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At Saratoga Is More, More?

This past week the DRF's Steve Crist penned an excellent column titled "Are there too many races at Saratoga?"
  • Proponents of the more-more-more position say that in the absence of a law requiring patrons to bet on every race, why should anyone object? If nine a day is your limit, you can always skip a few, and why deprive those who can’t get enough of getting a few more?
    The more-is-less advocates say that the extra races dilute the overall product, making Saratoga less special and some afternoons more reminiscent of Aqueduct than Ascot. Eliminating the two or three worst races every day would make the meeting shinier, cut down on the workload for handicappers, and those who can’t get enough can always play simulcasts.
Steve then goes on to talk about the relationship, pre slots and takeover, between the state and NYRA. This, whereby NYRA had to show revenue gains, and the easiest way to do that was by lengthening a solid meet like Saratoga.

This is really nothing new.

Years ago, at the end of a 162 game season, the winner of the National League played the American League winner. There was no inter-league play. The Fall Classic was the Fall Classic.

In the NFL, the road to the Super Bowl was a quick road, not a circuitous trip that takes place from December to February. 

MLB and the NFL did not choose those changes for any other reason other than money. If too much of a good thing brings in more money, then it's not too much of a good thing. There's no reason to wax poetic about it.

However, horse racing is a sport, yes, but it is a sport that relies on gambling, which relies on churn. It's a bettor participation sport, or as my friend Eric Poteck calls it "Gambletainment".

Just like in the 1970's when Vegas had a monopoly on many forms of gambling, they could not just set up slot machines at 25% rake and expect people to come back; people needed to win something, sometimes, to come back, and they needed to be entertained when they weren't winning. Vegas evolved and offered lower take (some slot takeouts fell from 25% to 2%), new games like low rake poker, and many other activities to try and keep people engaged. Your money might be vanishing, but it's at least lasting longer, and hey, you saw David Copperfield make a bus disappear.

At Saratoga, if you hit people with tough races, many races per day with deep fields, super-long meets, less compelling racing, and charge a high rake, will they, over time and in the same or higher numbers, come back each year? Maybe, or maybe not. It's a question that might take a decade to answer.

NYRA and the State are doing what any one of us would do if we were in their shoes. People complain about state bred races or turf sprints, but they're betting state bred races and turf sprints at a level they don't do at any other racetrack. Perhaps the pull of Saratoga - the tradition, the setting, the habits and all the rest - will trump most of what's thrown at patrons. Perhaps it's too big to fail. In the here and now, it certainly appears that way. What tomorrow brings is anyone's guess, but I believe it's something that any good business has to pay attention to.

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