The Horseplayers Association of North
America released their annual Thoroughbred
Racetrack Ratings a few months ago. Designed by a horseplayer and retired engineer (and a
whiz with spreadsheets), data points that were directly correlated to betting
handle were weighted, numbers were crunched and the tracks were rated from 1 to
69. For the fourth consecutive year, Keeneland was ranked number one.
In the first year of those ratings there was plenty of
chatter from fans, players and the industry itself. Everyone had their opinion
on what tracks they liked and what tracks they didn’t. If Tampa was ranked 10th,
a player would lament the 25.7% takeout on trifectas and disregard the
rankings. When Hollywood Park was 14th, a player was sure to say how
wrong that was, because the maybe he found food on the second floor was awful.
When Keeneland was ranked first, polytrack haters were out in full force saying
“Keeneland, how could you?”
Bill Weaver designed the ratings as they were,
because there are determinants to handle that are both theoretically and
empirically proven; and they are beyond reproach. We have spoken before about
them in this column, but as a refresher, they include the types of bets,
takeout rates, field size/race contentiousness, signal fee level, and pool
Types of food, the rider colony,
or quality of the horses played no bearing on the ratings for two reasons:
Either they were non-measurable, or they had little meaningful correlation to
This season - four years after it was first rated #1 -
Keeneland set some handle and attendance records. The ratings are probably not
Currently HANA is looking to do similar with harness racing,
with a racetrack rankings system complete hopefully soon. I imagine when the
ratings are released, there will be similar grumbling from people in and
outside the industry.
It’s simple, really: What you may like in a racetrack will
differ from others, and vice versa.
A couple of weeks ago in Harness Racing Update I wrote about
Balmoral Park, and its explosion onto the scene, to land with the big boys like
the Meadowlands and Woodbine. They’ve done so by carding good betting races,
distributing their signal and doing it at a decent price. This spawned a letter
to the editor from a gentleman that disputed Balmoral’s status, because of the
driver colony and horse population. Those
are characteristics that are clearly important to him in a racetrack.
The bottom line, though, is that betting customers are
saying something completely different about the driver colony and horse
population at Balmoral, and they’re saying it loud and clear: “We don’t really
Case in point, last Saturday night, Balmoral Park carded
their usual array of Saturday races – a maiden, a nw2, an Invite, a couple of
$4000 claimers, among others. For the entire card they gave away $99,100 in
A thousand or so miles away, another track was carding their
Saturday races. Yonkers had the Levy Final and the Matchmaker Final, with
several other solid tilts. They had Foiled Again and See You At Peelers
battling solid foes, and the best drivers on the planet behind nice horses each
race. They gave out over $1.1 million in purses.
A lot may have really liked the Yonkers card to watch (I
did). However, what pays the bills in our sport, betting handle or me watching
Yonkers, with all those purses and top horses and top
drivers, handled $1,191,000.
Balmoral Park, with no huge purses or big-name drivers, handled
This prompted a comment on my blog this week from a long-time
horseplayer, Eric Poteck.
“Wow, horseplayers are talking. Is anyone listening?”
This is not a Yonkers phenomenon only - they don’t do a
terrible job with a very predictive oval, and a lot of it is out of their
control - we see this at other venues as well. A year or two ago, Chester Downs
was hosting a huge stakes card. If memory serves (it is almost impossible to
get handle statistics in harness racing, which is curious, as it is how we keep
score), they gave away about $2.4 million in purses, and handled less than
$400,000 at the windows.
Balmoral proves that survey’s like the Horseplayers
Association’s are probably correct, and indeed horseplayers are talking. The
determinants of betting handle are the most important thing for us as a gambling
business, and everything else is noise. Until we get paid millions by
television networks to show our sport, or we start selling Foiled Again
t-shirts and Brian Sears helmets for big money, we have to rely on customers
betting our races for purse revenue.
From the owning side of the business it’s probably not bad
either. The more people who bet the races are watching the races. The more
people watching the races are visiting racetracks. The more people who visit
racetracks and get exposed to the sport, can be likely horse buyers.
The key question for this sport is the following, in my
opinion: How do we marry what Balmoral is doing, (and has done) for the bettor,
with other tracks who are carding better quality races for fans? How do we make
our product both better to watch and
a better bet? If we answer that question properly (and market it) we might just
be on our way.