The New Normal. It Could Work Everywhere

How could the tracks that have raced without spectators make it work so well when others ran into the corner with fear?

COVID-19 and horse racing

By ART PARKER

About a month ago I whined about so many tracks not following the lead set by Tampa Bay Downs, Gulfstream, and especially Oaklawn Park regarding the coronavirus. These tracks and a couple of smaller ones carried on racing without spectators. My complaint was simple. 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 coronavirus, let the patrons play online, and let’s run.

Part of my reasoning is that we already have 85%-90% of our handle from online wagering, or so I am told by several experts. There is no doubt in my mind that this percentage will only increase in the future. One thing for sure, right now, relying upon online wagering is the only option.

Tampa Bay Downs grandstand copyright AGameofSkill.com

copyright AGameofSkill.com

Just consider the following two excerpts I read the other day. First from America’s Best Racing: “Records shattered-On April 18, Oaklawn’s handle was $19 million, breaking the record set last year on Rebel Stakes day. Arkansas Derby day more than doubled that record, with $41,007,201 wagered.”

From The Blood Horse: “Fonner Park, while conducting spectator-less racing since that date in a state that does not permit ADW wagering, —all handle is coming from out-of-state—wagering has averaged $2.43 million. Those figures do not include the phenomenal $7.26 million bet Tuesday, April 5 when the track’s popular Dinsdale Pick 5 Jackpot wager featured a mandatory payout pool of $4.2 million. In short, wagering is about 10 times the previous norm.”

The bottom line is that most places missed the boat, and, generally speaking, it was because of terrible government decisions. I could only imagine how well Woodbine could have done with their normal mid-April opening since reasonably nearby markets New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago were closed (especially New York).

Oaklawn is not necessarily one of the real big boys but they are far from one of the little guys. I salute them for stepping up to the plate, and I imagine they feel good about it when reviewing their handle figures.

I’m happy for a little track like Fonner Park. The Nebraska bullring stepped up and provided a product to the overall market and knocked it out of the park with handle.

As I have said before, we missed a generation or so when the thoroughbred industry shied away from television. COVID-19 provided the industry an opportunity to go into every home and office (and cell phone) in North America and expand its share of the sports and entertainment market. I can hear it now, “There’s nothing to do since the concert has been canceled.” “Oh yeah? I’m staying home so I can play the Pick Four at Woodbine.”

How could the tracks that have raced without spectators make it work so well when others ran into the corner with fear?

I just looked over my list of tracks that say they will open within thirty days. I’m glad to hear it. I hope they do open and others follow suit.

The time is now. We really missed a chance to get ahead and make up for lost ground in the last couple of months.

Now, as many areas begin to open up we have to try and survive, again.

How Sports-Starved Bettors Made Fonner Park Must-See TV

Jake Olesiak’s transformation starts at 8 a.m. after he punches out from his overnight shift at an ethanol factory. His steel-toe boots go into the trunk, as do his mask, face shield and hard hat. Black riding boots come out, then the goggles and finally his Minnesota Vikings ball cap.

Behind the wheel is his wife, Megan. For the next two hours, Olesiak, 32, tries to sleep with his hat pulled down over his eyes as Megan drives the S.U.V. westward from Firth, Neb., to the meatpacking town Grand Island, with little besides cornfields and the interstate to keep her company.

Check out Art Parker’s piece for AGOS – Essential Business from last month.

Olesiak, a production supervisor at E Energy Adams, which makes fuel from local grain, is considered an essential worker. He is more than that at Fonner Park, a tiny jewel box of a horse track in the heartland. He is a money rider, perennially atop the jockey standings.

Olesiak has won more than 1,000 races and has nearly $7 million in purse earnings. He has dreamed of riding in the Kentucky Derby, and for a decade, he pursued it full time. He has hung his equipment, or tack, in jock rooms in the Dakotas, Iowa, Ohio and Canada.

But soon after his second daughter was born, he decided to take a full-time job and ride the boutique Nebraska circuit …

NE Racing Commission approves April days for Fonner Park

“The two-week trial basis went well enough,’’ Fonner CEO Chris Kotulak said. “It hasn’t been a raging success but it’s been greater than our expectations.’’

Fonner Park will continue to race Mondays through Wednesdays for the remainder of its Thoroughbred race meet.

State racing commission approves April days for Fonner ParkThe track’s request to shift its race days throughout April was approved Friday in a one-hour Nebraska Racing Commission conference call. The request received unanimous approval from the five-member board.

The commission had granted Fonner’s request two weeks ago to move its dates from Friday-Sunday to Monday-Wednesday on a trial basis. That request was made in part because Fonner has little racing competition nationwide early in the week.

Because of strong simulcasting mutuel handles, track officials wanted to keep those days.

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