Saratoga Springs

Racing hopes to keep pace in evolving betting world

Panelists at annual conference concerned, but optimistic, about the future of the sport now that it's no longer the only legal betting game in town
Tracks like Saratoga Race Course will face much more competition for betting dollars.
Tracks like Saratoga Race Course will face much more competition for betting dollars.

The crystal ball took the day off five years ago.

It wasn’t any more cooperative on Tuesday.

Patrick Brown, an attorney who moderated a panel on “The Overall Future of Gambling in New York” at the Saratoga Institute on Equine, Racing and Gaming, posed the question:

“What did we talk about in 2013? ‘Is the casino referendum going to pass? Who’s going to win?’ In 2015, we asked, ‘Who’s going to get the licenses?’ In 2017, it was daily fantasy sports. In 2018, it’s dominated by sports wagering.

“So there has been a lot of activity in the last five years, and a lot of major changes in what the betting landscape looks like.”

And nobody knows what it’s going to look like five years from now, but one thing is clear, based on positions taken by many of the horse racing representatives at the law conference: If racing is to survive as a sport in the U.S., it needs to embrace legalized sports betting and not view it as a competitor.

Since federal law was overturned by the Supreme Court this year to open the door for states to decide whether they wanted to legalize sports betting, four states have already pushed through laws to do so.

New York is not one of them, so we’ll have to wait a while for the next legislative session to see if the Senate and Assembly can get on the same page, and then sports betting will still be subject to a regulatory review by the New York State Gaming Commission.

One of the omnipresent questions hanging over racing is whether it will survive in this quickly morphing landscape, and the guess here is that it will, but dovetailing with sports betting outlets and platforms, despite myriad new demands on the public’s betting dollars, seems like a necessary evil.

The New York Racing Association certainly wants in, as president and CEO Chris Kay testified before a state Senate committee hearing in January, expressing NYRA’s desire to be able to offer sports betting at its tracks, something Monmouth Park in New Jersey began a few weeks ago, with mixed and inconclusive results.

Beyond serving as a physical site for gamblers to bet on other sports, racing needs to have as prominent a presence as it can muster at sports books and online betting sites.

As John Hindman said, “All of our evidence from around the world says that racing competes very well in that environment.”

He’s the general counsel for the TVG Network, which is owned by the U.S. division of Paddy Power Betfair, one of the biggest bookmakers in the United Kingdom.

Beyond the question of how to handle the sea tide change in sports betting, various panelists trotted out ideas they believe will keep racing in step with a betting public that generates billions in racing handle annually, of which racing was responsible for almost $11 billion last year.

One of them is to offer fixed-odds wagering, which has been successful in Australia without cannibalizing the parimutel market share and is what non-racing sports betting uses. But that’s a delicate balancing act, according to David Haslett, president and CEO of Sky Racing World, which distributes racing from Australia, among other countries, to wagering outlets.

Speakers at the law conference consistently emphasized that the racing bettor needs to be the focus of any innovations moving forward.

The sport needs to get in step with user-friendly phone apps and accessible data that pro leagues like the NBA are poised to offer once their games become available to bettors.

Takeout, the percentage of winnings a racetrack keeps as the cost of doing business, is another issue that presents a disadvantage, since the takeout on sports bets is substantially less than it is for racing, making it a more attractive option.

There was perhaps some symbolism about the desperation of racing to remain relevant in the betting world — and thus to survive as a sport — when Brown introduced Pat Cummings, executive director of a privately funded owner and bettor advocacy organization called the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation.

“If you haven’t heard of our organization, I don’t blame you. We started on Wednesday,” the grinning Cummings said, drawing laughter from the audience.

“If Pat [Brown] were to ask five years ago what would horse racing innovation look like in 2018, I’d be sorely disappointed to tell you that in the last five years, one of the most substantial changes to the wagering landscape has been the onset of jackpot wagers, where one person wins a big pot in which money is dumped into a pool over weeks and in some cases months at a time until one day there’s a mandatory payout.

“There has not been much innovation in that period of time, and I think that’s a substantial issue the industry must address and now actually is going to have to, in light of the wildly increased competitive market that is looming ahead.”

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

Categories: -Sports

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