Throughout many recent papers and publications, we have called on horsemen to be more attentive to the business drivers of racing, notably, wagering, particularly given the current environment where racing faces a loss of purse subsidies.

The attentiveness is needed because, as outlined, many track operators have failed to take seriously the need of racing’s wagering business to remain competitive. Among the many needs to an improved racing future: reduced pricing, modern technology and more options – such as a competitive fixed-odds offering to complement the existing parimutuel product.

But that hasn’t happened…yet.

Any solution that attempts to deliver "improvements" to racing while increasing the price of wagering should be an absolute non-starter.

Racing’s wagering product must get more competitive. Price increases have the opposite effect, reducing participation. A failure to recognize the price sensitivity of wagering customers should be no surprise, particularly when you see how some tracks have eschewed a straightforward approach to reporting handle. 

Look at Del Mar’s annual reporting of “handle” as a basic example.

Go back to 2019 and take a look at the picture painted from the end of that summer’s Del Mar meeting. Here is what Del Mar Thoroughbred Club president Josh Rubinstein said, in a release published by Bloodhorse:

“At the end of the day we had extremely safe racing, handled over $432 million, and paid out over $21 million in purses. We are very pleased.”

In summer 2019, Del Mar did not handle $432 million.

According to figures provided this week to the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation from the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), the actual total wagered on Del Mar races in 2019 was $333,590,951, nearly $100 million less than reported.

The numbers that were reported, however, are classified in a separate line-item in the CHRB’s annual report characterized as handle from “Total Races Run at Host Track Plus Races Run At Other Tracks.” Joe from Temecula, California, who played a random pick four at Arapahoe via his ADW while Del Mar was the “host” track at the time, and may have never placed a bet at Del Mar, had his handle included in that $432 million figure.

This method of reporting has the effect of duplicating handle reported by some of the California tracks themselves. It is possible for both Golden Gate and Del Mar to be reporting the same bets as part of their handle using that line-item which the CHRB tracks in its annual report.

Now, fast forward to this summer unlike any other.

The 2020 Del Mar summer season-ending release cites a handle increase to $466.68 million, which is, again, not what was handled on Del Mar’s races. They also merge stats which adds to the confusion, citing average daily handle in 2020 rising by an astounding 44 percent this summer – to $17.28 million per day over 27 days over $12.00 million per day from 36 days in 2019.

Now, that is an accurate figure, provided you don't want the per day figures of wagering on races at Del Mar, but rather numbers which would include our fictitious friend, Joe from Temecula, who doesn’t bet at all on Del Mar but rather the likes of Albuquerque, Arapahoe and Assiniboia.

Del Mar’s actual handle for the 2020 summer meet was $319,660,994 according to the CHRB figures, a total decline of 4.2 percent. On a per-day basis, actual Del Mar wagering was up a very encouraging 27.8 percent (2020 - $11.84 million/day, 2019 - $9.27 million/day).

Now, it is notable that at the least, Del Mar is consistent in their reporting of “handle,” but those figures do not include only Del Mar races.

Raw wagering figures are not a full and complete picture of overall health of the racing industry, nor that of an individual track’s ability to operate. While wagering was Del Mar’s main source of income this summer, without live attendance, the track suffered a credit rating downgrade in April from Fitch Ratings, which was accompanied by a harsh assessment of the future of racing at the oceanside oval.

A more complete view frames perspective better.

Horsemen, empowered by the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 with rights to approve contracts which distribute the races they fill, not only need a full, accurate accounting, but they must improve their understanding of the composition of wagering.  

Our July report, Racing Not Only For (The) Elite highlighted that the composition of total handle has changed over the last 15 years – far more of total play is coming from players at high-volume betting shops, customers handling high tens to hundreds of millions annually, some more. As an inflation-adjusted total of handle from 2003 to 2019, we estimated play from these customers has increased by roughly 114 percent in that time period while handle from all other customers has declined by approximately 63 percent.

If racing did not exist almost solely because of betting, maybe none of this would be important. The major professional sports do not shudder if sports betting numbers decline, but they certainly might feel the pain downstream via ratings. Racing’s existence, as we know it, is a function of wagering. Horsemen, who hold contract approval rights on existing simulcast contracts and potentially new ones, do not seem to have a proper handle on handle.

Misleading information from tracks does not help.

A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE

The future for racing in North America is increasingly complicated, and the power that resides with horsemen must be exercised to secure the most sustainable future of the sport.

Concurrent to all of these business concerns, the newly introduced Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) seems increasingly likely to pass. Those that have spent years fighting it and its previous versions, or positioning around it, could hunker down and spend even more time in the trenches, or they could start paying attention to the business that keeps racing going – wagering.

In our January paper, “American Racing’s Sustainable Future,” we recommended a reorganization of the industry’s self-created groups into a three-tiered structure as listed below:

"Organization 1 would handle: Integrity, safety and welfare, registration, aftercare, and the pursuit of rules and regulatory uniformity, including medication policies.

Organization 2 would handle: Marketing, sponsorships, public affairs, owners’ relations, crisis management, community service, outreach and education.

Organization 3 would handle: Wagering, technology, race planning and scheduling, as well as regular, centralized industry performance (metrics) reporting."

It seems that HISA might accomplish the elements of “Organization 1,” but this alone will not yield a sustainable future for our sport.

Attentiveness to the business of betting on horse racing is an absolute necessity from as many parties associated with the sport as possible.

Any increases in takeout to pay for HISA would be destructive to a sustainable future, and that includes if those increases were used to fund such organizations. As the Daily Racing Form’s Matt Hegarty wrote on Wednesday, there is nothing in the current HISA which would limit states from raising takeout to cover individual state costs to participating.

An earlier version of the bill, from the 2017-18 Congressional section, included a prohibition on increased takeout. That was withdrawn in the earlier 2019-20 version, and remains absent from the current iteration. While the designers of HISA do not seem inclined to have it funded via betting in any fashion, as stated by Jockey Club vice-chairman Bill Lear in Hegarty’s linked story, that possibility could be enacted by states which participate.

Regardless of the outcome of HISA or the reporting standards of tracks when acknowledging wagering performance, our sport will take a step forward when it realizes betting on racing drives the continuation of racing. Any steps to undermine the attractiveness of wagering on racing will hurt all parties associated with the sport.