By T. D. Thornton
After establishing that North American betting handle on Thoroughbred racing has been essentially flat since 2011 and that the number of tracks, races, horses, and owners is in a “slow decline,” The Jockey Club announced that it will explore a series of paradigm-shifting initiatives that could radically change the landscape of how tracks and races are run, how bets are taken, how takeout affects those wagers, and how the sport is promoted.
Most startling among the ambitious, game-changing concepts listed by chairman Stuart S. Janney III at the end of Sunday's 66th annual Round Table Conference in Saratoga Springs, New York, was the revelation that The Jockey Club will “develop plans to consider track ownership and operations” in an attempt to keep foundering racetracks from going out of business.
“Quite simply, we would willingly step in as an owner, lessor, or partner when a racing resource is imperiled, not unlike what The Jockey Club of the United Kingdom has done,” Janney said. “The Jockey Club has and will be there for this industry.”
Janney did not offer specifics or funding details about the potential bailing-out of tracks, although he did qualify his remarks beforehand by saying that it was only on Saturday that The Jockey Club's management team got “the go-ahead to further investigate some additional projects” from its board of stewards.
Two of the initiatives Janney listed deal directly with moving away from North American racing's eight-decade reliance on pari-mutuels as the primary way to place bets.
“Since 2011, we've been intrigued with single-pool wagering, which would potentially end late odds changes and facilitate new bet types,” Janney said. “We'll be working with several industry stakeholders, and we'll seek to introduce a pilot for single-pool wagering in the North American market as soon as we can.”
Single-pool wagering aims to create a larger, more liquid betting market comprised of numerous different bet types. In theory, more uniform payouts can be calculated based on “reverse engineering” the total market support in straight and exotic bets for a particular wagering entity.
Janney said The Jockey Club will also lobby for a fixed-odds wagering pilot program that would enable a bettor to lock in a guaranteed return on investment at the time a wager is placed.
“Virtually all sports bets are placed with fixed odds…and customers are accustomed to it,” Janney said. “They want to know the payoff they'll win. Especially in this era of sports betting, shouldn't horse racing be able to offer fixed odds like everyone else?”
Advocating for tracks to experiment with decreased straight-wager takeouts will also be on The Jockey Club's to-do list, although no details were offered on how this would be accomplished.
“This has been a hot-button issue for our fans for years, and more than a third of our fans will cite it as a major concern,” Janney said.
Circling back to a 2017 Round Table presentation that asserted the racing industry could recoup an estimated $400 million in unrealized annual betting handle if the sport invested in advanced data analytics to minimize the daily problem of conflicting post times, Janney said The Jockey Club would explore funding a “permanent office of race-day scheduling.” A pilot program to better coordinate post times among a handful of volunteer tracks was already undertaken earlier this year, yielding promising results.
“We heard a year ago, and again today, how badly the overlapping of races is hurting our industry,” Janney said. “The creation of this office and strict adherence to a schedule by participating racetracks would solve that problem.”
The promotion and marketing of the sport was also listed as a priority. Among the concepts Janney said The Jockey Club would be involved in were the cross-marketing of sports and horse betting, pushing for more live racing on national television, and a digital/online investment in the America's Best Racing platform that will transform it into “a full-fledged digital media services company” that could “engage as many as a million casual fans in one year.”
In an attempt to upgrade the industry's behind-the-curve quality of simulcasts–which Janney underscored by citing the statistic that more than half the 50,000 races shown on TVG annually remain in lower-quality, standard-definition formats–The Jockey Club will aim to develop a capital improvement grant fund for high-definition (HD) broadcast conversion and on-track improvements.
“The program would feature grants of up to $150,000 to qualifying tracks for the purchase or long-term lease of HD television and production equipment,” Janney said.
Janney's closing remarks were preceded by survey results and state-of-the-sport presentations by representatives from McKinsey & Company, the management consulting firm that has been retained by The Jockey Club since 2011 to offer long-term looks at the industry from an outside perspective.
Among other speakers, a representative of The Jockey Club of England gave a “From 1750 to Today” retrospective on that organization's activities, and the head of sales strategy for Google shared observations on digital marketing strategies for fan development in horse racing.
The first 23 minutes of the online stream of the Round Table conference were inaccessible, and the live stream thereafter occasionally cut in and out because of technical difficulties.