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. 


Leave a Comment:

Greg Magreta

Your points are valid but someone moved a decimal on

your All sources decrease percentage for Keeneland's

opening day.  It should have been down 1.95%.

07 Apr 2009 11:23 AM

The one true statement in this article is that horse players will go where there is a better return on investment. For seasoned players ( the one's who bet a much larger than average per capita wager)that means wagerering on dirt tracks where their handicapping skills are most effective. The horse race industry in an effort to placate their detractors pushed synthetics on the core fan and forced them to either quit playing the game or concentrate on dirt tracks. Ignoring the customer has been a staple of the horse race industry as long as I can remember, and the last thing any regular horse player wanted was for game to be radically changed like it has with synthetics.

07 Apr 2009 12:31 PM

This is a dilemma. Handle is the life-blood of the industry, but the horses' welfare comes first. Trainers should not be pressured into entering their horses for the sake of handle. Race day examining vets must also ignore the tracks' desires to fill races. And, all else equal, it is safer for a horse to compete against less, rather than more. The need for greater handle has also somewhat contributed to our present "drug culture"-drug them up so they can run. The states (public) also have a vested interest in handle. This also contributes to the relative laxity in sufficient oversight of the horses' well-being. So we need to be creative-more innovative in our approach to the solution, but cannot jeopardize the horse. As a long-time devotee of the sport, I've never understood why larger fields, in and of themselves, equated to more handle. I've always preferred smaller fields-the outcome is more predictable (less chance error) and so I am more confident when making my wager. That feeling of relative confidence is a stimulus to wagering.      

07 Apr 2009 1:11 PM
Richard R

"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."  

Why would ANYONE want to bet serious money on these baby races full of first-time starters regardless of field-size unless they had inside information on the horses' abilities?

"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."

Build it and they will come!  Keeneland enjoys the unique dynamic of being an "in" attraction for a nice spring day.  These people for the most part do not have big bankrolls to bet.  But, they are enthusiastic and when they show up at Keeneland and have a good time, chances are they will be back, and back, and back!  Isn't that what racetracks are begging for?

Field size may have something to do with the level of betting handle, but that's not what is attracting the people to show up for the venue.

07 Apr 2009 6:15 PM

When I arrived at the track on Saturday morning I thought to myself, "Horse racing in Kentucky is still going strong."  That was before I spent the afternoon surrounded by a sea of patrons, many of whom were at the track because it was an excuse to get drunk at two in the afternoon. Thankfully we purchase clubhouse seats before each meet, and we could get away from the insanity.

The suggestion that people were shut out at the betting windows does not conform to what I saw all day. The only time I had to wait in line was when I got stuck behind someone making bets for someone else over the phone. I never heard or saw anyone get shut out because of a long line to bet. On the contrary, I had the most difficult time negotiating around, and heard many complaints about the time spent, the lines for alcohol.

Keeneland has promoted the idea of tailgating to draw people to the track, but is that something that is in the best interest of the sport? The numbers from the handle indicate that the crowd was not too interested in the racing. The plan to get people to the track should be measured by the betting interest of the crowd.

When you go to a football game, inside the stadium it is well monitored to minimize drunk and disorderly conduct. For the first time in my life, and I have been going to Keeneland for over fifteen years, I saw two women get in a fist fight in the simulcast area on the third floor. They were fighting over who had the "skankier" tatoos. No joke.

It is patently absurd to believe that Keeneland currently offers a viable model for strengthening the horse industry. A large percentage of people at the track last Saturday didn't care one bit about whether they saw a horse run all day. Maybe Keeneland should should just open up the infield for everyone to have an excuse to party, and not infringe on the horse racing experience that others are trying to enjoy.

08 Apr 2009 11:29 AM

Duh! There is too much racing. If a jurisdiction cannot produce a nine horse average, they need to race less.  Synthetic tracks would not be even considered if the breeders had not ruined the horse. Balance robustness and durability with speed and all of racings problems will evaporate.

10 Apr 2009 9:24 AM

Keeneland needs to eaxpand like I need a heart attack. Why? They race less than 50 days a year. They cant get enough quality horses to fill the fields. Put up some tents in the infield and continue to flees the riff raff who will willingly pay 5 bucks for a beer. We here in Kentucky have watched the Government, the Racetracks and the Horsemen run the racing industry into the ground. Tracks are cutting dates, Handle is down and the racing fans are fed up. After the adw fiasco, I could care less if I ever attend or wager on a race in the state of Kentucky ever again. The one thing  I do know is New York, California, and many other states want my business and are doing what it takes to get it and keep it. Kentucky on the other hand has proved they don't want out business. Kentuckys Racing Industry will never prosper until they get other forms of gambling such as caisinos or slots, rasise purses, get the fans to come back and develop a fan friendly affordable product. Its a lot cheaper and easier to play from home and wager on bigger fields with better horses from other states and they want our business.

10 Apr 2009 7:37 PM
Warning Drums

I was in the throng at Keeneland on 4 April, too. Hubby and I waited in an endless crush of people surrounding the grandstand for 30 minutes, without any sign of movement until they threw open all the turnstiles and admitted everybody for free. Once inside, the crowding was even worse. It was impossible to move at all. The lines at the betting windows were indiscernible from the general jam.

After we finally pushed our way into the grandstand and found a place to stand in an aisle of the reserved seating section, we dared not leave to place bets or for any other reason. Otherwise, I would have made a very lucrative bet on Hooh Why in the Ashland Stakes.

Of those packed into the aisle around us (and yes, many were very drunk), none were daring to leave their hard-won spots either. Based on my experience, I would surmise that the crowding had a significantly detrimental effect on the handle.

11 Apr 2009 10:22 PM

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