Erich Zimny could barely contain himself. The thought of Charles Town Races, where he is the vice president of racing and sports operations, being the only pari-mutuel wagering option in the United States on Thursday, May 14 provoked pure glee, giddiness even.
“What do you think our number will be?” he asked of the potential handle on the nine-race card. “We will be the only signal that night. There’s a small crossover at the end of the Golden Gate Fields card and the beginning of our card for a race or two, but that’s it. That will be interesting.”
And potentially game changing.
As the racing world (and the rest of the world) took steps to restart from the coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying economic downshifting, opportunities like the one in front of Charles Town for its first live card since March 21 arrived. An otherwise small West Virginia track would get its moment to shine. Horsemen, desperate for a place to run, responded with full fields.
Horseplayers more than did their part.
Bettors wagered $4,330,203 on that racing program, dwarfing the $1,273,257 bet on the corresponding date (May 16) in 2019 and setting a record for a non-Charles Town Classic card. It was the fifth-highest handle figure in the track’s history, trailing only the Charles Town Classic programs of 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2019.
Call it proof that gamblers will gamble even during a global health crisis. National economic indicators released by Equibase in April showed handle on racing in the United States down 24 percent from the same month in 2019. Rarely is a 24-percent decrease good news, but look more closely. Live racing days in the country decreased 73 percent – from 311 to 85. Average handle per race day increased 177 percent – from $2.7 million per day to $7.5 million.
The impact is clear. Racing needs fewer days of live racing especially in a region as crowded as the Mid-Atlantic.
Sorry, yeah, I know owners, trainers and breeders may disagree with this assessment. “Don’t take away our opportunities to run . . . It’s hard enough to win races now . . . Smaller fields make it easier for us to stay in business. . . We need year-round racing in our state to survive.”
You finished? I accept all those points, but consider the rest of the story.
In addition to those handle numbers above, the pandemic exposed racing’s fragile business model of counting on slots revenue to produce purse money and breeding incentives, because if casinos are closed racetracks can’t stay open for long either. Racing deserves the casino funding, and has largely spent it wisely to preserve jobs, farms and a historic, far-reaching industry, but that money will continue to be targeted by politicians and citizens who think it should go elsewhere.
You want to keep slots revenue? Prove you deserve it. Be more sustainable and independent. Raise your own money too.
Higher handle per track and per race should be a big part of that, and the coronavirus outbreak proves it’s possible. Fonner Park and Will Rogers Downs, tiny tracks in Nebraska and Oklahoma respectively, thrived in the new reality – setting handle records, attracting new participation from horsemen and adding racing dates. Of course, that will only work for a while as more tracks coming on line and racing on the same days dilute the success – spreading wagering dollars, horses, attention.
Zimny was excited about Charles Town’s moment in the sun (OK, lights), but was also realistic. California and Kentucky racing were about to return. Maryland wasn’t far behind. Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Indiana, Virginia and the rest were making plans to restart. And people would bet on all of them.
“The pie is the pie, right?” Zimny said of national handle. “People might bet a little less based on the product, but the amount of money wagered is the amount of money wagered. The more we can share that, the better it is for all of us. We’ve only lost 24 percent of it, when almost all of the tracks were shut down. That shows the customers will support the product.”
But can racing share the customers? That’s the question.
There is no good news in a pandemic, but maybe the clean slate provided by all the closed tracks – and the revenue uncertainty of no on-track customers and closed casinos – can spur more cooperation. Some tracks were considering fewer days per week and shorter meets because fewer horses were available on site and purse accounts wouldn’t replenish as quickly without slots. That’s a good move. In April, Fonner and Will Rogers raced on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Gulfstream and Oaklawn Park took Thursday through Sunday. Tampa went Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
Obviously, racing needs more than five tracks to sustain itself but cooperation – especially in this region – will help everyone.