Field Size Matters - by Dan Liebman

On a beautiful spring day in Central Kentucky April 4, it was easy to see why Keeneland was considering a major expansion to its facility (now on hold due to the current state of the economy). With the fifth-highest attendance in its history—30,550—the place was bursting at the seams.

With a larger physical plant, that number would have been higher. Thousands tailgated in the parking lot, never going through the turnstiles. Countless others gave up trying to attend when they saw traffic backed up so far it took many racing fans 90 minutes to drive a mile, park, and hoof it to the grandstand.

Keeneland has never had a good per capita handle figure, and on this day that number was only $55.42, leaving one to assume many patrons either got shut out or never made the effort to wait to wager. The per capita from the corresponding day a year ago was $64.27.

The attendance on the day, compared to the corresponding day a year ago, was up 27.85%, but the on-track handle was only up 10.24%, from $1,535,814 to $1,693,010.

As much as anything else, the day was a lesson in the importance of field size, a number racetrack executives are talking a lot more about these days.

After the first race April 4, handle from all sources was down roughly $600,000 from a year ago, an amount that is tough to make up throughout the day, even with a record Saturday crowd. In fact, Keeneland did well to make up two-thirds of that amount, finishing the day with all-sources handle of $10,405,989 compared to $10,613,372 (a decrease of 19.54%) in 2008.

The first race April 4 consisted of a seven-horse field (there were two scratches) of maiden 2-year-olds running 4 1⁄2 furlongs. A year ago the first race contained a 12-horse field of maiden 3-year-olds going 1 1⁄8 miles. In the win, place, and show pools only, the on-track crowd wagered $204,290 this year compared to $392,831 a year ago.

Bettors love full fields, and for that reason, racetracks do as well. It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that every additional horse in a field correlates to increased handle.

Bob Elliston, the president of Turfway Park, which is owned partially by Keeneland, saw first-hand the result of decreased field size at the track’s recently completed meeting. Average field size at the Northern Kentucky oval was 9.0 in January, 8.0 in February, and 7.1 in March. The meet ended with a decrease of 24.6% in handle and purses were down 14.14%.

“The declines this winter clearly demonstrate the importance field size plays in the minds of horseplayers across the country,” Elliston said. “Given the economy, people are choosing to spend their money on products that offer the best return on investment, no matter what those products may be.”

Last summer the New York Racing Association offered to increase the purses for open company route races for every betting interest over six that started. The offer produced the first allowance race worth more than $100,000. Average daily purses at Saratoga were $790,513, again the highest of any other track in the country.

Because of increased business, Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., has raised purses twice during its current meeting that ends April 11. In addition, the track offered a participation incentive for its Racing Festival of the South. In a down economy, business is up at Oaklawn, which has been owned by members of the Cella family for more than 100 years.

Besides being up in attendance as well as on-track and off-track handle, Oaklawn is up in two other important categories. One is average field size, which through the first two-thirds of the meet had increased from 9.11 to 9.64. The other is its slots-like Instant Racing game, which has continued to show solid growth.

Horsemen entering horses helps business. Nothing new, but even more critical in today’s economic model. 

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