Archives for April 6, 2020

Horse Racing Opinion Piece: Essential Business

by Art Parker

What is essential? People or a business?

Even though I now play online almost exclusively, I’ve been going to race tracks for decades. Last time I went to a track was last August when I visited my daughter in the Washington D.C. area. We slipped over to Laurel for the Friday afternoon card.

At Laurel that day, I observed the same things I’ve seen for years and years. Track employees and vendors. The people selling beer and hot dogs. People selling programs and Racing Forms. They didn’t charge for general parking but there was still a man at the gate watching cars go by. There were a couple of fellows handling valet parking. Naturally there was security and police as expected.

Empty row of seats at racetrackWe didn’t go where any real meals are served, but I imagine there was plenty of employees taking care of the many chores related to cooking and serving. And of course there were plenty of people constantly cleaning – I guess us horseplayers are just messy folks.

Of course there were pari-mutuel tellers taking bets. The list of people making things happen goes on and on. These people were there because patrons were there. You take away the patrons and all of a sudden a track is a ghost town.

The employees I didn’t mention are there to work – patrons or no patrons.

Here is my beef with the decision to close tracks because of the corona virus. If we race without patrons very little will be different than the days when there is no racing at all. Open the doors, be diligent with all precautions regarding the corona virus, let the patrons play online and let’s run.

Horse racing was slow to embrace television and that probably cost us a generation of potential players. When we caught up with the times and used technology, we held a possible edge – simulcasting and online wagering. In this day and time an enormous percentage of our handle comes from online wagering. I have been told by several that online wagering is now 85%-90% of horse racing’s handle. The sport is staying alive without patrons on site. Why shut it down? The risk for the few people is minimal. I read in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune where top trainer Bob Baffert said, “It’s safer out there (track) than going to a grocery store. Those are packed.”

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I think Baffert is right. In fact, I went to the grocery store yesterday and saw more people in close proximity than one would find in three gate crews.

The most interesting statement I have seen came from Southern California trainer John Sadler, who was quoted in the Press-Telegram as saying, “I don’t see how not racing the horses makes us any safer. This isn’t a factory where you can shut the doors and turn out the lights. People are still going to have to be there to look after these equine athletes.”

I’m sure the real problem with closing race tracks comes from the words “non-essential business” and “essential business.” What is not understood by decision makers is that while a race track may truly not be essential (like a grocery store), it can be closed but still open for business. Why? The non-essential people will not be there if the track is closed to patrons, but the essential people must be there regardless. I don’t know any thoroughbred that can take care of itself. They need to be bathed, groomed, exercised and fed. They can’t pick up the cell and call Pizza Hut to get a pizza delivered to the barn.

Comparatively speaking very few hands are needed if a track is running but closed to patrons. Have you ever been to morning workouts? If so, how many actual track employees were around?

With no patrons in attendance the handle will diminish some – no doubt about it. But purses can be adjusted for that and I promise the horseman would rather run for a little less than not run at all. Don’t forget that 100% of nothing is nothing.

Many horsemen are going to be in dire financial need if they can’t run. Many will go out of business and/or they will need to jettison some stock. Other trainers will not be willing to take stock off their hands because it will only deepen their financial burdens.

The corona virus is very serious and many precautions must be taken. But when it comes to horse racing I don’t think anyone will convince me the open track without patrons is more dangerous than a grocery store full of them inside an enclosed structure.

Virtual Horse Race Raises Nearly $3 million for Health Workers

“The Virtual Grand National has exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. There was nothing virtual about the feel-good factor this race generated and the fantastic sum raised for a great cause,” said Simon Clare, representing betting business Coral[UK Bookmaker].

The 4.8 million people who watched the 30 minute Virtual Grand National on TV station ITV was around half what might have been expected for favorite Tiger Roll’s historic shot at a third consecutive win with last year’s real race attracting 9.6 million viewers.

The figure equated to a third of the viewing audience and was a massive leap from the 737,000 who watched the 2019 Virtual Grand National shown on ITV4 on the eve of the race.

Christian Williams, trainer of Potters Corner, embraced the Virtual Grand National.

“I’m delighted, it’s great and great to cheer everyone up in tough times – I think even people from outside of racing were tuned in. It was something for people to cheer on, people are stuck in their houses and it probably got a good viewing. It was something to watch together and have a bit of banter leading up to it.”

More about the 2020 Virtual Grand National