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 size.
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 betting handle.
This season - four years after it was first rated #1 - Keeneland set some handle and attendance records. The ratings are probably not too bad.
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 care”
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 purses.
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 on TV?
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 $1,332,000.
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.
This article was orginally published in Harness Racing Update, Bill Finley's newsletter. To access it for free, you can sign up here.