Monday, June 8, 2020

The Curious Case of Harness Racing Handles

The pandemic and resulting discombobulation has certainly thrown things out of whack in horse racing, and some narratives are being turned on their ear. But one thing we have noticed - almost without fail - is that when a big, popular signal comes back, we'll get some huge handles.

Belmont's opening day on Wednesday set a handle record, Sunday was up 81% year over year, and that followed a whopping $23 million handle on Saturday. It's not like this track (and Churchill before them) had zero competition either (Gulfstream and several other venues have been running.)

Over in harness racing we're noticing a bit of that, but in what's full-blown Benjamin Button: it's in an opposite direction.

Scioto was the first track to begin racing (and credit to them - they did put some money into their signal) and handles curiously have exploded. After averaging around $220k per card last year, most handles since the return have eclipsed $1M, and they set a single day handle record in the process.

Northfield followed, and they too have had great handles with one card beating $2M.

When Mohawk and the Meadowlands came back, things didn't quite pan out the way we've seen in Thoroughbred racing. This was not the return of Belmont and Churchill. Not even close.

Mohawk handled about $2.1M on the previous Fridays to this past Friday, which was their opener. They couldn't break $1.9M (Canadian). Pick 5 pools of $115k and $142k those previous Fridays were good; this one had to be dragged to hit the guarantee.

I guess this should not be surprising. Ontario racing - a jurisdiction we could never consider having the finger on the pulse of the customer -  allowed racing without qualifiers. If you were betting a pick 5 you either had some inside knowledge, or you like beating your head against a wall.

Things got no better on Saturday.  Their (completely curious) mandatory payout of the Super High Five decision wasn't even rewarded. These events generally bring in 3X the volume of the carry, but they didn't even hit that.They even had a hard time giving away free money.

Over at the Meadowlands things were better, but the house wasn't exactly on fire. They handled $2.8 million on Friday, about what they always do.

Maybe we could chalk this up to more tracks being raced? I don't think so.

Scioto - with the Meadowands and Woodbine racing - still did surprisingly good handles, topping $1M on Friday. Tioga Downs opened up Sunday to a record handle.

And, in one of the more surprising developments, Hawthorne Harness had their opener on Sunday:

Hawthorne has never been considered a big signal and does not partake in stakes racing or high purses. They drove - when accounting for exchange rates - more than Woodbine-Mohawk did this weekend. That's - no offence at all to the hard-working Jim Miller and crew intended - pretty shocking.

When it comes to handle, harness racing is different than Thoroughbred racing - stakes handle is smaller for one. But I don't think for a minute anyone who watches the sport could've called this. In Ontario racing's case we have a reason to see depressed handles via their anti-customer and bettor decisions; the Big M is with Monarch, not an open distribution system like Hawthorne. But it's still pretty shocking to see handle records at these smaller tracks and a blah reopening at the bigger ones.

I assume things will change, but right now, a hearty well done to smaller tracks like Scioto, Hawthorne and Northfield. You clearly pushed the right buttons and customers came back, excited to play your product.

Have a nice Monday everyone.

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