Saratoga Race Track opened on July 16 to thoroughbred horse racing with no fans in attendance. Only a limited number of horse trainers and owners are permitted to be at The Spa to watch their horses. The verdict so far: A huge success!
I am a big fan of the Saratoga thoroughbred meet, which this year spans 8 weeks, and I have written something about it in past blog posts. My past posts have been about the mathematics of odds and gambling and how investing in the stock market is different than gambling at the horse track. The horse track should be viewed as entertainment, as opposed to a place to earn a living, and the money you gamble should be a part of your entertainment budget that you are willing to lose. Unless you work in the horse racing industry, if you view horse racing as something more than just entertainment, then perhaps you have a problem.
That said, I am interested in the meet’s economics, and the news here is very good despite the “no fans” policy. The New York Racing Association (NYRA), which operates Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct, reports that the Week 1 handle was up about 9% this year over last year. More recently, last Saturday August 1’s handle was up about 13% over last year’s record handle, Saturday having been Whitney day with several graded-stakes races. It’s good for the horse racing industry when the handle is up, even though it may not be so good for those who have a gambling problem, so a rising handle is good news on the whole.
How is it that the handle (the total amount of money that people bet on a given race or a given day) can be up when nobody can go to the track? The answer is increased accessibility. As the in-person experience has become unaccessible, other ways to experience the Saratoga meet have become more accessible. First is online betting. As the array of online stock trading platforms have transformed the investment business, so too has online horse betting transformed its own industry. Online betting on horses now seems to be hitting a critical mass as people seek an entertainment outlet as they work at home.
Increased TV Coverage
The second factor that is spurring growth is increased live TV coverage. Specifically, Fox Sports is now airing the entire Saratoga card every day live, with its coverage devoted exclusively to Saratoga. Coverage in prior years was either not live or not of the complete card or not exclusively Saratoga, and its objective was to cause people to want to go to the track in person rather than to bet on the races online. The exclusive live full-card TV coverage of each Saratoga race makes the entire meet more accessible to the betting public, which results in a higher handle.
Not Everybody Wins
Just because the handle is larger doesn’t mean that everybody wins in this newly-emerging economic model for the Saratoga meet. For instance, people are not buying food, drinks, or souvenirs while at the track, and hotels and those who typically rent out their houses to horse people during the meet aren’t doing so this year. But Covid is still with us now and we hope it won’t be next year or the year after. Let’s hope that the beneficiaries of the in-person racing experience will bounce back when (not if) fans are allowed back to the track.
Good News Among Bad
The good news about increased handle comes at a time when the industry can really use it. Headlines in the past few years pre-Covid in the industry have been about the deaths of horses and the closing of tracks amid fewer horses racing. These issues are also still with us. Though they look big and strong, thoroughbred horses have some very fragile parts, and they are inbred. Trainers who bend the rules by using performance-enhancing substances also don’t help the image of the sport. But the horses themselves are beautiful and watching them race has aesthetic appeal. Let’s hope the increased handle will somehow be used to address some of the problems that have beset the horse racing industry in recent years.
I believe the cat is out of the bag with respect to more accessible online betting and more complete and exclusive coverage of the Saratoga meet. Fans will eventually return in person to the track. When they do, let’s hope that they add to the track handle and the overall track economics without cannibalizing any of the handle through online sources. And let’s hope that this all spurs improvements in horse (and jockey) safety and more money invested in the beautiful thoroughbred horses!