, admissions, racing forms, food and beverage - and most of all 'bets').

Most retail businesses publish sales figures for public consumption - especially around holiday seasons - and the media routinely reports on sales comparision to infer how well markets are performing year over year or season over season.

This information should be provided to the media without question and in an electronic format.

16 Sep 2008 10:27 PM

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