Are the Voices of Horseplayers Being Heard?

John Pricci, the longtime horseplayer and journalist who lives in upstate New York, was asked if racing executives are listening to their patrons.

“They’re not listening enough, but they are listening,” Pricci told The Blood-Horse. “There are so many things that are basic (that don’t get done). I don’t know if the revenue splits get in the way or what, but this lack of cooperation hurts the customer.

“I’ve been seeing, hearing, and watching everything, and nothing changes. We need to embrace what we are. We keep hearing the question, ‘Are we gambling or are we a sport?’ Gee whiz, why can’t we be both? If you go to the track, your eyes can’t help but get wide.”

Pricci, the executive editor of HorseRacingInsider.com who participated in the Oct. 12-14 International Simulcast Conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said a poll he conducted showed players want accurate information on track conditions, scratches, and changes readily available; standardized display of payoffs; coordinated post times; and standard odds boards that show when there are entries in a race. The major issue, however, is “takeout, takeout, takeout,” he said.

“Every time there was a lower takeout experiment in New York, handle went up,” Pricci said. “Small-minded bet-takers say they understand churn, but they don’t understand churn. This industry has a vested interest in keeping the player liquid.”

Pari-mutuel takeout has been a sticking point for many years. Impediments to change include regulations that vary by state and arguments between exporters and importers. Tracks that have experimented with takeout reductions have had their signals pulled from some wagering outlets.

On Oct. 13 at the simulcast conference, Jeff Gural, who owns Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs, two New York harness tracks with video gaming machines, said because slots provide about 90% of the purse money, he’s willing to experiment with takeout even though wagering pools are small.

“I don’t know how to effectively do it,” Gural said. “Tracks would drop our signals. The question is, ‘How do you integrate it into the whole pari-mutuel system?’ ”

There appears to be no serious interest in getting that done. Players often crow about Pennsylvania, where racetracks have slots but the takeout on some exotic wagers is 30% or more. They believe states that rely much less on pari-mutuel revenue to pay purses are prime candidates to experiment with takeout reductions.

During the simulcast conference, the recent move by Equibase.com to continually update racetrack changes was discussed. The Horseplayers’ Association of North America pushed for it, and continues to make other recommendations.

Pricci, an adviser to HANA, said it has been well-received, but the industry can’t escape its track record.

“It’s 15 years late,” Pricci said. “That’s what people are thinking about it.”

Indeed. A September 2004 article on bloodhorse.com reported that a few racetracks had adopted recommendations made in 2003 by the then-heralded National Thoroughbred Racing Association Players’ Panel, but the response was disappointing. The panel’s report touched on everything from tote security to customer service.

The Players’ Panel is gone, even though officials said its recommendations “wouldn’t collect dust.” And many issues discussed by the panel remain unresolved five years later in 2009.

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