12/06/2016 2:21PM

Gambling vs. sport discussed at racing symposium


TUCSON, Ariz. – If racing has an “identity crisis,” the term used in the title for the kick-off panel at the annual Symposium on Racing and Gaming, then it’s one of multiple personalities, participants in the panel told a packed audience on Tuesday morning at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort in Tucson, Ariz.

It was not clear from the comments made by the panelists whether horse racing’s appeal to multiple segments of society amounted to a crisis, with that term’s negative implications. Instead, the participants said that horse racing, like other entertainment industries, has to be “everything to everyone,” in the words of Breeders’ Cup Vice President of Media and Entertainment Peter Rotondo, in order to satisfy the different needs of fans who are drawn to the game because of their love of horses, gambling, or the relatively superficial attractions that surround large racing events like the Breeders’ Cup or Triple Crown races.

“You have to have it all,” Rotondo said.

Panelists repeated the age-old assertion that there are two core groups of horse racing fans – those who are drawn to the game because of the athletes and those who primarily self-identify as gamblers, without directly acknowledging that many of the sport’s most ardent customers have a foot firmly planted in both camps.

At one point in the panel, Amy Zimmerman, the widely respected director of broadcasting for The Stronach Group, asked attendees to raise their hands if they got into racing for “the horses” or for “the gambling.” By a rough count, approximately one-fourth of those people who responded to the question raised their hands for horses, with the remainder raising their hands for gambling.

“We’re marketing to two different audiences,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman, who works on some of the sport’s most high-profile television broadcasts as well as the daily simulcast shows telecast daily to every corner of the industry, said that many people who critique racing broadcasts as being too focused on aspects of the events other than wagering do not realize that many in the television audience are not hard-core racing fans. As a result, producers have to broaden the appeal of the broadcasts to satisfy novice viewers, Zimmerman said.

“We have to do things to keep those viewers watching,” Zimmerman said.

The panel opened with a lengthy video produced by the Hong Kong Jockey Club showcasing the young and exuberant crowds at its “Happy Wednesday” night cards at its downtown Happy Valley Racecourse, and Bill Nader, a former executive with the New York Racing Association who was also an executive at the HKJC from 2007 until earlier this year, was a panelist. The popularity of the sport in Hong Kong has always raised calls for decision-makers in the U.S. to adopt the province’s tactics, even if those calls routinely ignore the vast differences between the two industries and cultures.

But Nader’s presentation actually included a “shocking” statement, as the moderator, the racing radio host Steve Byk, put it. Contrary to the popular narrative that Hong Kong’s success – and the reinvigoration of the province’s handle over the past 10 years – stems from its unrelenting focus on the needs of its gamblers and its efforts to protect the integrity of the sport, Nader said that when he started at the HKJC in 2007, he was told by top officials to focus on marking racing more “social,” rather than focusing on gambling.

At the time Nader started at the HKJC, handle on the HKJC races had fallen from $92 billion U.S. annually in 1997 to $60 billion in 2006, he said. Since then, handle has roughly doubled, with wagering in 2016 expected to be $112 billion, Nader said.

Obviously, far more went into that growth than a narrow focus on making the racing experience more social, ranging from dramatic geopolitical and economic developments in South Asia to the HKJC’s other focused efforts to improve its product. However, Nader stressed that the long-term health of any business depends on the renewal and growth of its customer base, even if those new customers take a long time to develop into core customers.

“It’s sport, it’s wagering, it’s entertainment, it’s experience,” said Nader. “It’s not the greatest amount of wagering dollars [that indicates success]. It’s the biggest customer base.”

But those efforts to expand the customer base are hurt in the U.S. by several factors, according to Michael Tanner, the executive vice president of the United States Trotting Association. Tanner said takeouts on racing were too high to attract many new customers who are looking for good betting propositions. But he blamed that reluctance to lower takeout rates on the struggles of many tracks to make ends meet for their racing operations in an era of stagnation and contraction rather than an unwillingness to test the market.

“It’s not coming from a point of greed,” Tanner said.

Rotondo, in part, echoed that sentiment, saying that many small tracks had failed to invest in their facilities over the past 20 years to keep up with dramatic changes in facility design and customer expectations offered by other entertainment industries.

“Those venues for horse racing are not good,” Rotondo said, stressing the vast differences in customer amenities between many tracks. “They let down on the experience.”