A deep dive into the half-mile track blues

In part one of a two-part series we will examine why half-mile tracks are at a serious disadvantage in today’s racing world.

by Dean Towers

I watched and wagered on a few races at Yonkers over the last few weeks. Although the New York oval has some of the best purses, drivers, trainers and horses in the sport, I was pretty surprised at the product itself.

It seemed that time after time the drivers from inside posts moved to the front, the second quarter was a stroll, and then – perhaps, but not always – near the 5/8’s pole someone would challenge the leader. At the head of the lane it was very likely the winner would come from the engine, the first over horse, or the pocket sitter. The back markers, oftentimes, were completely eliminated.

We’ve all seen it, and we’re not telling tales out of school. At half-mile tracks, especially those with high purses, this seems to be the new normal. And perhaps the saddest part of it all is it’s the result of perfectly rational behavior. Why even try from an outside post when next week you have a 50 per cent chance of drawing posts one through four? As an added bonus, your horse can drop a possible earning line off the card and be in a lower class next week as well. There’s virtually a double incentive to not leave the gate.

Why this is such a problem in harness racing has become more and more apparent over the years: Harness racing is a speed game like never before, and if your horse is not “in the race” you’re at a serious disadvantage.

Is this anecdotal, or does the data concur?

Let’s examine the numbers, by post position, by placement at the half-mile pole at Yonkers and Northfield. Who is mixing it up and showing speed, giving their horses a chance to win in the new speed game?

About one in four horses from the rail had the lead at the half, while fewer than five in one hundred had the lead, on average, from the outer two posts.

When we look at the top three at the half-mile pole by post, these numbers grow even more polarized.

Almost unbelievably, there is such little action off the gate that the rail horse – regardless of odds or early speed – at Yonkers is in the top three at the half about eight in 10 times.

Why should we care?

Periodically we’ll hear that this is simply the way it is, and why, really, should anyone care if outside posts are at such a disadvantage. But that, in my view, misses the big picture.

The number of outcomes in a race with a strong betting menu is based directly on the size of the field. If we box every horse in the exacta in a five-horse field there are only 20 outcomes, generating $20 of handle for a one dollar bet; in a nine-horse field this number grows to 72. It’s like that all the way through the exotics.

Most importantly, as outcomes grow, the penal nature of high takeout is lessened. The surest way to break a sports bookie is to make him charge 20 per cent takeout on a game with two outcomes, rather than the 4.54 per cent he’s charged since the beginning of time. Parlay cards, or sports lotteries can be higher takeout and still draw dollars without breaking customers, because there are more outcomes.

The combination of high takeout and short fields results in skill game gamblers looking for the nearest sports book or DFS game. It simply can’t generate big handles.

Study after study bears this out. In fact, in one of the more comprehensive studies from the University of Louisville, field size was deemed to be as important as the number of races in terms of its effect on aggregate betting handle.

This is one reason why half-mile tracks have such trouble generating turnover. The field size might be eight, but with the two outside posts being almost filler, the field size is closer to five or six. If we add a hopeless longshot to the field, it grows even smaller.

Do bigger tracks – through depth of field – draw more handle regardless of purses?

Here are the same grids for the Meadowlands and Mohawk – tracks with a circumference of mile and seven-eighths mile, respectively.

First, here are the horses that made the lead at the half, by post:

These numbers are starkly different from their smaller competitors. Instead of fewer than five of 100 horses making the lead from the outside on the half milers, that number has about doubled at the big tracks.

You can see the low variance between post positions, which lessens the “Impact Value”. A low impact value means a fairer array of post positions, and this signifies a more efficient use of field size.

Second, let’s look at the top three at the half mile pole:

For drivers being aggressive and taking a shot to put their charge in the race from the outside, the smaller tracks can’t hold a candle to the bigger ones. I was shocked to learn, for example, that about one in four horses from post nine and ten at the Meadowlands are in the top three at the half.

At Mohawk, only 37 per cent of rail horses are in the top three at the half, which is in contrast to that number at Yonkers, which was 79 per cent.

As we all know, the Meadowlands’ purses have been weak, and the races have been filled with lesser stock than their cross-state rival. But handle continues to be solid. Similarly, Mohawk has catapulted to possess nightly handles stronger than anywhere but the Meadowlands. This has occurred within the last several years, when purses north of the border were cut due to the loss of slots.

The University of Louisville study concluded that, “wagering would increase by only 6 per cent if purses were doubled. This is a surprising finding considering the importance that is attached to the purse variable in all major policy decisions to increase the wagering in this industry.”

The Mohawk and Big M post arrays, as above, is some evidence of that. A deep field with more outcomes increases wagering. Bigger tracks have them, smaller ones don’t, even if their purses are much higher.

What can be done, if anything?

I firmly believe Yonkers, Northfield and other half-mile tracks are certainly doing their best. Yonkers has experimented with distances and has done a world of good exporting their signal overseas. Northfield possesses some great handles when compared to many other half-mile tracks because they are aggressive in selling their signal and have a great spot on the bettor’s radar.

But, the handle-killing situation described above is very hard to address; it’s impossible for Northfield or Yonkers to blow up the racing surface and put in a mile or seven-eighths mile track, for example. The choices they have to increase eyeballs and handle are limited.

But, perhaps, there are a few ideas that have merit to increase betting depth, and in turn raise handles at these important racetracks. I’ll share a couple of mine in Part II next week.

Note: I’d like to thank Ray Schell, a long time bettor and industry watcher, for his number crunching and database research. Thanks Ray!