I’ve been a sports fan longer than I’ve been a horse racing fan. I spent countless afternoons at Chicago’s Wrigley Field watching the Cubs before I made my first visit to Arlington Park in the city’s suburbs to see a thoroughbred race.
Once I got the bug for racing, however, I loved everything about it. Handicapping a horse race is a tremendously challenging exercise. The jockeys are talented and courageous athletes. And the horses – whether they’re a bottom level claimer or a champion – are admirable in what they give us, both in their undeniable efforts and in how they make us feel. Though the sport’s leaders are reluctant to address problems and adapt to a more competitive playing field, I have found racing to be an exciting and enjoyable gambling game.
I’m afraid I’m a dinosaur in the current environment.
I still love sports – especially Chicago Cubs baseball – though have very little interest in betting on games. Once or twice a year, on cross-country drives, I’ll stop in Las Vegas and make a wager or two on a golf tournament or football game, depending on the season. But I have no interest in dissecting pitching matchups or injury reports or diving into performance ratings of players for the sole purpose of gambling – at least not on an ongoing basis. I’d rather handicap the Pick 5.
Historically, Nevada is the only American state where it has been legal to bet on sports. That is changing, and quickly. Earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a federal law prohibiting sports gambling was unconstitutional. Many states are considering giving the green light to legalize sports gambling, and several – New Jersey, Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, among others – have done so already.
I spent the opening weekend of the National Football League season camped out in a Las Vegas sports book with my adult son. At one end of the room was a section devoted to horse racing, including several betting windows that were empty much of the day. The remainder of the room – and all of the oversized television screens – were dedicated to the NFL. Betting lines were long before the games and during halftime.
It was difficult to keep up with the eight NFL games being shown on the big-screen TVs. But it was clear, with every touchdown or intercepted pass, that nearly everyone in the room had a rooting interest, whether it was cheering on a favorite team, betting on one or more games, or following players on their fantasy teams.
The races, meanwhile, at Belmont Park in New York, Los Alamitos in California or any number of tracks in between, were run with nary a peep from the packed house. Sports betting ruled the day.
There is a reason the Breeders’ Cup holds a championship event each autumn on Friday and Saturday – rather than Saturday and Sunday. It doesn’t want to compete with the juggernaut that is the NFL.
It’s very difficult to see what impact sports betting will have on racing in the U.S. Monmouth Park, operated by the horsemen’s organization that challenged the federal law eventually overturned by the Supreme Court, ended its 2018 meeting with slight declines in wagering and attendance. Monmouth was the first American racetrack to open a sports book on-track, and the hope was that sports bettors who flocked to wager on games might also become horseplayers. It’s too early to say whether that happened.
Racing – especially horse owners – will have a tough time convincing politicians it deserves a piece of the action from sports gambling. Tracks will state their case that sports books belong at racetracks – since gambling already takes place there – and that’s a sound argument to make.
Sports betting is coming. It seems to me racing’s best hope is not to try and extract a percentage of each bet, but to look for ways to co-exist and benefit off one another.
Racing also must improve its product and pricing. Takeout must be more competitive with other forms of gambling. If it doesn’t adapt, racing will lose many of its current players and may have a hard time developing new ones.
Dinosaurs like me are becoming extinct.