The Triple Crown racing season officially ended once Sir Winston crossed the finish line in The Belmont Stakes last weekend. For me, it was the non-descript 3-year-old racing competition I expected, with no one individual standing out. It was also an end to a study I decided to conduct regarding pari-mutuel revenues during the 2019 Triple Crown racing season.
Knowing that American racing understands little about consumers or statistical variation, I decided to comparatively survey racing revenues to see if the negative national media regarding racing fatalities might translate into emerging revenue trends, and thus cause American racing to change practices which have contributed to declining in consumer interest.
For me, this is a tough issue. I love racing and have been a handicapper, race horse owner, stallion owner and breeder. I also have watched American racing become a mere shell of itself as it ignored consumer demands. I remember over 40,000 foals being born every year three decades ago, not the 19,000 or so we see now. I marvel at the under 37,000 races we see run in America every year, remembering that nearly 80,000 races were once run every year. I watch with embarrassment as racetracks offer consumers 8 Thoroughbred race day cards and ridiculous 4, 5 and 6 horse racing fields, while remembering 10 Thoroughbred race daily cards and average field sizes of 9 not all that long ago.
Yep, live racing in the 1990’s drew thousands more consumers to the grandstand. “On track” American wagering was nearly 5 billion dollars a year back then, in today’s dollar equivalents. Now “on track” wagering is less than 1 billion dollars, a mere 20% of what it once was. Thank goodness for “off track” wagering which has grown to now support the bulk of the racing revenue, even though total American wagering has dropped 45% in just the last 15 years, when inflation is properly factored into the equation!
While other wagering and entertainment activities have grown dramatically by developing contemporary products which “delight” consumers, our moribund and stagnant American racing industry has shrunk to become a mere shell of itself. Think about it. With all the overwhelming American racing negative economic evidence we have stood pat, patronizing consumer interests but never meeting their new demands.
American racing truly reflects “the boiled frog” attitude. (The boiled frog parable explains how a frog will boil to death if the water temperature slowly rises to boiling, yet jump right out of the water and live if placed directly into boiling water.) In other words, American racing’s slow demise in consumer interest over many decades has not caused any dramatic reaction, despite aggregate declines that would be considered intolerable in the majority of other industries.
For those of us in the industry who are not only willing to welcome dramatic change but begging for it, the negative national media attention is both a blessing or a curse. In other words, it could be a blessing because it could drive some of the dramatic changes needed to reinvigorate the once great sport of racing. On the other hand, it could be an embarrassing curse causing incremental declines and deterioration.
Based upon my study, what I found was that certain racetracks are seeing some dramatic pari-mutuel declines, but others are actually seeing improvements when the fact that this year’s Triple Crown racing season was devoid a potential Triple Crown winning candidate. Santa Anita, which remains at the epicenter of the fatality controversy, has seen substantial declines in pari-mutuel revenue. For a representative example and based upon public charts, their live handle was down 36% on Belmont Day, over one million dollars from 2018. On that same day, their total pari-mutuel revenue including intra and inter-state wagering was down 29%, over five million dollars from 2018. Looking back to 2017, a non-triple crown winner year, their total revenue was still down 21%, which is fairly dramatic.
It is no surprise that Santa Anita is taking a pretty big revenue hit but when we look elsewhere, and normalize the analysis for last year’s positive influence of Justify winning the Triple Crown, we see no negative impact at most major racetracks. For example, at Belmont on Belmont Day they saw an 8.6% seven-million-dollar increase compared to 2017 and a 1.6% increase compared to 2016. Gulfstream also saw increases when comparing 2019 to those same years with a 12.7% increase compared to 2017 and a 22.3% increase compared to 2016.
The only place where I have seen some consistently negative impacts are at the smaller tier 2 and 3 racetracks where it appears the demand for horses seems to be more negatively affecting their racing product. With fewer daily Thoroughbred races, shorter fields and low-quality horses, they show declines almost exactly consistent with those experienced at Santa Anita. Contraction and financial difficulty may be accelerated at smaller racetracks unless they have a high quality state breeding program to supplement their horse population. They cannot compete for quality racehorses with the big tracks, but frankly those smaller racetracks are economically irrelevant in the American racing grand scheme of things.
So, while total American racing pari-mutuels clearly reflect declines in 2019 from last year, those declines are consistent with what should be expected when the romance of a Triple Crown candidate is removed from the wagering scenario. As such, if racing refused to change during the past decades of slow economic decline, no emerging economic trend exists to suggest significant voluntary change will occur. The same “ho-hum” or “boiled frog” attitude our American racing powers have displayed for decades will remain in full force, unless and until consumers drive dramatic economic negativity down to racing's bottom line.
Such is life in the American racing industry.
Dave Astar is a race horse owner, stallion owner, breeder, 40 year business executive, and 50 year handicapper.