Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Beyond VLT's

While I was a proponent of the VLT (video lottery terminal) legislation that was shot down Monday in a Senate hearing committee in Kentucky, I am cautiously optimistic that the failure of that bill might be the wakeup CDI and Co. need to finally focus on addressing the quality of the product they offer. I know I’m kidding myself, as these might be the least creative people on the face of the earth, but I’m hopeful that they will now start thinking outside of the box, in an attempt to address their problems head-on as opposed to sitting idly by waiting for a handout.

At the end of the day racing is operating on a flawed business model created a century ago. Horse racing has failed to evolve like so many other sports that have embraced the technological era and haven’t been so embedded in the past as to let it ruin their future.

Now the discussion moving forward from the defeat of bill HB-2, will be what can CDI and Co. do to address declining handle and attendance, so that they can offer competitive purses that rival those of the inflated slot filled purses in neighboring states. This is not just a Kentucky problem, so the two key areas I believe the sport needs to focus on are not exclusive to tracks in Kentucky. In a nutshell, racing in general needs to focus on restricting race days (Improving quality) and increasing visibility for the days they do have.

Last Friday Churchill confirmed something I have been screaming about for years, that night racing should be wholeheartedly embraced in horse racing. 28,000 people were in attendance for Churchill’s inaugural “Friday Night Racing.” (A test card that came about a decade too late) I’ve often stated that running horses during work hours, on workdays, is about as idiotic as it gets. Even the converted like myself can’t routinely break away from the daily grind to follow day racing in any significant way and chances are the average fan can’t either. Night racing provides exposure to a far greater pool of potential viewers (Would be gamblers) and that should be the goal of all tracks; increasing the visibility of the product.

I’m not saying all tracks should start their cards in the late evening, but at the very least, the timing of the races should be arranged so that the feature and/or last few races of each week day card could be at an hour when people can attend after work. (Or get home in time to watch) The average post time for a feature race these days is between 5-5:30, push that back an hour and tack on another couple races behind it and you’ve got an attractive evening for people looking to unwind after work with a cold one.

This kind of falls into another need for tracks, which is the restriction of race days. There is simply too much racing right now. While we could stomach this onslaught of racing during the week if they were at conveniently viewable hours, the truth is by and large, that the majority of these races should be eliminated. How do you increase field size, which is instrumental in driving handle? You limit the available races. Major tracks should not be racing Mon-Wed, (To a lesser extent even Thursdays) and those 20+ races carded during those days should be cut by 50% and the remaining should be tacked on to other days for night racing or to create “super cards” on weekend. There is no reason why a major track couldn’t split these excess races, forming two cards on a Saturday. (One a day card, one a night card) Put a feature race at the end of each card and now you’ve got a real day of racing, where the majority of your races are accessible and convenient for fans and would be viewers. That might sound “out there”, but it’s about as "out there" as fielding a ten race card on Tuesday afternoon.

A far as I’m concerned racing Mon-Wed should be banished forever outside of certain holiday cards. If not completely eliminated, it should be reserved for minor league tracks.

At the end of the day there needs to be significantly less racing. The meets that traditionally draw the largest crowds are also those which run small, infrequent, meets of high caliber racing, like Saratoga, Keeneland and Del Mar. Tracks should be reducing days and this reduction in supply should increase the quality of the races that do get filled. As long as a significant portion of sport is taking place in largely pointless races, at pointless times of day, nobody is going to feel compelled to attend or wager on those events.

While I support the move for VLT’s in Kentucky, Churchill Downs and Co. should use the failure of the bill as an excuse to get creative in ways that I’ve outlined. It’s not that these ideas are revolutionary, but they try to address some fundamental issues with fundamental solutions. Waiting on legislation to save the day is predictable and is to entirely ignore the reason they need the assistance to compete in the first place.

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