Hensley on the annual race secretaries’ meeting, Dover, and fixed-odds betting

Hensley on the annual race secretaries’ meeting, Dover, and fixed-odds betting

December 12, 2021

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by Brett Sturman

This year’s American Harness Racing Secretaries, Inc. (AHRS) meeting concluded a week ago in Florida. Held annually, its primary order of business in convening is to coordinate scheduling for stakes races in the upcoming year, something that has become increasingly more complex in recent years as state breeding programs continue to expand.

There were a handful of jurisdictions that didn’t submit their proposed racing dates to the USTA in advance of the AHRS meeting, though one of those jurisdictions that did so was Delaware. John Hensley serves as director of race and sports at Dover Downs, and one of his many responsibilities that falls under that umbrella is race secretary at the Dover, DE-based harness track. His needs, as far as stakes dates are concerned at the AHRS, gathering are covered by proxy through the Hambletonian Society and Judy Davis-Wilson, executive director of the Delaware Standardbred Breeders Fund (DSBF).

As Hensley said, there’s contractual considerations as to why Dover races when it does, which at the same time locks their stakes into November and December each year.

“November can be a tough calendar because we’re right after the Breeders Crown,” said Hensley. “And the reason we race when we do at Dover is just because of the seasonality of the Harrington and Dover facilities with motorsports. It’s an interesting arrangement. Even after the merger of the gambling company with Twin River, which is now Bally’s, there is a lifetime agreement that motorsports owners have control over their facility from the middle of May to the middle of October. And of course, the harness track is right in the middle of the Monster Mile motorsports track (Dover International Speedway). Now, who knows how things could change going forward. Bruton Smith and Speedway Motorsports just bought Dover Motorsports a few weeks ago, so it’ll be an interesting arrangement going forward.”

Having to race the Matron Stakes and Progress Pace in November has proven to be just fine though for Dover. The stakes continue to attract the highest levels of quality including Matron winners last month such as Bella Bellini, Venerable, Charlie May and Horse of Year candidate, Test Of Faith. Cane Pace winner Rockyroad Hanover won this year’s Progress Pace on Thanksgiving Eve.

“We’ve been fortunate, and I hope it continues,” said Hensley. “We’ve always received a lot of support from the big guys, the ones that they’re not ready yet to quit with, or the ones that aren’t going immediately to the breeding shed. It’s not a bad time of year and November isn’t a bad month for us weather-wise. We caught really good weather this year except for our Progress Pace, which turned out to be the coldest and windiest night of the year.”

Hensley is currently in his fifth season as race secretary, and one of the biggest challenges he sees for all race secretaries is that of a declining horse population.

“The number one topic on everyone’s mind is the horse population and the amount of races that we can fill per day, and field size,” said Hensley.” I believe Chester has announced it, for example, where they’re going with 130 days next year as opposed to 150. And I’ve got to believe it’s in response to wanting to fill 13 or 14 races a day instead of 10 or 11.

“Now, again, we’re a little bit fortunate at Dover because of our season. We don’t struggle, yet, for full fields and we don’t struggle to fill 13 or 14 races. We’re fortunate that in November and December we have those stakes. The overnight guys, some of them stay at Rosecroft, some of them stay at Chester, but when Chester shuts down, we’ll grab those guys back. And I think we’re all still rebounding a little bit from COVID, so there’s some of that, too.”

The reduction of horses has made it more difficult to make competitive races, something Hensley has seen just over the last few years.

“Five years ago, it was much easier. Well, what’s the difference?” Hensley asked. “I’ve got fewer horses, so I’ve got a smaller sample set. The variation is tougher. I try to get two to three divisions of the Winners Over and I can’t get them anymore, I’m barely getting two. But you’ve still got the range. And what I mean by that is that I’ve got a Jack’s Legend (open handicap winner this week) but then I’ve got a Penzance Hanover who raced really good Thursday night, but in a Winners Over is probably 16th or 17th best. So, I’ve got some range from top to bottom, but I’ve got a smaller sample set to work with and so the variation is larger. And I think that’s what a lot of racing secretaries are facing.”

Hensley is extremely well-versed in sports betting matters, and the topic of fixed-odds wagering as discussed this past week in Arizona as part of the Racing Symposium is highly relevant. It’s a topic that Hensley will be speaking on at a panel in February and overall, he sees it as a net-positive for the racing industry.

“Anything that can generate interest in our sport is a good thing, and something that we need to be doing. Something to cross over a different demographic into our game, absolutely we should investigate how to do it,” said Hensley. “My more pragmatic side will tell you that from an operational and operator standpoint, the learning curve will be a little longer than maybe some would say, and I think that was the experience just recently in New Jersey with Betfair where the exchange wagering didn’t catch on. There are cultural differences when you look at the Ladbrokes and the William Hill experiences in the UK. The UK gambling experience culturally has been different from ours, where you’ve got the bookies on the apron, but you’ve also got the tote inside and you shop your price.”

Through his book at Dover, Hensley sees opportunity. “Our sports betting crowd at Dover is what you’d think, it’s ages 21 to 35 and male, that’s the demographic,” said Hensley. “And they bet on horses, they want action. So, if they’re standing around the book, we’ve crossed them over into horse racing. They understand it, they’re learning it, and so there’s no reason that it can’t happen. That way of wagering can be adopted here, there’s no reason it can’t be. It’ll just be a matter of educating the fan and educating the player.”

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