At the Breeders Crown, where were the fans?

by Bill Finley

It’s no secret that harness racing is barely visible when it comes to America’s sporting landscape and that the industry is sorely lacking what all industries need to survive — customers. In any sport, a customer equals a fan and the customers responded to a fabulous couple of nights of Breeders Crown racing with alarming indifference.

To be at the Meadowlands on Breeders Crown Saturday was to be at the Meadowlands on virtually any other night. There were people in the stands, but not as many as one would have hoped, and many were more interested in the simulcasts from wherever than they were on the racing taking place a few feet in front of them.

But in racing’s modern era the metric that really matters is not on-track attendance but handle. While slots may be the straw that stirs the drink in the sport these days, the only effective measure of its true health is betting handle. At the Breeders Crown, it was not good.

On the Saturday night, all-sources handle was $3,461,457, fairly comparable to what the Meadowlands handles during the dead of winter when it has enough horses to fill cards with big fields. A better source of comparison was the handle the following Saturday night, when $2,425,77 was wagered on what was more or less just another card. Both nights included 13 races and the weather was about the same, which means the Saturday-versus-Saturday comparison gives you a pretty accurate gauge of how much the Breeders Crown moved the betting needle. And the answer is it meant a 42.7 percent increase in handle.

In most cases, a 42.7 percent increase in business would be nothing to scoff at. But this is not most cases. The Breeders Crown is the best and most important night of harness racing on the year and its presence at the Meadowlands should have meant a dramatic increase in handle. The reason it didn’t is because the sport, sadly, has so few real fans.

Do not confuse a bettor with a fan. The bettor participates because he or she likes the 4-2 exacta and is just as inclined to bet on an $10,000 claimer at the Meadowlands as a $500,000 Breeders Crown race. A fan is someone who follows the sport, gets excited about watching the best standardbreds in North America compete against one another, shows up at the track or, if not, doubles or triples their betting activity on a night like Breeders Crown night. A fan is someone who bets maybe five or six days a year, but makes sure one of them is when the Breeders Crown rolls around.

Thoroughbred racing also wishes it had more fans, especially when it has to face comparisons with the major sports. But it is, at the very least, a sport a significant amount of people love and follow. The best proof of that is the betting activity for the Breeders’ Cup. On the Saturday before the Breeders’ Cup, Santa Anita handled $9,809,314. On a riveting Breeders’ Cup Saturday afternoon, the handle was $109,055,897. The Breeders Crown caused a 42.7 per cent increase in handle. The Breeders’ Cup yielded a 1,117 per cent increase in betting activity.

There are no quick fixes to this problem and there’s no reason to point the finger of blame at any individual or group. It is what it is.

(One suggestion: how about putting all the pacing races on Friday night and hold all the trotting races on Saturday and during the day. That way the European bettors can become involved and they have proven they will bet in meaningful numbers).

The lackluster Breeders Crown betting numbers raise some other important issues besides the sport’s obvious lack of popularity.

Though he has since backtracked, Jeff Gural once spoke of gutting the stakes schedule at the Meadowlands, saying that the track, without a casino, could no longer afford them. If big races are doing little or nothing to improve handle, from a pure business standpoint, tracks would be better off without them. That said, doing so would destroy the breeding business. No one goes to the yearling sales dreaming of winning a $35,000 overnight at Yonkers. And that’s the reason Gural, who professes to care deeply about the sport’s future, must do everything in his power to make sure the Meadowlands stakes schedule remains strong.

The numbers also should make Gural rethink the “Gural Rule.” If major races and major horses are doing so little to improve betting or increase fan interest, what’s the point of trying to force horses to race at four? Betting Line is one of the first major horses to be retired at three without having had any kind of career-threatening injury (a spider bite doesn’t count). The owners are effectively telling Gural to take his rule and do you know what with it. Will more follow?

The Breeders Crown moves next year to Hoosier, one of the few casino tracks that actually cares about racing. Between them and the Hambletonian Society, there’s no doubt they will put on a great show. But they can only do so much. The rest is up to the fans, wherever they may be hiding.