Early season handle gains from unlikely sources

by Brett Sturman

The year is still young, but through the first two months of 2018 the average amount wagered per harness racing in the U.S. is up over 6 per cent from this time last year, $56,661 per race in 2018 compared to $53,371 through February in 2017.

Coming off a year where the per race average was stagnant to the year prior, what makes this year’s early season numbers even more noteworthy is that handle at the Meadowlands is generally no better than the track’s numbers from last winter. Typically, the handle trends follow whichever direction the Meadowlands goes in, since volume-wise the Meadowlands still handles far more than any other U.S. harness track and because of that, carries more weight in the industry averages. Based on these numbers, other tracks have been picking up the slack.

Perhaps most surprising, leading the way in this front is Yonkers Raceway. This time last year it wasn’t uncommon to see Yonkers post some impossibly bad handle figures, with some cards coming in only in the $200,000’s. But just this past Monday, handle posted at a remarkable $927,279.

Alex Dadoyan, executive director for the SOA of NY, sees at Yonkers a few different things going on.

“There’s always so many factors at play, and this year there has been quite a few moving parts. There’s the elimination of the passing lane, there’s Cammie (Haughton) coming on board and trying to time the races better,” Dadoyan said. “The Sundays have grown interest with the French import and then there’s Mondays with the free programs. I think all of those things are positive and have played a part.”

All the changes mentioned by Dadoyan are contributing factors to the handle renaissance at Yonkers, but some warrant considering further. What shouldn’t be understated is the impact of the factors driving the big Monday handle.

Beginning in January, Yonkers has been offering complimentary past performances for its full Monday card. At least for the time being, an agreement is in place with TrackMaster which allows the full card past performances to be distributed for free. This is similar to the past performances that are made available through the USTA’s strategic wagering initiative, although on Mondays at Yonkers the entire card is made available as opposed to only Pick 4 or Pick 5 sequences.

“There’s been a push for Monday and that’s become the strongest day right now,” said Dadoyan. “If you look at the last four Mondays, the handle has been going straight up, and it wouldn’t shock me if it was up to a million soon. But we’ve done other things, too. We did a deal where we’re on TVG on Mondays and Tuesdays, which helps because there isn’t a lot of thoroughbred competition on TVG. We thought we’d get a little more visibility that way, and it’s helped.

“It’s interesting because the Tuesdays have been really strong, too. We don’t have the free programs on Tuesdays, but we do have TVG so it’s hard to say the impact that each one has. But as far as the programs go, I like it because the people like it and the feedback has all been positive.”

You sense Dadoyan’s approach at Yonkers comes from the perspective of growing the product from that of which would benefit horseplayers first and foremost.

While it’s hard to pinpoint recent handle success to just one of the moving parts more than the other, there are some commonalities between what is working at Yonkers and what is working elsewhere. Take Pompano Park, as another example.

Ironically, a number of years back Pompano Park made past performances free for a short period of time before being forced to stop the practice due to TrackMaster exclusivity. But on Monday, Pompano was able to post a full-card program because of a Pick-5 carryover.

With PP’s for the Pick-5 made available in addition to the Pompano Pick-4, which is always made available through the strategic wagering initiative, all nine races on the card were available for free. What resulted from that was a Pick-5 pool of nearly $75,000; the largest pool ever at the south Florida track.

Granted, the Pick-5 pool was anticipated to be high to begin with since it was already guaranteed at $40K due to a $10K carryover. But when we combine that with the fact that Pompano had a track record Pick 4 handle on Sunday and then the highest ever Pick 4 pool for a Monday the very next day, there is no doubt whatsoever that a correlation exists between free access to program data and increased handle.

Meanwhile, Cal Expo posted a Pick-4 handle from this past Saturday of $67,904; good enough for its highest ever non-carryover Pick 4 pool.

All of this is being accomplished at tracks where I think you could certainly debate the racing product itself. Even with the removal of the passing lane at Yonkers they still go 31-second middle fractions, Pompano is loaded with five- or six-horse fields and Cal Expo has a myriad of things to be desired. But despite it all, the products are gathering dedicated followings because race pages are being given away for free.

Credit is to be given where these past performances have been made available for free, and as a result handle in increasing. It’s helping support industry numbers. And it’s even better that the support is coming from tracks that are finding ways to promote wagering.