Letter to the Editor: First, Stop the Bleeding

Sarah Andrew


T.D. Thornton's report on racetrack closures in California (TDN, 12/6/23) and Dan Ross's piece on Pat Cummings's research into Computer Assisted Wagering in California (TDN 2/13/24) are frightening for all tracks not supported by casinos/slots.

Santa Anita and Del Mar are high-profile tracks in trouble, but they are not alone. The problem? Host tracks are now receiving very little for their racing content.

Remember Napster, when a lot of people were stealing songs and nobody knew what to do about it?

I'm not Steve Jobs, who saved the music industry from Napster, but I'm going to tell you how to save Santa Anita and Del Mar and the rest of our tracks. When you understand how we came to this situation, you will see how easy it is to fix it.

I started working for the Thoroughbred Record in 1972. Then, the revenue from wagers was split 50/50 between the two “partners” in racing: half for the track and half for the racehorse owners' purse account. Each received about 8% of the on-track wager. It was a simple business isolated to the track location.

Off-track wagering across state lines was legalized with the Interstate Horseracing Act (IHA) in 1978. Although Congress has protected dairy farmers since 1946 with a “price floor” on milk, there was no price floor put into the IHA to protect the host tracks. A huge mistake!

After the IHA became law, Tommy Roberts, who pioneered simulcasting, negotiated a deal between Vegas sports books and some thirty tracks. Tommy told me Vegas said they could pay 10% of the wager to the host tracks. But, Vegas' actual offer was 2%. The tracks caved and accepted 2%, which meant the host track and purse account would only get 1% each and the bet takers in Vegas kept up to 15% of the wager. It was a very bad, upside-down deal.

The Vegas deal of 2% became the effective off-track distribution rate for every off-track bet taker, not just receiving tracks. As OTB's expanded off-track wagering locations, they cut into host track attendance, thus high-profit on-track wagering and concessions revenue dropped. Host track admissions and parking revenue vanished. Today off-track is more than 90% of all handle and host tracks and their purse accounts are suffering.

With the 2% rate in place, the major tracks were preyed upon by receiving tracks. NYRA, Keeneland and Hollywood Park all tried to increase the off-track rate for their races, but the hundred smaller tracks colluded to keep the rate as low as possible because they benefitted as bet takers on the major tracks' races. That was not the intent of the IHA.

The godsend of off-track wagering has now turned on racing and is devouring it. In the early days, most off-track bets were being made at receiving tracks and the money stayed in the sport. That ship sailed with computers and mobile phones. Today ADW's and robots are taking the most bets. What they pay the host tracks is so low they have enough margin to give up to 10% to whales. The money is bleeding out of host tracks and purses.

The first step for any business in trouble: Stop the bleeding.

Breeding, raising and racing Thoroughbreds is an agricultural business and sport. Over the years, Congress has responded with every possible advantage.

To stop the bleeding, Congress can establish a “price floor,” a minimum rate that off-track bet takers must pay host tracks. When Congress moved to save dairy farmers, lobbyists for the milk processors preying on them said the free market should set prices. But, the majority in Congress said “Sorry, we like milk and we are going to protect those who produce it.” There are many in Congress who like and care deeply about the Thoroughbred industry too.

Can we fix it? Yes, if Stuart Janney will commit to a “price floor” being put into the IHA, our tracks, purses and thousands of jobs in the industry will be saved. It is that simple.

Stuart Janney, chairman of The Jockey Club, personally committed to reduce the threat cheating has on the integrity of our sport. He worked with bi-partisan help from Andy Barr (R-KY) and Paul Tonko (D-NY) to pass the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA). You need someone who has been successful with Congress to get back in harness and repeat the process.

Congress is the fastest way to save California tracks and all other racing states that do not have casino/slots support. As Mr. Janney related in working to pass HISA, you cannot do it state by state, or track by track. It has to be done at the federal level.

Today, the “partnership” between tracks and racehorse owners is far from simple and far from fair. Tracks have created subsidiaries outside the partnership with racehorse owners to take bets on other tracks' races and exploit the high profit margin. As a result, the percentage of off-track wagers going to purses drops every year. Purses fuel foal crops and ours have dropped from 50,000 to 17,000. Nobody wants track closures to return us to the days of Man o' War with a foal crop of 1,680.

The IHA puts people with feet of clay in position to approve multi-million dollar off-track bet taking deals. Dan Ross's piece told of death threats and extreme pressure on these individuals. To reduce the threats and the grip bet-takers have on the integrity of the wager, we need a “price floor” to protect the people giving IHA approval. The price floor will become the non-negotiable base rate for most approvals.

I don't expect tracks with wagering subsidiaries to support a price floor being put into the IHA any more than we expected all trainers and horsemen to support HISA. I don't expect those receiving rebates now to support a price floor anymore than those who got free music with Napster wanted to switch to iTunes. Most times, leaders have to step up and piss off some people to do what is right for the sport.

I believe a price floor on off-track wagers will allow host tracks to refocus on live racing that people want to see and they will be able to sell their product at a good price in the off-track market, something they cannot do today.

There's nothing magic about taking bets. Lotteries pay gas stations a 5% fee for punching in the customers' numbers and taking their wager. A price floor in the IHA is the first step for host tracks to change off-track wagering from a “buyers' market” to a “sellers' market,” where those producing the racing content drive down the costs of bet taking.

Is it more important for us to save Santa Anita, Del Mar and other tracks, or to let the money from their racing content go to Fan Duel and Draft Kings?

What is the fair rate for a price floor?

I believe it is 10%, meaning 5% of the off-track wager goes to the host track and 5% to the racehorse owners' purse account. Blended with on-track handle and imported handle, the host track and purses could exceed 15% of the total wagered on their races.

With a flat rate of 10%, mandated by federal law taking precedence, the states will not be able to pass laws to get a competitive advantage in the off-track market. We've had enough of that. (NJ passed a law prohibiting their receiving tracks from paying more than 3% to a host track.) Each host track would still have the freedom to negotiate a higher rate than the price floor for their racing content.

That's how you stop the bleeding and allow Thoroughbred racing to be turned around.

I doubt most of you give much thought to track business and off-track wagering revenue. But, in the changing world of Thoroughbred racing, that's make or break for our sport. Take the time to learn how who gets what from racing impacts the breeding shed.

And right now, for Santa Anita, Del Mar and the life you love, contact Stuart Janney at The Jockey Club and voice your support for a price floor of 10% to host tracks on all off-track wagers be put into the IHA. Quickly.

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