12/04/2017 3:53PM

Zoccali: Eliminating the disconnect between track management, horsemen

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It is no secret that horsemen and racetrack management have completely different approaches and outlooks when it comes to the harness racing industry.  I learned this quickly during my time as Director of Racing Operations at The Meadowlands.  However, over the past several weeks, the differences between the two have reached levels that I had not seen.

While working with horsemen to try and do what was in the best interest of all parties, I was exposed to two different viewpoints that stemmed from very smart people, none more-so from the horsemen side than Leo McNamarra.  Leo knew so much about racetrack operations, I drew the conclusion that horsemen representatives were in communication with their members and a lot of this information was common knowledge.  In the past several weeks I learned that this was simply not the case.

In an exchange related to the significance of The Meadowlands as it pertained to the general health of the harness racing industry, one horseman asked the following question:

“I think you are overestimating the importance of The Meadowlands . . . I don’t see how the Meadowlands being open or closed affects any other tracks beyond peripherally.  Does the Meadowlands being open make racing in Ohio healthier?”

He later added:

“I didn’t realize that The Meadowlands split what they earned in handle with other tracks.”

This exchange opened my eyes to the fact that there are horsemen who don’t understand the simulcast system. They don’t understand that their home track makes money on the importing of signals and that revenue from the importing of those signals goes to their own purses.

How could that be?  Well, it’s actually rather simple.  Due to the fact that there are casinos all over the country funding purses, horsemen don’t even realize that the importing of signals via simulcast does that as well.  The casino is the gravy train, so who needs the money from The Meadowlands signal?

Imagine this topic being discussed 25 years ago.  Envision a horseperson taking the point of view that it didn’t matter to anyone in harness racing outside The Meadowlands whether or not The Meadowlands is open or closed.

The Meadowlands is responsible for approximately $225 Million in handle each year, or more than 15% of the total handle in harness racing, while running approximately 2% of the total races in harness racing.  That $225 Million includes over $200 Million in export handle (money bet on The Meadowlands at ADW’s, OTW’s and other racetracks).  Of that $200 Million, it produces over $4 Million in purses for The Meadowlands and upwards of $12 Million in purses for other racetracks who take their signal in North America.  Not to mention a similar amount that helps fund the operations at racetracks around the continent as well.  All-in, we are talking about over $30 Million in revenue for operations and purses all over North America.

Admittedly, racetracks are concerned first and foremost about their bottom line and the long-term health of the industry, as it needs to be adequate to ensure their survival.  Why should a horseperson care about or even know about these things when hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into purse accounts from slot machines?  I knew there was a disconnect, but I did not realize it was this vast.

I am not insulting horsemen, nor am I saying that I would be any different if I were one, but there clearly needs to be improved communication from horsemen’s representatives to their members. A horseperson has to, at the very least, know that handle from the importing of signals helps pay their purses.  If they don’t know this, how could they possibly understand the significance of The Meadowlands signal and what it means for them?

It surprised me to learn all of this, because I wonder, where did this particular horseman think purses for races came from before casinos at racetracks existed?  I am certainly not implying that all horsemen fit into this group of uninformed, but even one is too many.

How do we fix this?  While I think the responsibility lies with horsemen’s representatives to inform their members, either through meetings, or monthly updates that include this kind of information, perhaps the racetracks could assist as well.  Maybe a monthly update that shows, “we imported ‘x’ amount of handle via simulcasting and that handle yielded ‘y’ for the purses for our races.  Perhaps this would help bridge the communication gap between the two entities.

Admittedly, the amount that handle produces for purses will pale in comparison to what the casinos are contributing.  But perhaps opening up eyes of horsemen to exactly what that difference is will bring awareness and concern to the notion of, “What do we do if/when these casinos no longer have to contribute to our purses? Can we survive?”  That could lead to a conversation that broaches the topic of putting money away for a rainy day.  Taking 5% of the money accrued from the casino for purses and putting it towards the future.

Being informed is good and a horseman should know everything a racetrack operator knows.  If we build off this notion, we can bridge the gap and create a well-needed cohesion between the two groups and that would lead to improving the future of the industry.