Yonkers adding two $250,000 invites spawns a passionate debate

On Tuesday, Yonkers Raceway announced they are looking to add two $250,000 invitation races to spice up their Oct. 15 International Trot card. With or without these races, the card is sure to be a very good one.

The masses had a reaction to the announcement, though, that I found a little unexpected. There was no cheering that two interesting races with great horses will be raced. There was, instead, quite a bit of incredulity.

First, $250,000 was (coincidentally) the budget for the USTA Social Media campaign, run by Converseon’s Rob Key. As most know, Rob had to fight and claw for this money over the last couple of years, and finally, earlier this year, threw in the towel.

Responding to a Facebook post questioning the use of the $250,000 for a purse, Rob wrote:

“As many of you know, getting that $250,000 was a battle. I’ve said it before, the sport has had a window of opportunity to invest in itself for a viable
future, but (except for the USTA) doesn’t have the interest will or vision to do so.”

A lot of folks agreed with Rob.

The big question, of course, is the return on investment for that $250,000. Is it doing the job? A lot would say no. It’s probably not bringing in $250,000 of economic activity, for a dollar for dollar ROI.

But, to Rob’s point, what does the $250,000 for a purse do? Last year’s International card had purses of $1.407 million, and the 13 races generated a handle of $538,933 (or 38 cents of handle for every dollar of purse money). Most would say that’s not very good at all. When we factor the $1.4 million brought in (at about eight per cent of total handle, an estimate) $43,000 revenue — an ROI of three per cent — it looks even worse.

Now, that $250,000 does get spread around, to be fair, to be spent on farriers, harnesses and further purchases, so there’s that, and it’s not a small number. Regardless, it was interesting to me that so many were having a deep, thoughtful discussion about the value and the use of purse money.

I thought the discussion would end there, but this was not the case. Scanning the web I saw more chatter about this phenomenon, including this interesting suggestion from a horse owner:

“Yonkers should take $250,000, and offer 25 $10,000 rewards for confidential information leading to the arrest and conviction of those violating racing statutes. The $100,000 recently spent at Harrah’s Philadelphia on a worthless drivers’ contest, could have been utilized in the same fashion. While there has always been a code of silence, rewards of this magnitude could be icebreakers.”

My first reaction to that was, “hmmmmm.”

He certainly has a point, doesn’t he? If this plan worked, even in a small way, what would that $250,000 ($350,000 if you include the drivers’ championship) achieve?

i) Integrity could be at least partially restored, which could increase investment from both current owners, and those on the sidelines who are wary of such trainers.

ii) If one or two who are nabbed are supertrainers — who win most of the races at short prices — not only would the betting product improve (driving more handle and revenue), but for the mom and pops and others with small stables it would increase their participation, and boost owner breadth. Owner breadth is a big problem in this sport.

iii) The politicians who hold the purse strings would see a very proactive harness racing industry, and that’s some seriously good PR for a sport. This is a sport increasingly dependent upon political votes.

The return on investment for spending money in this fashion might be hard to measure, but I think a strong argument can be made that it’s nowhere near zero.

Just this week, the Stronach Group announced a new, massive undertaking at Santa Anita Racetrack in California.

Santa Anita has installed over 1,000 HD cameras to monitor their over 1,900 stalls, 24/7. This comes at a huge cost, but the integrity of the product and the safety of the horses — according to Santa Anita’s Keith Brackpool — are worth the expenditure.

“Our commitment at The Stronach Group and Santa Anita is to the integrity of our sport and the confidence entrusted in us by our fans and other industry stake holders,” said Santa Anita chairman Keith Brackpool. “This is a proactive investment on our part, while maintaining the highest standards of transparency in our industry.”

Clearly this is not something that would work in harness racing, so don’t mistake me using this as a practical example. But in general, if the return on investment for this undertaking is zero, Stronach clearly would not have done it. He believes integrity means something for his track’s (and the industry’s) health, and integrity costs money.

I don’t begrudge Yonkers for wanting to make their International Trot card more interesting to attract more good stock, and make a fun card even more satisfying for fans and bettors. There’s nothing wrong with them wanting to achieve that.

But I also don’t begrudge others who have argued vociferously to use this money for things that could improve the game in the long term, like marketing or integrity. With falling foal crops, less interest in the sport, and fewer and fewer owners and betting customers, some kind of investment – beyond that of a purse — is clearly needed.

The $250,000 is not my money, or Mike Tanner’s money, or Jeff Gural’s money, it’s your money. Having its rightful owners discuss, debate and explore the best way to use it is never a bad thing, and it was refreshing to see exactly that talked about this week.