by Brett Sturman
It remains to be seen if harness racing is experiencing the start of a renaissance in wagering or is simply the beneficiary of being one of the only games in town, but handle out of Scioto Downs and Northfield Park over the past week is noteworthy.
Since resuming racing last Friday, Scioto Downs has come out of the gate with six straight million-plus nights in handle. After posting handles in the opening days upon resumption that were good enough for the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th highest track handle numbers in the 62-year history of the track, the prior record of $1.2 million was obliterated on Thursday when the track took in over $1.6 million across its 14 races.
Northfield Park has returned with a resurgence as well. On its first night back this past Tuesday, the track posted a handle of just $15,000 or so shy of the $2 million park. It wasn’t a track record as Northfield went over the $2 million park one January night 17 years ago, but it was still an extremely rare number and the track has been well north of $1 million every card since.
What makes the numbers impressive is how high they are relative to what is normally handled. While Northfield isn’t a stranger to seven-figure handle numbers, Scioto is. This is a track that has traditionally handled towards the bottom of all harness racing tracks and for them to be putting up the numbers they are is akin to what little known Fonner Park recently did when they were all the talk of the thoroughbred industry the last couple months.
It’s important to note as well that the numbers these two tracks have been posting are larger than what handle was immediately prior to the COVID-19 shutdown. For example, there were a couple of nights when Cal Expo had the racing world to themselves and while they made it over a million in those spots, Scioto and Northfield have been posting numbers not seen outside the top couple of tracks in U.S. and Canada.
Along with race secretary Jason Roth and new Senior VP of racing for Eldorado Joe Morris, Gabe Prewitt has also recently joined the team. Prewitt has had recent successes in resurrecting a following for Pompano Park, and he describes his move to Scioto as follows: “I had worked for Joe in the past, and he took over this position with Eldorado acquiring the Caesars tracks and we got reacquainted,” said Prewitt. “He said that we’re trying to get Scioto cranked up and at that point he didn’t even have a date. So, lo and behold I got just got here a few weeks ago and within about two days we got the word when we could resume racing.”
Some of the immediate deals taken by the group to facilitate interest upon its resumption of racing included reaching out and getting exposure through TVG and reaching a deal with the Daily Racing Form for its opening weekend. Scioto is also in the midst of a program agreement with TrackMaster where they’ll offer past performances complimentary over 10 racing cards, five of which they’ve completed thus far.
Even having the advantage of the wind at their sails for the time being, Prewitt said he is proud of what the entire team has been able to accomplish.
“You look at the numbers and granted it’s a different time now with so few tracks going, but last year they averaged $220k per night, and that’s with 13 and 14 races with full fields,” said Prewitt. “So obviously we didn’t know what we could do but we thought it should be performing a little better than that. Discussing it even during the pandemic, we would have thought $700k would have been a success, so we’ve kind of been blown away from the support out there.
“Now again, we know that there’s a supply and demand issue and we’re fortunate enough to have one of the supplies right now, but it’s been great. We’ve opened now with six straight million-dollar nights, and we broke the record there on Thursday when the stars kind of aligned. The great thing there was that there was no west coast overlap early in the card. Golden Gate usually races on Thursday, but they raced Monday that week because of the holiday, and we were the next track starting after Churchill Downs ended at 5:45. The first couple races we just knocked it out of the park and kept a good line going.”
“It’s a lot of fun when you can do some good. But I had the least to do with anything. All the horsemen, and Jason and Joe getting this ball rolling, I’m just here hoping to bring some energy. I’ve jumped on the simulcast show the last couple nights with Barry and mainly what I’m doing is hanging the post times similar to what I did at Pompano. I’m in the tote room – that’s kind of where I hang out and watch all the other signals and try to put us in an advantageous spot as many times as we can a night.”
Of course the big question now is: what comes next? It’s one thing for Northfield and Scioto to post big numbers when they have the stage to themselves, but many new tracks will be resuming action over the next week including the Meadowlands. The fact that Scioto has been so good during this time, there is reason to believe that it may bode well for them as more tracks enter into the fray.
“We have introduced many, many new players to Scioto, just given the numbers in the past,” said Prewitt. “Regardless of how they got here, they’re in our pools and we’ve tried to create a wagering menu that appeals to everyone. “There are no jackpot bets and we’ve had super high five carryovers, superfecta carryovers, we nearly had pick-4 and pick-5 carryovers and we’ve had a lot of huge four- and five-figure payouts on those wagers. We’ve grown probably more than any track by looking at the numbers by doing five, six, or even seven times more than what we’d normally do. So, we’re certainly getting our product in front of people who aren’t familiar with.”
Looking at the overall picture, it’s only natural that these tracks will come back to what their handle should be in a normal environment, but there’s reason to believe that these Ohio tracks will see higher average handle now than they did prior. And with a renewed interest in some of the smaller tracks, perhaps it will bode well for enthusiasm for all other tracks as they return as well as for the industry as a whole.