Panelist: 'Only Racing Can Save Racing'

The issue of racetrack gaming was discussed during a casino conference in Las Vegas.

by Aleta Walther

Racetrack gaming has poured money into the pari-mutuel industry but shouldn’t be viewed as a savior, panelists said Oct. 4 during the 2011 Global Gaming Exposition in Las Vegas.

The panel, titled “Can Slots Really Save Racing?” was the only one at the event related to horse and dog racing. The expo, the largest North American trade show devoted to casino gambling, had registration of about 25,000 people, 25 of which showed up for the racetrack gaming panel.

Paul Girvan, managing director of the Innovation Group, moderated the panel and kicked it off with a discussion of the experience in Pennsylvania, where racetracks have slot machines and table games.

“Slots have been successful in terms of increasing live racing days and increasing purses,” Girvan said. “What is less clear to me is the impact on handle, particularly live handle and ontrack attendance that many people have hoped for. It would behoove the industry to make a significant effort to improve live attendance and live handle.”

Will Cummings, president of Cummings Associates, one of the industry’s leading analysts, took a different approach. “Can slots save racing? They already have,” he said. “Racing would be dead in Iowa without slots, and in Delaware, New Mexico, West Virginia, and upstate New York.

But that could be considered slots with a small ‘s’ saving racing with a small ‘r,’ ” Cummings said. “Can slots save--with a large ‘S’—racing, with a large ‘R’?  The answer here is no–there’s simply too much to do. It is too much to ask of any single entity, even one that is as attractive to the public and generates the enormous revenue that slot machines do.”

Cummings distinguished between “racing the game,” which is not doing so badly because of its online presence, versus “racing the institution.”

“It’s ‘racing the institution’ that has big issues, with a capital B and a capital I,” Cummings said. “Slots can help both the game and the institution, but you’ve got to spend that money wisely. You can’t just keep doing the same old same old, because that doesn’t work anymore.

“The industry should focus on quality, not quantity; you’ve got to spend more on (research and development); and you’ve got to focus on your customers, not your horses.”

Troy Keeping, regional general manager for Delaware North Gaming and president and general manager of Southland Park Gaming & Racing in Arkansas, believes slots can save racing, but it all depends on each venue’s market.

“Slots may be able to save racing, but from an industry standpoint, I still see it as ultimately in trouble,” Keeping said. “While the gaming aspect of racing is holding on, we are now hearing from the dog breeders that they can’t hang on financially.”

James Rafferty, vice president of marketing for Peninsula Gaming, which owns and operates Evangeline Downs Racetrack & Casino in Louisiana, agreed with the other panelist that slots have done a lot for racing—they have produced more than $2 billion for purses over the past 10 years—but racing has to address serious issues with the attractiveness of its product in the marketplace.

“Slots can’t save racing,” Rafferty said. “Only racing can save racing.”