In the sports-world battle to outlast the COVID-19 pandemic, does horse racing know it’s in the lead?

Technology gives the Sport of Kings, long vulnerable to brick-and-mortar casinos and its inability to entice young fans, a game-changing gift. Online bettors, including many New Jersey gamblers playing via 4NJBETS, powered by TVG, have come to its rescue.

Gamblers, and NJ gambling sites in particular, hold the sport’s future in the palm of their hands. Literally.

Handle has surged at tracks, without spectators, even for low-level claiming races, as multistate revenue sources dramatically boost the sport’s health.

Churchill Downs and Santa Anita each reported handle exceeding $14 million on May 23. These are terrific figures, dwarfing historic totals on these calendar days and suggesting a golden age if the total could be maintained.

Horse racing isn’t alone as a COVID-era success story. NASCAR and UFC have also managed to compete without spectators and entice bettors.

But horse racing should thrive even more because it operates nearly every day.

How horse racing has benefited from the sports lockdown

Horse racing has stumbled into a perfect storm of factors.

Big fields exist because most tracks are running delayed meets with fewer racing dates. The horses had nowhere to run throughout the spring, as facilities like Keeneland, Santa Anita, Laurel, Parx Racing, Indiana Grand, and Presque Isle postponed their seasons.

When the tracks did open, there was a glut of available horses.

Secondly, the fewer operating days tracks do have are far better.

The big fields produce multiple betting entries, enhanced wagering pools, and excellent payouts. The quality of the cards, top to bottom, exceed what they would have been before COVID-19.

Gamblers have few other options. Atlantic City casinos are closed. Baseball, basketball, and hockey involve numerous personnel and more logistics to reopen. Racing could be launched more quickly.

And of course, the industry has caught on to the high-action menu of Pick 4s, Pick 5s, Pick 6s, and carryovers. Churchill Downs wisely reduced takeout percentages from 22% to 15% on Pick 5s in 2018.

Nearly half the early money at Churchill Downs and Santa Anita this year has come from this category.

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Can horse betting lure new fans?

Racing observes an opportunity it hasn’t seen since simulcasting enhanced its revenues in the 1980s. This is the rarest of chances to lure new players, age groups and fans.

This is the opportunity to recruit the next generation of bettors before they regain more choices.

And it’s a short window, a period of perhaps weeks.

Horse racing needs to maximize this chance to recruit gamblers. Other sports have marketing muscle and a long-loyal fanbase ready to resume betting.

Horse racing doesn’t have that type of clout because it operates as a collection of individual tracks rather than a single entity.

What’s next for racetracks and horse betting post-pandemic

The betting competition will soon re-emerge, with each major sport greeting passionate players.

But before all of that, at least four solid days each week, racing can audition for New Jersey bettors.

Here are some industry suggestions:

  1. Lower the takeout percentage of the “exotics.” This includes the exactas, trifectas, and superfectas. At many tracks, they exceed 25% of one’s bet. That means the player loses 25 cents on the wager before even starting, an odds dilemma similar to the Big Wheel at a casino. Win, place, and show bets hover around 17% at many institutions.
  2. Why not drop the bigger bets to those levels? Online bettors already shift away from individual sportsbook operators when they feel there are insufficient free bets. They won’t stand for high takeout percentages when other options become available. Can you imagine the NFL with a 25% vig.? That’s what trifecta pools resemble now at most tracks. Hard-core racing fans complain and put up with it. Online bettors may not.
  3. Improve how horses are presented on television. Many bettors are “looks” players. They size up a horse’s potential based on physical aspects such as the coat, hind-quarter, and the stride during the post parade. Looks bettors have their keys and they need a good view of the horses. That means no shadows, showing every horse and keeping the angle on the animal long enough to present a profile. Bad camera angles prompt looks players to bet lightly or not at all. The industry has cost itself a small fortune over the years by getting this wrong.
  4. Make replay shows and handicapping pre-shows easily accessible. The industry is improving here, as Gulfstream Park has a handicapping show and a nightly replay program easily accessible. Some, like Santa Anita and Oaklawn, are putting this up on their website. This is paramount if the industry wants to educate its potential betting base, realizing that people routinely scour the internet to research bets. Data matters. It must be simple to attain.
  5. When COVID-19 is less in the public eye, entice fans back to the track. The live experience will cultivate those who can’t attend the track, but will want to wager remotely.
  6. Apply a less-is-more philosophy when “normalcy” returns. It’s better to run fewer days with big fields than multiple days with small fields. Fans have seen what the industry is capable of producing, from a quality standpoint. They are not going to accept less than that moving forward.

Can horse racing find new footing?

Owners, to their credit, are shelving protocol this year.

The bettors won’t care that the Belmont Stakes is now June 20 and will be 1 1/8 miles instead of the classic 1 1/2 miles. But on June 3, when Belmont re-opens for a 25-day meet that runs until July 12, they want to see good value, big fields and strong payouts.

When Delaware Park opens June 17, Monmouth Park on July 4 weekend, and Saratoga on July 16, the enticement again will be big fields and nice returns.

Yes, there are COVID complications that have rattled every industry, including this one. The order of everything is turned upside down.

For most sports, that’s not good.

For horse racing, long beset by in-fighting, and short-sightedness, this is not necessarily bad. Business needs to be done differently.

The gamblers are waiting, ready to click and play.

Can this industry, figuratively speaking, extend the race?

Dave Bontempo

About

Dave Bontempo, a multiple national award-winning boxing commentator and writer, authors NFL betting columns for the Press of Atlantic City and IGaming Player, among others.