Not everyone who works in the horseracing industry believes its days are numbered. Attend an industry conference, however, and chances are the negative will far outweigh the positive.
Susie Sourwine, vice president of marketing at Emerald Downs in Washington state, apparently had heard enough when she addressed attendees at the recent International Simulcast Conference in St. Petersburg, Fla. Panelists were discussing their views of what the next five years holds for pari-mutuel racing; to say enthusiasm was lacking would be an understatement.
No one argues racing isn’t under the gun. But the frustration and negativity appears to stem from problems that never seem to get solved.
“We’ve been on a death march for two days,” Sourwine said. “Is (horse racing) valuable? If you don’t believe it is, it’s time to look for a different job. We need to educate ourselves about the things that work in this industry.
“We have a lot of strength and things going for us if we can get our crap together. I don’t think it’s dead or dying—or at least it doesn’t have to.”
Sourwine’s take on the state of the industry did little to publicly fire up anyone, but that wasn’t unexpected given the almost zombie-like atmosphere. A few conference attendees commented afterward that Sourwine did everyone a favor by attempting to light a fire and by saying things others wouldn't be comfortable saying.
Emerald Downs is a racetrack that invests in on-track business and has some success doing so. There are others, including Tampa Bay Downs, whose general manager, Peter Berube, said average daily attendance has held steady at 3,300-3,500 for the past seven years despite meets that span roughly five months.
“We’re just fortunate because we have the Florida sunshine,” said Berube, one of the panelists at the conference. “We really try to capitalize on that advantage. But (with our attendance), you just don’t see that kind of consistency at racetracks anymore.”
Berube noted 60% of on-site handle per day is generated on live races, a remarkable figure given the shift to simulcast wagers. The one negative is that export handle on the live product has topped out at about $3.5 million per day—but it’s higher than that of many tracks.
Mark Loewe, general manager at the Sanford Orlando Kennel Club in Florida, said Greyhound racing “is in dire straits” and heavily relies on income from Thoroughbred simulcasts. By his count, more than 60 racetracks (horse and dog) have closed in the last 20-30 years.
“We need to make serious decisions in the next five years to remain viable,” Loewe said.
Lowe is among those expecting more track closures. He said “event meets” are the way to go.
“I think we’re going to have to look at more compression,” Loewe said. “There’s no incentive for the casual fan to say, ‘I need to go (to the racetrack).’ I truly believe we need to get away from these 220-day meets and 240-day meets.”
Fewer racing dates, particularly at tracks with alternative gaming, may be hard to sell to horsemen, who would have to agree to shorter schedules. Legislation in many gaming states mandates a minimum number of dates unless horsemen consent.
On the simulcast front, Patty Jones, executive director of the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association, said casinos have spent a “fortune” on race and sports books that provide the smallest return on investment of any games in the facilities. She indicated a hike in signal fees—something being discussed in the industry—could impact pari-mutuel pools.
“If the books aren’t fairly priced, they’d probably go back to booking (bets),” Jones said.
In looking at the next five years, panelists overall called for consolidation and putting the focus on the horseplayer. It was Berube who touched on a topic that once again figured prominently at the simulcast conference: security and integrity of the pari-mutuel wagering system and its infrastructure.
“We have to get the confidence of the bettors back,” he said.
Officials with the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, which co-hosts the simulcast conference each year, continue to push for tote and wagering system upgrades. Drops in odds after “off” time and past-posting of bets remain serious problems.
The TRA and Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau would like to see wagering outlets report incidents immediately, and the industry fully explain the details and corrective action being taken.
“I think we need to commit to this,” said Chris Scherf, executive vice president of the TRA. “To be in the betting industry and say, ‘We can’t assure you we can close betting,’ just isn’t acceptable.”