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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Back Handed Story

An article in the Rome Observer about opening night at Vernon Downs indicates "Hundreds turn out to celebrate Vernon Downs opening night".  Hundreds?  If nothing shows you how poorly racing is doing to attract on-track customers, this headline should say it all.  Granted, this is not a major metropolitan area, but to attract attendance in the hundreds for opening night in the old days would have been cause to close up shop and go home.  After all, how many people do they draw on a regular night if opening night was in the hundreds?  Of course, slot machines support the track so racing continues.

Look, racing has allowed the on-track customer to disappear and it will take a long time and a new way of doing things to get them back so I don't expect to see "Thousands turn out to celebrate Vernon Downs...", next year.  This is not a Vernon Downs problem, I dare say most tracks could have similar headlines written about their opening nights; that is if you could even get the interest of a local news outlet to cover the opening.  However, with tracks having ceded ADW wagering to third parties, it is essential they get a core group of horseplayers to show up at the track as they are more lucrative to the track than the ADWs are.  Headlines like the one in the Observer show the right mix has yet to be found.

Reading about the impasse between the Virginia HBPA and Colonial Downs had me wondering, besides the recent problems in Chicago, when was the last time a standardbred track was hit by a boycott at the entry box?  You have the current dispute between the ill-advised MHHA and Raceway management, but that is not stopping racing; just simulcasting wagering.

Then it hit me.  At most racinos, purses have never been better so as long as the purses stay where they are, it would take a real effort for management to tick off the horsemen.  At non-racino tracks, a horsemen boycott could very well be all it takes for management to throw the towel in on racing so horsemen are very cautious to use the weapon of boycotting the entry box.  It's like a tale of two cities; the horsemen at racinos enjoying the 'good' life while those at the non-racino tracks living in fear of sneezing the wrong way.

While not impacting standardbred racing directly, the latest amendment to a proposed Illinois Gaming Bill would allow slots at all racetracks but one, Fairmount Park.  At one point Fairmount Park held standardbred racing but it has been quite a while since the trotters and pacers graced the track there.

To be perfectly honest, other than an issue of fairness, I don't overly get concerned about the demise of a thoroughbred track.  Competition with a casino nearby claims their business will be cannibalized.  Well, truth be told everyime a casino is opened, business is cannibalized.  However, a casino at Maywood Park would cannibalize another casino as well, the same way a casino at Arlington Park would.  You can't single out one racetrack from offering machines if you allow the rest to do it without compensating it.   It would be one thing if a percentage of slot revenue was redirected to Fairmount by the tracks to compensate them for skipping the one-armed (In the old days) bandits.  But to just say, you are cut out is plain wrong.


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