Anne M. Eberhardt

Timing Boosts Handle, Simulcast Group Told

The Jockey Club and InCompass Solutions describe plans to address negative trends.

Without adding to current field size or fan base, racing secretaries can increase pari-mutuel handle immediately by paying more attention to one simple factor: Timing.

That's the premise of a new scheduling tool now being developed by InCompass Solutions, The Jockey Club's technological subsidiary. By spacing races 15 minutes or more apart from competition—particularly among tracks in the same region—tracks can see handle go up substantially, according to Brad Kimbrell, InCompass' executive vice president.

Don't forget the difference a day can make either, he advised. For example, Arlington Park increased its revenue this summer by switching from Thursdays to Wednesdays, capitalizing on a mid-week day when fewer tracks were operating. The result was a 12% increase in handle.

"Look at the calendar before you do anything," Kimbrell said. 

Kimbrell made his presentation Oct. 3 on the opening day of the International Simulcast Conference, hosted by the Thoroughbred Racing  Associations and Harness Tracks of America in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The suggestion of running "fewer, better races" grew out of the McKinsey & Company study commissioned by The Jockey Club to help reverse racing's decade-long decline. Presented originally at the The Jockey Club Round Table in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., the study results were elaborated on at the conference by Jason Wilson, The Jockey Club's vice president of business development.

Using data culled from more than 600,000 races over the past 11 years, the McKinsey study provided the basic numbers and scenarios that form the basis of a new matrix system that will allow racing secretaries and other track officials to maximize handle through moe effective scheduling of races. The system is based on about 30 variables that would allow the InCompass matrix to predict handle within 15%, Kimbrell said.

Running races—especially graded stakes—on top of each other hurts both tracks, Kimbrell said. He used an example of a typical crowded Saturday in April when Oaklawn Park, Keeneland, and Aqueduct all ran grade I races within 19 minutes. By spacing those races out with a 15-minute break between each one, those stakes could have increased their handle by 4% to 9%.

"Handicappers can only handicap so many races," Kimbrell said. "They need more time."
Timing is especially critical during racing's annual peak period, Fridays through Sundays in May through September, Kimbrell said. During this summer logjam, 77% of races occur within five minutes of a race at another major track; 19% were run within one minute of another race.

The InCompass system also would help racing secretaries lay out their cards for maximum handle while also keeping them informed about what other tracks have scheduled. Coordination can pay off for all parties, he stressed. 

Of the nine recommendations in the McKinsey study, smarter scheduling of races for better handle may be the first to be accomplished.  

Racing secretaries from throughout the country gathered at the Arizona conference to add their input to the new scheduling program. Kimbrell said InCompass expects to have the software "into the hands of racetacks" by the end of January 2012.

In addition to the scheduling matrix, The Jockey Club has moved forward with other recommendations from the study, Wilson said.

With racing becoming all but invisible on major network sports schedules, a new TV pact with a major network is in the works, hinged to the spring classics, Wilson said. He noted that this year's deal with NBC to air major stakes from Saratoga was successful in giving the sport some much-needed exposure.

To introduce new fans to the sport, game developers have been hired to create a free-to-play racing program for online, Wilson said, as well as a sort of "horsey" version of Facebook's "Farmville" to teach newcomers about breeding, owning, and racing. An online tool for actual horse owners based on in-depth interviews is also in the design phase with a goal of improving racing's transparency. 

The Jockey Club is reacting to some extremely negative economic trends noted in the McKinsey study. Since 2005, Wilson said, total handle is down 37%, attendance has dropped 30%, and starters per race and total race days have both declined by 14%.

If current trends are not halted, Wilson said, the projected customer base by 2020 for racing will be only 64% of its current level due to deceased and lapsed fans.      

"This is a road map for growth," Wilson said. "We're reaching out to new audience while retaining our core customers."