Rick Pitino wants to save horse racing – good luck, Rick

Horse racing has been a challenged industry (some call it a sport) since casinos started to spread out of Nevada and across the country.  In any state with racing as soon as casinos start to open in that state or in a neighboring state, racing revenues take a dive.  Looked at as simply a betting or gambling proposition, the decline is not difficult to understand; racing is boring compared to other forms of gaming.  It is too long between races, ratio of wager to win is too low, the purses for the winning horse are relatively small, there is no continuity between races (or tracks) and the each track’s racing season is short.  Even keno and bingo are faster and offer bigger prices than racing.

And yet, racing has its loyal supports, the most loyal of which are the track managers, the horse owners and the jockeys – that is those with a vested interest in racing.  Of course, there are also the notorious horse players who dedicate their lives to betting on the ponies.  Sadly, they tend to be old and getting older and there are not enough of them to keep racing viable.  The easiest solution for saving racing to date has been slot machines; by adding slot machines and calling the tracks racinos, the tracks can attract more horses by offering better purses.  So even when there are fewer people attending the races, the opportunities for loyalists with vested have grown with the addition of slot machines.

However, not all states permit slot machines at the tracks and even those with slots are facing the same competition as casinos; and of course over time that competition will erode the slot revenue at the tracks.  The loyalists are very concerned.  They are concerned over the long-term viability of racing with or without slot machines.  So, like every business person faced with declining business, the loyalists have put on their thinking caps.  Up to this point, this is not exactly earth shattering news.  Until one of college basketball’s best coaches, Rick Pitino, a man who know something about competition, winning and excitement, weighs in on the subject.

Pitino is one of those vested interest loyalists; he has a stake in horse or two.  Rick is interesting because he is thinking about horse racing the way he would think about a professional sport.  He isn’t the only one, other people are working on ways to create a sports league out of racing and to give horse racing the kind of excitement for the average fan that baseball, basketball or football have; the popularity of those sports is based on more than just the excitement of a single game, it is based on loyalty to a team, to superstars and to championships.

Pitino did not go quite that far yet, but he does want to tighten up racing and make in more intense.  Rick Pitino: “Horse racing is over saturated. Unless tracks cut back to three days a week of full fields, a lot of people will really hurt down the road. Horse racing, to survive, has to go to that. Let’s face it: Churchill Downs only does well on Derby Week.”

Rick Pitino believes the sport of horse racing must become more like Saratoga Race Course… Pitino also races horses at the Saratoga track, and he’s bought them at the nearby Fasig-Tipton auction house in prior years. Pitino said horse racing’s product must become more like Saratoga in at least two ways: the strong social reasons for people to visit the track, and the limited length of the meet (40 days a year)… “Football is only once a week. NASCAR is once a week. Those sports are insanely popular,” Pitino says…There’s one problem: Horse racing has no leadership. “The only problem is that there’s no commissioner. There is no central body. It’s all state-to-state,” Pitino says. Pitino also says New York’s dramatically higher prize money for races has drained momentum away from Kentucky, long seen as the gold standard of horse racing. Adam Sichko, Business Review, 7-31-13

There are other ideas floating around also; Louisiana Downs is trying to drive up the amount the gambler can win with some exotic wagers – one of which is over a half million dollars.  That is a lot of money, but when compared to a megabucks slot jackpot in the millions or a Powerball jackpot in the hundreds of millions it is not much.  It is better than two or three times your wager, but it is not in the “mega” category.

The super pick five jackpot at Louisiana Downs has not been claimed since June 27, making for a $626,830 carryover heading into Thursday’s card. The bet runs on the last five races on the program, and the jackpot pays out only if there is one ticket with the winners of all of the races in the sequence. For the card Thursday, the super pick five will start with the fourth of eight races. Mary Rampellini, Daily Racing Form, 7-31-13

The New York Racing Association has another plan; get more people involved in ownership.  “You don’t need a Swiss bank account to own a race horse” – is the pitch.  Not a bad idea, if thousands and thousands (millions would be better) of people had a personal stake, some skin in the game as we say in the gaming industry,  in every race they might take more interest; wait a minute, isn’t that what a bet on a race is – a small personal stake in the outcome?

Up to 60 people will meet at Saratoga Race Course next month to hear this message: You don’t need a Swiss bank account or a time-share in Monte Carlo to own a race horse. The New York Racing Association Inc., which operates the Saratoga meet, is continuing efforts to recruit new owners into horse racing.  The need to attract new money is crucial for the survival of horse racing. More owners would mean NYRA can more easily fill its starting gates, which would boost betting. More owners also means more potential business for the 60 breeding farms in Saratoga County alone, adding stability to what is already the region’s largest sports event.  Adam Sichko, Business Review, 8-1-13

I don’t know that anyone will listen to Rick Pitino or any of the other people trying to save racing.  However, if racing is to survive it will have to do something.  Pitino is modelling the kind of thinking that might help horse racing be something more than an old boy’s club for people with too much time and money on their hands.  Now, if they could just find a way to deliver a race every minute and award a million dollar purse to the horse that wins and odds that pay 250,000 times the wager they would be on to something.


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