Sports wagering may be a boon for harness racing

by Brett Sturman

With the Supreme Court ruling earlier this week to overturn the federal ban on sports wagering outside of Nevada, the entire gaming dynamic across the U.S. will change dramatically. As states now scramble to get sports betting operations up and running as quickly as possible, what will the effect be on harness tracks in those states?

To start with a recent quote from a businessman turned politician, “What do you have to lose?”

Harness racing stands only to gain from the enactment of sports betting in states that there are harness tracks. At the overwhelming majority of tracks that double as casinos, the amount bet today on harness races ranges anywhere from sub-par to awful.

Just over the past week, Tioga Down and Vernon Downs both handled less than $100,000 over the duration of an entire card. The results are scattered with “All’s” throughout the payouts because there wasn’t even enough money bet to cover the most basic of trifecta combinations, or even a daily double in one case. Similarly, Scioto Downs handled just over $100,000 for a card earlier in the week.

For the concern that sports betting will siphon off harness racing customers, the reality is that there are already fewer and fewer people involved in harness racing as bettors. But more importantly, the profile of a harness racing bettor isn’t someone that’s going to abandon racing for sports betting.

Speaking with Ed Sutor through voicemail phone-tag, the president and CEO of Dover Downs isn’t concerned about the theory that his harness track will lose wagering dollars.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a lot being lost to sports,” Sutor said. “As you know, the demographics are different. Horse bettors tend to be older; more methodical in their handicapping. The sports bettor tends to be younger.”

If anything, the sense is that harness racing stands more to gain from sports betting than it has to lose.

“Sports betting is going to help drive additional horse racing business, both when we have live racing events during the winter when we race at Dover and throughout the whole year,” said Sutor. “Sporting events like March Madness, the Super Bowl, those events tend to bring in a lot of sports bettors. And if it turns out that sports betting is in the same spot as the racing simulcasting, I can only think that those bettors may bet on the horse racing going on while waiting for a game to end. I think it’s going to help.”

While sports bettors and harness bettors are no doubt more in common than harness bettors and slot machine players, the advent of sports betting shouldn’t be viewed as a threat. Both sports and harness shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

People who already bet both (sports through illegal markets or legal daily fantasy), can do so without sacrificing one for the other. I don’t think that someone who has been playing the Monday night Pick 4 at Yonkers each week is now going to stop all the sudden because Giants are playing the Eagles on Monday Night Football.

Some people that bet on horses do so because there are far fewer variables that can occur over a three-hour sporting event, and there may be a preference to bet on something that’s over and done within two minutes rather than sweating an outcome for hours. Also, the customers that harness racing already has are a pretty dedicated bunch. After all, you’d have to be dedicated to the sport if you still bet on it despite an overall industry lack of regard for its bettors.

If you really get down to it, the daily fantasy market (i.e. Fanduel and Draftkings) is in a far more precarious position than harness racing is. People only bet money through those companies today because traditional sports wagering hasn’t been available. But harness racing has always existed as a compliment to various forms of sports betting; not as an alternative to it.

Thoroughbred racetrack Monmouth Park has been at the forefront along with the state of NJ for years now in fighting to legalize sports wagering in the state. Dennis Drazin, the president and CEO of the group that operates Monmouth Park, gave an interview with cable network CNBC this week where he, too, clearly viewed sports betting as a positive for his track.

From the sound of it, Monmouth may be far ahead on the curve of any other U.S. horse tracks. Drazin cited the intent to offer wagers combining the sports markets and racing markets into one. This would be done by offering traditional horse bets such as Pick-4’s, 5’s, 6’s, but use a blend of horse racing and sporting events to complete the bet. Imagine betting a Pick 3 with races 1 and 2 from the Meadowlands along with the winner of the Sixers game that night. Sure, it may sound gimmicky, but it certainly has the intrigue and potential to gain cross over from some sports bettors.

The other thing that few people seem to be talking about is the introduction of “exchange wagering” that will come into horse racing as a result of new legislation. Exchange wagering – where you can bet in the middle of an event or in the middle of a horse race – is extremely popular around the globe and has recently been introduced in New Jersey through the company Betfair.

Until now, there’s really been little progress in attracting new people to the sport. Everyone talks about the need for it all the time, but no real solution has ever been viable. Slot machine and casino types never had a shot to be converted to horse players, but there’s at least the potential now for some sports wagering dollars to cross over into the horse races.

It could turn out that sports bettors aren’t interested in anything but sports. If that’s the case, then racing will be no worse off than it is today. But if sports and racing do end up going together, racing could be on the verge of something great.