Both tracks are trying different race nights in 2021 with the hope of boosting handle.
by Brett Sturman
Harrah’s Hoosier Park and Yonkers Raceway will both experiment with an adjusted schedule for the upcoming year’s racing season with the clear intent of further bolstering handle. With Hoosier Park’s dates formally approved and with Yonkers announced and pending New York State Gaming Commission (NYSGC) approval, the changes will go into effect as soon as a few weeks from now when Yonkers resumes in January of 2021.
Hoosier Park doesn’t begin their new season until the end of March, and at that time they will do so by including live racing on Sunday evenings. It’s something that Hoosier has done before, though not since earlier in the 2000s. Director of racing for Caesar’s Entertainment Gabe Prewitt announced the change on Friday (Dec. 11), and I’m certain he sees an opportunity on that night of the week due to lesser amounts of competition elsewhere.
It comes down to rather simple logic. The fewer tracks that run on a given night, the higher the handle will be for the tracks that do run. You can try to stagger and drag post times on nights when you’re competing with 10 other tracks, but that only goes so far. At the end of the day, it’s far easier to just race when the others aren’t.
One of the biggest stories in racing this year will have been the astonishingly high handle figures that came out of Scioto Downs. And that may not be due solely – but to at least a large extent – to the fact that they were the first track to start back up following the earlier season’s shutdown. With a couple of weeks’ head start on others, they were the only game in town for a while. And then when other tracks did start back, Scioto had enough eyes on it from prior that it was able to sustain its momentum.
Conversely, tracks that started later and got lost in the shuffle of the usual day to day, did not see gains. Such was the case at Harrah’s Philadelphia which saw handle decline post-shutdown, and the track’s director of racing Barry Brown attributed that decline to starting back later than other tracks.
The same relationship of fewer tracks to higher handle is seen right now at this time of year. The only evening tracks in the U.S. during most weeknights are Yonkers, Pompano and Northfield. These three tracks face minimal competition from even the thoroughbreds and can work together on these nights in coordinating race times. It’s the reason that these tracks routinely see their highest race-night handles of the year in December including a few $1 million dollar nights.
Hoosier likely won’t have Sunday nights exclusively to itself, but it’ll be close. In Chicago tradition, Hawthorne has raced on Sunday evenings and should likely do so again next year. But I’d assume the tracks will ensure that they complement each other rather than directly compete with one another. It’d be something similar to when Balmoral and Woodbine harness used to race concurrently on Sunday nights.
The other change approved for the upcoming Hoosier season is that racing will be conducted on Thanksgiving eve and on Thanksgiving Day. Perhaps coincidental, the latter was suggested in this column a couple of weeks ago (full story here) in comparing the success of the thoroughbred tracks that race on the U.S. holiday while it remains a dark day in harness racing outside of Canada.
It’ll be a tremendous opportunity for Hoosier to be the lone U.S. track in the sport racing that day, and handle will be bound to reflect that. If I could make one more unsolicited suggestion, the track should add a stake or two to that card for good measure. You could have something like a $100k Pilgrim Pace Invitational and a $100k Turkey Trot Invitational; it would really make for a highly-anticipated card.
At Yonkers, the big change is the dropping of its Saturday card and replacing it with a Wednesday. With that move, the track will keep the traditional five-day-a-week schedule but will now run Monday straight through Friday. On the surface it might sound dire to not race on the night of racing with the best quality horses, but from a handle perspective it’s completely the right move.
First and foremost, Yonkers now gets away from having to compete with the Meadowlands on Saturday. A cause of contention for Yonkers has been trying to coordinate race times against inconsistent drag times at the Meadowlands, so this will resolve that on Saturdays. And as an aside, is it really not possible for the Meadowlands to again not race more than two days any week in 2021? I’ve said this before, but how hard could it be to bring back winter-series racing and that alone could almost fill two other cards each week in the winter months.
Back to Yonkers though – even though they race their best horses on Saturdays, it’s their Monday and Tuesday cards that always produce the highest handles of the week. Saturday never comes close.
The idea is that Wednesday handles will produce handle comparable to their figures from Monday and Tuesday, as the competition from other tracks is far more kind on a Wednesday than it is on a Saturday. It’s true that on-track attendance and on-track handle would suffer as a result without Saturday, but with people becoming more and more accustomed to wagering from home now, I’d think that effect would be negligible. With the change, the 5-day a week total at Yonkers next year will be higher than normal.
For both Hoosier and Yonkers, the idea behind the scheduling is to put their product in the most favorable positions possible. Racing whenever possible against limited competition has been proven to generate higher handle and has the possibility of attracting newer interests in those products. They are positive steps heading into the new year.