The 2017 business of racing season is almost in the books. This year, for players and the business, we've seen some good and some bad, but things look to be up slightly on the handle front from 2016.
Was it a good year or bad year? I lean that it's been pretty static.
Racing generally sets a low bar, primarily because the handle trend has been down for so long, so any uptick is viewed positively. But, any business which has neglected some basic business instruments - field size, competitive racing, poor scheduling and a sub-optimal race allocation mix - for so long, it should incrementally get better through trial and error, and better management.
I think that's happened over the last couple of years.
We see more and more racetracks look at scheduling better races; we've had the higher handle tracks keep or expand dates, lower handle tracks reduce them; Twinspires, TVG etc have experimented with new promotions, learning new ways to increase churn; the big entities have been running their own rebate shops; signals have expanded internationally more than ever before.
When we add an economy that's had some major zip the last two quarters, and that horseplayer bankrolls have grown marginally through the IRS legislation, I think handle - ceteris paribus - should be up.
But it's not up nearly enough.
What's held racing back, in my view, is the same thing that's always held racing back. It's not a contested market, and these markets rarely take the leaps of faith needed to grow at greater than inflation.
We see this most recently with Santa Anita. Tim Ritvo is clearly firing salvos at the TOC, but these arrows haven't landed. Retention caps are still there, and when they created a "new bet" the new bet was just an old bet at a higher takeout rate. They've added churn killing rolling super high fives, and yes, a post drag. They're Gulfstream Park West-of-the-Mississippi. Minus the middling players able to get lower pricing.
Keeneland, despite being hammered by industry analysts who look farther than the bridge of their nose, players groups and (surprisingly) a good deal of the sometimes sycophantic racing press, has stuck to their high pricing guns. They aren't budging.
Churchill is Churchill. NYRA is political football that tries to not rock the boat.
Where are things going in 2018? It's anyone's guess, I suppose. But, I think the smart money says we'll see more of the same.
The big signals will navigate the morass and try to incrementally increase business. The large ADW entities will grow, through both continued protectionism and incrementalism. So Cal racing will try to break free from the culture of mediocrity and some changes may occur, ,but for the average player - those who've been asking for change for the better - it will probably be pretty much the status quo.
If you're looking for a shining light that makes you want to jump back into the pools you didn't find it in 2017. Unless something changes, I doubt you'll find a reason to in 2018 either.
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