HTA/TRA General sessions begin

10:10 PM 19 Feb 2008 NZDT
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The Harness and Thoroughbred racing industries came together for their annual educational and brainstorming panel discussions, as part of the 2008 joint meeting of Harness Tracks of America and the Thoroughbred Racing Association, the general sessions of which began Tuesday.

Moderated by racing announcer and media personality Dave Johnson, the panels kicked off with Woodbine Entertainment’s Nick Eaves and long-time major bettor and racing economist Maury Wolff who spoke under the title, “Swimming With the Whales: Will They Beach Offshore or Can They Be Returned to the Racetrack.” Their topic revolved around the loss of big-money bettors to offshore “rebate” shops, which offer money back for large amounts wagered.

Eaves said tracks must start looking toward betting structures that recognize and reward the biggest players, because the offshore entities are offering enticements with which the tracks cannot compete. Both entities, he added, are fighting over a dwindling piece of the same pari-mutuel pie.

He called the modern-day pari-mutuel system “out of place” in 2008 and declared the status quo to be “impossible.” He noted, however, that the rebate facilities automatically start off at an advantage with which the tracks cannot compete.

“They have no cost structure that resembles the cost structure of racetracks,” Eaves said. “Those who believe in rebates have to realize the tracks are competing against competitors we let into our business on a basis that is fundamentally unfair. The industry has to come together to solve this.

“We shouldn’t invite the third party to the table. We have to get rid of it.”

Wolff noted that before the rebate shops, takeout only went in one direction -- up. And that began to chop away at the loyalty of big-time bettors. He said such computer-based venues have, in fact, cultivated their own bettors and brought them to the wagering table.

That computer bettor is, according to Wolff, likely here to stay.

“(Before computer wagering) I went to the track more times than I care to count,” said Wolff. “Now, I go as few (times) as possible.”

The second panel was entitled, “Keeping the ‘Race’ in Racinos: Are They Simply Purse Builders or Can They Offer Meaningful Opportunities to Broaden Patronage,” and it included Chuck Atwood of Harrah’s Entertainment, Charles Hayward from the New York Racing Association, Delaware State Rep. Bill Oberle, Jeff Gural of Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs, and Chris McErlean of Penn National.

Hayward noted that horse players like the mental exercise of gambling, and slot players like the randomly generated nature of it, putting them at opposite ends of the wagering spectrum.

McErlean added that that the introduction of slots at tracks was not “realistic” to put thousands of fans in the racing seats, but it does give tracks tools to try and attract new gamblers.

Atwood agreed, adding that just because one person chooses one form of entertainment over another does not mean they won’t eventually come together.

“More advantages come from a racino than are present at a racetrack,” he said. “It’s a matter of being part of something with rewards that come in other ways.”

Gural said he operates at both ends of the spectrum -- Tioga Downs, which was built as a racino, and Vernon, which was modified from an existing racing structure. He went out of his way at Tioga to make sure racing and the casino integrated, but that is not a luxury shared by both racino facilities.

“You know you are at a racetrack when you are at Tioga’s slot area,” he said. “With Vernon, the casino was built by someone else separate from the track. When you go into the casino you don’t even know you are at a racetrack.”

Gural also stressed the proliferation of race dates as a major issue confronting tracks and racinos.

“The more you race, the less you race for,” he said. “That is the wrong model politicians are using. They listen to horsemen who come in with some sad tale of woe (to get more race dates). But the more you race, the less you race for and less popular you will be (with fans). If you are going to race year round, in a building that holds 40,000 people and gets only 3,000 people, you are not going to be successful.”

McErlean agreed, citing the examples of Charlestown and Penn National as examples of tracks that are racing a very high minimum number of dates set on an early 1980s model that is not applicable today.

“From an overall business point of view, it’s not realistic to expect someone to come out on a Tuesday night at Penn National,” he said. “If we can run our business as it should be, and put on a good product, people will come. Racinos have been a purse builder for horsemen, but the product we have at a lot of places, I would not say it’s the best product out there.”

The third speaker on the session was Charles Leerhsen of Sports Illustrated, who shared some humorous accounts from his research and writing of the book on Dan Patch entitled, “Crazy Good,” which comes out June 3.

The morning wrapped up with a presentation on the Miami Project, research aimed at improving recovery from spinal cord injuries.

The Nova Awards banquet will be held Tuesday evening, and the sessions continue at 8:00 a.m. Wednesday.

Nicole Kraft, communications director, U.S. Trotting Association

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