By Bill Finley
When the 2019 meet at Sam Houston Race Park came to an end there wasn't much cause for enthusiasm or confidence going forward. The total handle for the night barely cracked the $1-million mark and the purses were some of the worst in the sport. Fast forward to Saturday's card at Sam Houston, the last of the 2021 Thoroughbred meet, and the handle was nearly $3 million and the allowance races that were going for $20,500 in 2019 were now worth more than double, $42,500.
As impressive as those numbers may be, they don't necessarily come as a surprise. Sam Houston didn't do anything extraordinary. Rather, it proved that if a racetrack offers attractive takeout rates and a good racing product the betting dollars will follow.
“We had a meet where it went as good as it possibly could,” said Frank Hopf, Sam Houston Race Park's senior director of racing operations. “Every season throws its curve balls at you. This year we had the winter storm (that cost Sam Houston a week of racing) and issues with COVID, but we were very pleased with the way things shook out this year.”
For years, the Texas state government had been an impediment to success. Sam Houston had failed in its attempts to get Historical Horse Racing machines and state law prohibits any form of off-track betting, including ADWs. If you want to make a bet in Texas, you have to go to a racetrack.
“Ninety percent of our revenues come from pari-mutuel wagering, either simulcasting or on track,” Hopf said. “In order to have a competitive purse structure, we had shrunk our Thoroughbred meet down to 32 days. We were trying to have as good a meet as we could, but it certainly was challenging.”
Things took a turn for the better before the start of the 2020 meet when the state decided it would give the racing industry a $25-million annual payment to bolster purses and breeding funds. Half of the money went to Quarter Horse racing, but there was more than enough left over to fatten the Thoroughbred purses at Sam Houston.
Better purses meant bigger fields and a better quality of racing. That translated into significant increases in handle. Total handle for 2019 was $38.75 million. That number rose to $61.4 million in 2020, a year that ended early because of COVID-19, and to $96.4 million in 2021.
Sam Houston also set a single-day handle record this year when $5.3 million was bet on the Houston Racing Festival card, which was topped by the $300,000 GIII Houston Ladies Classic.
With the 2021 handle numbers exceeding expectations, Sam Houston was able to twice raise purses during the meet. By the end of the season, the purses for all overnight dirt races had gone up by $13,000 per race.
Still, it is hard for a track like Sam Houston to stand out in what is an overcrowded simulcasting marketplace. What set it apart from so many other tracks was the takeout structure. Starting in 2013, Sam Houston dropped its takeout on all multi-race bets to 12%. It may have taken some time for bettors to catch on, but the handle on the horizontal wagers kept going up. More so than any other track in the country, Sam Houston was able to market its product as one of best betting options in the sport. A total of $5.6 million was bet this year on Sam Houston's Pick 4. The same pool attracted only $1.5 million in wagering in 2019.
“Our racing product has taken positive steps forward and we have made concerted effort to improve the product and focus our marketing efforts on the low takeouts in the multi-race bets,” Hopf said. “I began pushing for the lower takeouts years ago. I was noticing the trends and our product had taken some hits. We were losing racing dates and we needed new ways to promote Sam Houston. That was the original motive for going to the low takeouts.”
The 12% takeouts cast a positive light on Sam Houston and gave the track a major marketing tool, but the takeout in all pools but multi-race remains high. Win, place and show is 18%, exactas are 21% and the bite on superfectas and trifectas is a big one. The takeout on those bets is 21%.
Hopf said management will look into reducing takeouts in the single-race bets.
“Each year at the end of a meet we take a look at went well and what didn't go so well,” he said. “Every year we take a look at our wagering format and where the takeouts are at and where they could go. We are always working on things. I don't know if we will go any lower on the multi-leg bets. But there are other pools that we'll look at that could be addressed in some fashion.”
It took a long time, but Sam Houston looks like it has finally caught the attention of the average player. More takeout reductions would certainly be welcome.