Customers need a challenge and sport should work to deliver it

May 14, 2017

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Here are three suggestions that might help the cause.

by Dean Towers

Last week’s Kentucky Derby was a huge success in terms of handle. The 13-race card at Churchill Downs attracted over $200 million in wagering dollars. I – although a harness fan more than a thoroughbred fan – was betting right along with everyone else.

A knee-jerk reaction to this high handle number is usually twofold:

• It’s the Kentucky Derby, so of course it’s going to generate betting dollars.

• Churchill Downs spends lots of money to bring 150,000 or more people into the track, and the signal is everywhere. It’s a big day. This is not news.

Those two points certainly aren’t invalid, and absolutely they’re a big reason why handle is very large come Derby day. But I believe it’s more than about hats and parties and racing on television: Big racing days, with deep fields, shippers, good racing (with everyone – jockeys, trainers and horses – giving 100 per cent effort), and a great betting menu, provides a value to horse bettors that they do not see much anymore.

In last week’s Horseplayer Monthly magazine (you can download it free here), I think we caught a glimpse of this. Several long-time bettors and handicappers were asked if they were enjoying the game more or less than one year ago:

“I’ve really embraced the opportunities on the big days, such as the Breeders’ Cup. There are not many chances to get payoffs like the ones you find on those huge days of racing,” noted horseplayer Rich Nilson.

“Each passing year that goes by, I enjoy the pari-mutuel game less and less for a number of reasons. [For example] the number of overlay situations has sharply decreased as there is less “dead money” in the pools,” said horseplayer Jerod Dinkin.

“It’s getting harder and harder to win,” said Charlie Davis, the third-place finisher at the 2016 National Handicapping Championship.

Yes, fancy hats and parties matter, but if the entire day is a poor betting proposition, good luck getting Rich or Jerod or Charlie to spend their day betting. $200 million in handle would be a pipe dream.

Flipping over to harness racing, the lack of betting value on the tote, and the lack of a challenge in handicapping, is well known. Favorites win at a remarkably high clip, and half-mile track racing, especially, is formful to a fault. When you add high takeout to the recipe, this sport is not serving up a very tasty betting dish.

While there have been cries to change the product to make the races more challenging from a betting standpoint; like, for example, Bob Pandolfo’s suggestions regarding using old bikes, or eliminating drivers leaning back, it falls on deaf ears. The industry, for myriad reasons, will simply not change.

Without the product itself changing, the only thing left is the wagering menu.

Here are three things I believe can help harness racing grow the bet, by making the wagering proposition more challenging.

First, low minimum bets have been the rage because they provide a short term handle bump, but they are complete and utter value killers. 20 cent or 50 cent pick 4’s can pay $24. Worse, 20 cent pick 3s can play less than $4 or $5. Diluting the payoffs is no way to enhance value. As well, what does it say to new customers, playing for the first time? They might have just hit three winners in a row on a $12 ticket and they got back $9. Would you think this is a good sport to bet? Would you want to come back to the track?

Second, there’s a very interesting case study happening as we speak. Woodbine – for both the runners and the standardbreds – have early pick 5s and an early pick 4 starting in race 4. This is pretty close to apples to apples.

At the runners, the pick 5 generates about 40 per cent to 50 per cent the handle of the pick 4, while for harness it’s close to dollar for dollar. There is a key difference, yes – the takeout on the pick 5 for the thoroughbreds is 25 per cent (the same as the pick 4 juice) and for harness the pick 5 rake is 15 per cent (10 per cent lower than the pick 4). But, it’s probably simpler than that – harness bettors are embracing the pick 5 because the one added race provides better payoffs, and more of a betting challenge.

Although some tracks would take a short term hit (because the pick 4 is a branded bet people tend to like) I often wonder if carding only a pick 5 early would be a wise decision. If your harness track can’t generate too much handle from an early pick 4, perhaps a pick 5 instead is the answer.

Third, the superfecta is a popular bet and has been for some time. Very early on this wager was $1 minimum, and attracted serious money looking for a score. Over time, with more and more favorites and shorter fields, hitting four horses in a row became devoid of value. It no longer possesses the characteristics which made it great.

Perhaps it’s time to shake things up and make a 20 cent high 5 the go-to bet for harness racing. Currently, Western Fair is trying a version of this, with their super high 5’s in the sixth and last race of the day. They’ve made these races a mile and a sixteenth, and added two trailers. This, they hope, turns their smaller handle oval into a place to play, with bigger pool size and a potential for a higher payoff.

It’s early, but it bears watching. Just last night the first super high five paid $1,800 for a dollar, off a $17 exacta. In the last race of the evening, there was a single ticket winner and the pool size was close to $6,000 (about double the exacta pool).

A super high five once a night, at a decent takeout rate (and for heaven’s sake, with no jackpot provision) might just work to bring harness racing back on bettors’ radars.

There’s always been a school of thought in harness racing that people should be attracted to it because it’s easy to handicap and simple to cash a ticket. That, in my view, is not the case. If you want coin flips where you will win 50 per cent of the time, bet sports (and pay 4.5 per cent takeout while you’re at it). Harness racing will never be as complex as the thoroughbreds, but value comes in many forms. Harness racing, as an industry, needs to begin the search to find them.

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