01/09/2013 10:10AM

Gisser: Increasing handle all about time


2013 is here. And, just like in 2012 and 2011 before that, tracks will be looking to increase handle.

Some will add new wagers. Some will lower takeout. Inexplicably, some will raise takeout. Some will try promotions to get newcomers out to the track. Others will attempt to appeal more to the regular gambler, who has every incentive to stay home and wager from the comfort of his home, where the beer is cheaper, the bathroom is cleaner and where he can smoke if he chooses to. It’s about time.

Literally. The key to a track increasing its handle is all about time: post time; drag time; slotting time; race days; competition and circuits. A couple weeks back, Jay Bergman wrote a very good piece about solving harness racing’s problems.

In that piece he said:

“It’s no secret that the Meadowlands has always operated under the guise that 10-horse fields produce more wagering. Yet just putting 10 behind the gate is no assurance that gamblers will follow. However, putting more than half the field behind the gate at competitive prices does attract a larger wagering audience.”

Jay is mostly right. While just putting 10 behind the gate is no assurance gamblers will follow, putting 10 behind the gate, even with a 1-5 favorite, will generate more handle than putting five or six evenly matched horses behind the gate. But if you want to assure that race will have a large handle, make that race the only one going off at that time.

Several years back, Northfield Park changed its Monday post time to 6:30 p.m. and carded 16-race cards. The very first race under that schedule was a maiden claimer with eight horses and a 1-5 favorite. The track handled $184,000 on that $1,600 race. It was the only race in North America at that time.

The Meadowlands early success may be due to A-B-C racing, but it may just as likely be due to a lack of competition. Even Northfield, with some very poor racing going on right now, is handling decent money. There is no Yonkers, no Pocono, and no track formerly known as Chester Downs. Northfield has actually cut most live Saturday cards due to the increased competition for the wagering dollar. Granted, the arcane Ohio simulcasting laws have a great deal to do with it, but even going back to Northfield’s heyday, when I still worked there, Saturday was traditionally the worst night for handle. We can argue the logic of this strategy from a fan-development and ancillary income angle some other time.

Northfield is also notorious for its drag, the delaying of a race to maximize handle. And while the drag has become a joke among many horseplayers, there must be a reason they keep doing it, and indeed, increasing it. It’s because it helps the handle. By dragging, Northfield can first “throw” a post time that slots them nicely between races from so-called major tracks. Then if there is a delay, they can drag. If there is no delay, they rely on human nature, in which players see the urgency of “0 Minutes to Post” and rush to get a wager in.  And so they drag. Like it or not, it works. And they will keep doing it.

Northfield also benefits from racing 200+ days a year (again due to one of the most idiotic simulcast situations in the country). So when slots finally do arrive, probably in late fall of 2013, it will continue to benefit more than any other track from “dark time simulcasting pool,” but its racing will benefit the least from slot income. While Scioto Downs basically races one day for every 3.5 days it is dark, meaning slot income really accrues to the purse account, Northfield will race once for every .75 days it is dark, meaning its purses will not benefit anywhere near as much. That’s where circuit racing comes in.

In a perfect world, more people would be betting at the track. But with 90% or more of some tracks’ wagers coming from simulcast locations and advance wagering deposit platforms (aka the Internet) that is simply not a realistic model. So even though they have separate owners, the Ohio tracks should get together and put together a circuit, where no more than two of the tracks are racing at any time and only one is racing on any day. The handle will not be diluted by too many unbalanced, short fields, and purses will stay high.

Harrah’s Philadelphia and Pocono may be starting to get this, although only in a major-event way.  I found this press release interesting -- Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs is getting ready for what will be its biggest season ever with the addition of three big races for late summer. The track in Northeast PA is proud to add the prestigious Super Stakes races from Harrah’s Philadelphia to its stakes schedule. The Colonial, Battle of Brandywine, and the Valley Forge will take their spot two weeks after the Hambletonian on Saturday, Aug. 17.  The decision to change the schedule, which will see these races alternate between Harrah’s Philadelphia and Pocono from year to year, was made by the Pennsylvania Harness Horsemen’s Association, which controls the stakes schedules at both tracks. According to PHHA President Sam Beegle, the move will make it easier to keep the purse account in check.

What goes unsaid here is that there will be more money for overnights at both tracks this way. Purse accounts are about handle and expenses (purses). Oh yeah, and slot income. But what if the two tracks really collaborated, brought together by Ron Battoni, Sam Beegle and the horsemen? The two PA tracks battle for horses (with Yonkers and The Meadowlands, as well as each other). Pocono operates from late March to mid-November, while Harrah’s races from early March to late September, takes a couple weeks off and then races through mid-December. Many days, both tracks are racing - granted one during the day and one at night.

Is a better plan available? I think so.

In conclusion, the way to increase handle is by providing less product at any given time and concentrating the handle that is available. This can be done on a minute-by-minute basis (post times and drags), on a day-by-day basis (not racing head-to-head) or on a long-term basis (re-establishment of the circuit concept). That would guarantee the full fields Jay Bergman is so passionate about.