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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Flaming Out

At the most recent Virginia Racing Commission meeting, the Colonial Downs board of directors has proposed a 24 day harness meet in 2012 which would result in losing 6 days when compared to the 2011 racing calendar.  Not good, but considering everything else, not the worst.  But it does get worse.  In 2013, they are proposing to go to an eighteen day race card which becomes a net loss of 12 days when compared to 2011.

However, in 2014, Colonial Downs is proposing a 'massive' (sarcasm intended) standardbred meet of four days.  Just four days of harness racing at Colonial Downs.  This is beginning to look a lot like Iowa with the exception being Colonial Downs will not fund a fair meet in Virginia as Prairie Meadows does in Iowa. While the Virginia Racing Commission needs to approve these dates, it appears Virginia is facing the threat of flaming out with regards to standardbred racing.  Hopefully, it can be prevented, but when a track is looking to drop down to a four day meet, it is never a good sign.

Columbus, we have a problem.  Pari-mutuel racing in Iowa has, for all purposes flamed out, if Colonial Downs gets their way, it will flame out in Virginia.  Other relatively new tracks are not doing particularly well either; handles so low that there are times horses are not being bet in all the pools often.  Colonial Downs often has pools with less than $1,800 in them so there is no way big gamblers will even go near a track like that.  Colonial Downs has no slot machines so in some ways, can you blame them for wanting to get rid of harness racing?

But it is more than that, Prairie Meadows has a casino so they subsidize the purses there.  Horse racing is a money loser, but necessary for slot machines.  However, they are willing to pay $1 million a year NOT to race harness racing at the track, but instead have them race at fairs to cut their losses on the sport while they  still race thoroughbreds and quarterhorses at Prairie Meadows.  Yes, they have slots to subsidize horse racing, but even if they are expecting racing to be a loss leader, it is one thing to lose money on racing; it is another thing to hemorrhage money on racing.  If you are a multi-breed track, you are going to jettison the breed which costs you the most.  Sadly, we know which breed is going to cost tracks the most to race due to putrid handles.  As we can see in Iowa, slot machines don't guarantee you racing; handle matters; even at racinos.

And now we are looking to get harness racing in Georgia?  With our track record, there is a chance harness racing may crash and burn there if parimutuel racing gets approved in Georgia.  Harness racing may get in to Georgia but if it is at a multi-breed track, harness racing may not be there that long because we don't know how to introduce the sport into a new market.

I used the expression, "Columbus, we have a problem." as a matter of poetic license.  Yes, the USTA  should coordinate a group to come up with best practices for introducing standardbred racing into new markets to lessen the chance we flame out like we did in Iowa and we may be doing in Virginia, but the USTA is not to blame alone.  The entire industry needs to work together on this.  If we leave it up to horsemen in one state to market the sport, we are destined to failure.

One of the complaints you hear from some people is there is no marketing at Colonial Downs of harness racing.  Now, not being from Virginia, I don't know specifically what kind of marketing, if there is any, Colonial Downs does for harness racing.  This should be a wake up call for those that say the track should do the promoting alone.  If the tracks are not going to promote on their own, horsemen better be willing to work with them to promote; otherwise failure is guaranteed. 

$1,800 pools indicate there is no interest in their racing product.  Why is that?  First we need to know why the sport is being repudiated by the local population.  Is it the sports perception?  If so, horsemen all over the country have some responsibility for this and we need to get this sport a better perception. 

Another reason is there is too much racing going on and Colonial Downs is being bypassed.  Now, assuming takeouts are reasonable, people would play Colonial Downs if there were not too many tracks racing at the same time.  We are spreading what wagering on standardbred racing is taking place over too many tracks at a given time.  In some ways, we need to lead our customers to wager on these tracks and that is done by not having all these tracks racing and competing at the same time.  Maybe racing at different times of the day would work, maybe not racing all year at some tracks or six days a week would help.  Yes, things may be wonderful at some tracks with racinos, but unless horsemen nationally are willing to work together, some tracks are not going to make it as far as harness racing goes, even if they have racinos; we are guaranteeing failure of the sport nationwide.

Why should horsemen in state A care about what is happening in state B?  If racing fails in state B, state C, D, and E may be next.  As existing harness racing fans stop wagering due to death or attrition, there will be no new horseplayers because the sport no longer exists in these state.  As the harness racing market shrinks, soon enough, even your handle will decline; decline to the point you can be sure your harness tracks will be sure to go to legislators to kick horse racing out.

So don't look at Iowa and now Virginia as isolataed incidents.  Their failure does not bode well for the sport nationally, the first dominos are tumbling.  Sooner or later, if steps are not taken, the other dominos will all fall.

The Meadowlands posted a video to allow people to meet their new GM, Mike Newlin.  Here it is.


1 comment:

JLB said...

As a fan of the sport for almost 50 years, and an owner for half that time, I agree with you that too few horsemen are doing anything to preserve harness racing. Those fortunate enough to race for slots-enhanced purses at Yonkers, Pocono, and Chester could, for the most part, care less about the long-term viability of the sport. Nor do they, with rare exception, care much about integrity issues such as illegal medications and beards fronting for suspect trainers. I have seen questionable calls and non-calls by judges at several Northeast tracks. It is not a pretty sight as the sport sinks beneath the national consciousness.