It’s February 29, a date we won’t see again until 2016, and I wonder what will be the “issues of the day” for the pari-mutuel industry in four years. I’m guessing they will probably be quite similar to today’s challenges:
- Governments are increasingly eyeing the revenues going to the industry from slot machines, perhaps thinking they are an unnecessary subsidy. And who can blame them? As pari-mutuel handle continues to fall, evidence mounts that racing can’t do anything to sustain its own product. Is gaming truly just another “entertainment option” that a well-rounded facility must offer in addition to racing? That’s no reason to ignore some of racing’s underlying problems.
- Revenue from alternative gaming keeps racing afloat, but for how long? Greyhound tracks in Iowa are trying to end live racing, but keep their casinos. Greyhound tracks in Florida are trying to end live racing, but keep their card clubs. It has already been done elsewhere – Twin River Casino in Rhode Island, which has defied the recession by increasing gaming revenues every year, ended Greyhound racing in 2009. Horse racing interests think they are protected from these efforts, and to some degree they are, but nothing is forever, particularly as fewer and fewer people watch the show from trackside.
- Major industry players in the U.S. are still against exchange wagering, which has proven quite popular in other countries. This truly could be a way to attract brand new players to an industry struggling to maintain revenues. If structured properly, racetracks will benefit. Opponents are worried about misuse of the system, but precautions are in place. Probably more so, in fact, than in the pari-mutuel industry, which has no shortage of betting scandals in its own past.
- An owner wanting to have a little fun with his nearly-white horse, Hansen, by dyeing his mane and/or tail, was rebuffed by the New York stewards, who rejected his request. It would apparently set an undesirable precedent. For what, fun? What a terrifying prospect!
- A trainer who was handed a 10-year ban last October in New York for showing a long-term disregard for the rules of racing continues to challenge those rules while training during his appeal of the ban. What message does that send to the public, who already see other well-known trainers get repeated slaps on the wrist for various violations?
I can guarantee one thing in 2016: the racing industry, at least the Thoroughbred folks, will still be looking for the next “big horse” who will save the Sport of Kings. The next Triple Crown winner, the Holy Grail. There’s talk already this year that Union Rags will be “the one,” despite the fact that he wasn’t even favored for his race last weekend. He won very impressively, but missing from his race was another budding star, now sidelined until summer with an injury.
Therein lies the rub. As long as horses are flesh and blood, it is dangerous to pin hopes on the next great race horse. Even if a mystical creature were to come forth and win the Triple Crown, he/she would be whisked away to the breeding shed the moment the Belmont Stakes was over, having “nothing left to prove” and being far to valuable to risk future loss or injury.
To its credit, the Jockey Club is spearheading an effort to develop new fans through social media, online games and various communications channels. Will it be enough? I’ll let you know in 2016.