Night Fever - By Dan Liebman

(Originally published in the July 11, 2009 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

In the midst of a stinging defeat for expanded gaming in Kentucky, it was discovered that people will still attend a racetrack - without slots - and have fun doing so. But not for the same old stale product.

Churchill Downs installed a temporary lighting system, and more patrons than anyone predicted turned out to watch three racing cards at night under the Twin Spires.
True, the Louisville, Ky., racetrack stumbled out of the gate, when the 28,011 that attended Friday, June 19, were met by long lines that left many disgruntled. But racetrack officials apologized, promised it would not happen again, and a week later 27,623 poured through the turnstiles to be greeted by improved customer service. Better yet, on Thursday, July 2, a crowd of 33,481 showed up to begin their holiday weekend with Thoroughbred racing.

True, some never opened their wallets to wager, but that is OK. On-track handle was up considerably, but it was also important to attract young people who preferred to listen to music, drink dollar beers, and visit a racetrack rather than a bar or nightclub.

A patron who had a good time not only will return but will encourage friends and family to join him the next time. And, while handle helps purses, a racetrack keeps more from admissions, programs, and beer than from a wager (which has to be shared with other groups), which helps cover expenses and encourages track officials to try other creative ideas.

Some wonder if the success of night racing might lead to a discussion of the Derby being run at night. This would not be done to attract more fans—the physical plant is already bulging on Derby day—but to attract a larger television audience.

While it might not make sense to alter the entrenched Derby, it could make sense to consider night racing for the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. The 2009 Derby registered a 7.3 national television rating overall, but a 9.8 rating during the 6-7 p.m. race portion of the broadcast. The Breeders’ Cup has a more difficult situation, with racing spread over two days and multiple networks. Still, the 2008 overall rating of .7 is anemic by anyone’s measure.

It is hard not to think more viewers would see the Breeders’ Cup races if they were run during prime time. Just imagine the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) being aired at halftime of Monday Night Football.

Churchill Downs knows where the lights can be rented.

Get a handle

We were reminded again of the fervor with which Hong Kong racing fans wager when the largest handle there in six years occurred July 1 at Sha Tin. The crowd of 63,369, and more importantly, at 116 off-track facilities and through in-home wagering, bet HK$1.22 billion on the 11-race card, about $157.3 million.
That amount is similar to what was wagered internationally last year on the two Breeders’ Cup cards, when $155,740,327 was bet on 21 races.

The difference is the Hong Kong Jockey Club only staged 78 days of racing during its 2008-09 season, and residents there can only wager legally on horse racing and soccer, as well as play the country’s lottery. For the 78 cards, wagering in Hong Kong was down only 1.3% from a year ago.

In contrast, statistics released July 5 by Equibase showed wagering on racing in the United States fell 16.9% in June, continuing a trend that also saw purses drop 10.3% from the same month last year. For the first six months of the year, all-sources handle on U.S. races is down 10.5%, and purses have dropped 6%.

With high unemployment, and Americans clearly spending less, the fact handle is down only 10.5% may actually be interpreted as a good sign. Like commercial breeders anticipating the yearling sale season, it may be a time in which a negative has to be perceived as a positive.

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