By Bill Finley
Despite COVID shutdowns, a total of $21.52 billion was wagered legally on sports in the U.S. in 2020, about twice what was bet on horse racing, and the gap will be even greater this year and for years to come. Sports betting is growing exponentially and an argument can be made that some of its success is coming at horse racing's expense. It's surely siphoning off dollars that otherwise might be available to racing's pari-mutuel pools and it has to be drawing existing and potential customers away from racing.
Yet, at last week's Racing & Gaming Conference in Saratoga, NYRA CEO and President David O'Rourke made the surprising statement that sports betting represented a “once-in-a-generational opportunity for our sport.”
He may just have a point.
The primary difference between betting on sports and racing is that sports bets are based on fixed odds and racing uses a pari-mutuel system. That's not a problem when it comes to on-track bets or bets made through an ADW. But the pari-mutuel system doesn't work for the bookmakers now taking sports bets legally, most of them online. That's why popular gambling websites such as bet365.com offer bets on every sport imaginable, that is, other than horse racing. There's the four major sports, soccer, golf, tennis, even darts and handball.
If these same online websites were to begin taking bets on racing, O'Rourke said racing would have an unprecedented opportunity to grow its customer base.
“With sports betting you have, literally, every other sport on these platforms,” he said. “To put racing side by side with those sports, we think that is a winning combination. It just opens up our customer base, 10 times, 20 times. It's an incredible opportunity and we look forward to that.”
The first step toward solving the problem is for horse racing to adopt the fixed odds system. That doesn't mean the end of pari-mutuels, which will always be necessary for exotic bets. It does mean creating an alternative pool where the odds are set and they do not change after a gambler has placed their bets. Without fixed odds, racing will never benefit from the growth of sports wagering.
Were there fixed odds bets available for Saturday's GI Alabama S. at Saratoga, a player may have been able to bet on Malathaat (Curlin) to win at odds of, say, minus 180. That means someone would have to wager $180 on her to win $100. Maracuja (Honor Code) would have been something like plus 650.
Fixed odds are what the sports bettor knows. They'll never understand or embrace a system where they might bet on a horse at 8-1 only to see it go down to 6-1 at post time and then plummet to 7-2 in the middle of a race. But the players, looking for action, may very well be happy to make a fixed odds bet on a Belmont or Santa Anita race during halftime of an NFL game or throw a bet on the GI Runhappy Travers S. into a parlay that includes a bet on the Yankees to win and the over-under on a Dodgers-Giants game.
This is why the legalization for fixed odds betting in New Jersey is an important first step. There are a lot of details that remain unclear, particularly when it comes to who will be allowed to offer the bets. We do know that there will be on-track fixed odds betting and it may also be available through TVG's 4njbets.com, the only ADW allowed to take wagers in the state. But bets through those two platforms don't figure to do anything more than shift existing pari-mutuel bets from one pool to another.
It will likely take some time and there are plenty of hurdles to clear, but look for BetMakers, the company hired by Monmouth to operate its fixed odds system, to cut deals with large bookmaking firms like bet365.com, FanDuel and DraftKings.
Dennis Drazin, who heads the management team that runs Monmouth Park and who has been instrumental in pushing through fixed odds bets in New Jersey, sees a future where every conceivable website and betting app will include the option to bet on racing. But he also fears that the sport may shoot itself in the foot. New Jersey has already had an experiment with a form of fixed odds wagering with the Betfair betting exchange. It never caught on and the plug was pulled in September of 2020. One of Betfair's problems was its inability to secure agreements with the top-tier tracks to add their races to its betting menu.
“If not everybody gets on board, that would be bad for racing,” Drazin said. “It will be like exchange wagering, where we were able to get some B signals or C signals but not the A tracks, like NYRA, the Stronach tracks, the Kentucky signals. We need to have those signals. If we are not able to offer the top tracks, I'm not sure how successful this will be. We can't have everybody scared to do this because they think fixed odds wagering will cannibalize the other pools. That's going to be a problem.”
One can only hope that the industry will give fixed odds wagering a chance to make it. This is a sport where betting has been stagnant for years and, when factoring in inflation, has dropped significantly since handle hit its peak in 2003 at $15.1 billion. That's a huge problem. Whether they work or not, it's time to try new things to improve handle on the sport. Can we get the sport bettor to start placing bets on Monmouth, Saratoga, Del Mar? If done right, if embraced by the entire industry and marketed, sports betting could well be the way out of our sport's wagering malaise.
There is no more GI Secretariat S. at Arlington Park. The name of this year's running was changed to the Bruce D. S., a race that is unlikely to be run again because of the inevitable closing of the Chicago track. That means that the sport no longer has a major race named in honor of the GOAT. That can't be.
My idea is to rename the GI Belmont S. the Secretariat and to do so for the 2023 running, the 50th anniversary of Secretariat's historic 31-length romp in the Belmont. Ok, that's never going to happen, but NYRA should still fill the void and name a race in honor of Secretariat. He was a New York horse and there should be a New York race named for him.
Limiting the list to races he won in New York, the best candidate is the GI Hopeful S. Secretariat won that in 1972, so next year's running is the 50th anniversary of that win. Naming the race after the greatest horse ever to step foot on a New York track would be a fitting honor.