Editorials

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Imagine for a moment racing without betting, where each racetrack attracted spectators with atmosphere, amenities and customer experience. 

There’s no television pundit, no odds board, no post-time delay, no carryover. It’s just racing, a day out, entertainment with horses and jockeys. What would the purse structure look like? How different would it all be? Would racing survive? Could it actually happen?

Well, this is – essentially – American jump racing. 

The sport, as small as it is, survives without pari-mutel wagering – other than a few visits to racetracks and a handful of meets with on-site betting. Instead the model relies on creating events people want to attend. Spectators buy tickets, reserve tailgate spaces, rally friends and simply go to the races. To watch, to be seen, to take part in a community event, to benefit a worthy cause. Companies spend marketing or community-outreach dollars on corporate tents and other hospitality. Families literally will tailgate spaces to the next generation, or try to anyway. In Aiken, S.C., people sleep in the street for a chance to buy the precious few railside spaces that become available each year.

Attendance varies from meet to meet, but the crowds can be massive – especially at the Carolina Cup in Camden, S.C., at Far Hills in New Jersey, at both Gold Cup meets in Virginia, at the Iroquois in Nashville, Tenn. The Maryland Hunt Cup’s annual race dates to the late 1800s and no longer rivals the others in sheer attendance figures, but cannot be matched when it comes to prestige. A parking spot in the Subscriber Lot requires putting your name on a six- to seven-year waiting list.

The National Steeplechase Association circuit includes 29 race meets in 11 states. Each relies on some variation of that business plan, where revenue from attendance and corporate sponsorship supplies the budget to support purses and other expenses.

Again, just for a moment, ponder what the overall Thoroughbred world would look like if this were the model. Then shudder, and thank the people betting their money. 

Then take one more moment, and consider the step jump racing is about to take this fall. The Far Hills Races, home to the country’s most successful steeplechase meet, adds pari-mutuel wagering – on site with 60 mutuel clerks and simulcast to dozens of outlets through an agreement with Monmouth Park. The move probably won’t result in a massive influx of revenue, but it’s a great step. With $850,000 in purses, international participation, world-class turf and all the rest, Far Hills should have wagering.

The New Jersey race meet joins the Virginia and International Gold Cups and Fair Hill as the only American steeplechase venues with pari-mutuel wagering. Far Hills takes it all a step further by simulcasting the signal, thereby expanding the reach of the day and the sport. Any site that receives Monmouth Park’s signal can take bets on Far Hills. That move spared Far Hills the work of negotiating individual contracts, and spread the potential impact far beyond the reach of one steeplechase meet in New Jersey.

An ever-changing landscape, wagering can open new revenue streams, expose the sport to new fans and maybe even cultivate new racing venues. Consider Far Hills an experiment of sorts for the others. If the simulcast signal generates any attention – 
and/or handle – Fair Hill and the Gold Cups could use the same model. Add in a few other meets in pari-mutuel states, and pretty soon you might have a package to sell people. You’d have to breed some familiarity, which would only help.

In addition, the move offers a chance to further the connection between American jump racing and the National Hunt industries of England and Ireland. American owners and trainers routinely buy horses overseas. Most American jockeys are transplants from those circuits. And, especially at places like Far Hills, foreign participation has become common. Actually being able to watch, and wager on, U.S. jump racing would prove an added benefit.

The move won’t come without challenges. Steeplechase post times are frequently mere guidelines rather than strict codes. Steeplechase racegoers show up for the atmosphere, and won’t appreciate too much of a change. Turn a jump meet into an OTB, and you’ll lose the feel everybody wants. Video, officiating, professionalism and licensing will matter more with wagering. 

But think of the possibilities. The Thoroughbred industry perpetually struggles to create new fans and entice people to the track. The theory always goes that maybe, just maybe, if more people see it, they’ll turn into bettors. Jump racing already has the people, the events, the spectator appeal. And if they become bettors, well, everybody wins.

 

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