Analysis: Too many tracks, fewer bets plague U.S. horse racing

DETROIT (Reuters) - With fewer fans wagering less money at too many racetracks, U.S. thoroughbred horse racing is galloping toward a reckoning.

Horses are walked on the track before a preliminary race ahead of the 136th Kentucky Derby horse race in Louisville, Kentucky, May 1, 2010. REUTERS/John Sommers II

Not even the advent of racinos -- tracks that include slot machines or other casino gambling -- have stemmed the decline.

The industry must address a fall-off in attendance, betting totals and horse auction values if it wants to retain its position in the public’s sporting consciousness, executives and analysts said.

“The playing field has completely changed for the industry,” said Ray Paulick, who has covered horse racing for more than three decades and publishes the Paulick Report. “There’s too many tracks, too many race dates and not enough consumers who are interested in the product.”

Recognized as the sport of kings, horse racing has a long and checkered history in the United States. It has dominated public attention with horses like Man o’ War, Sea Biscuit and Secretariat, and movies and stories like “National Velvet” and “The Black Stallion” reflected that. Still, at other times its popularity has faded.

It has struggled in the United States in recent years as casinos proliferated. The recession has exacerbated things. The handle, or amount wagered on U.S. thoroughbred races, slid 19 percent to $12.3 billion in 2009 from 2003, and is off another 7 percent through July.

Add in weaker attendance, a lower number of horses being bred for the sport and a 32-percent drop last year to $660 million in the value of North American thoroughbred auction purchases, and worries abound.

"I'd probably bet the future is more likely down for the next few years than up," said Robert Evans, chief executive of Churchill Downs Inc CHDN.O, which owns the track where the famed Kentucky Derby is run.

Evidence of the tough times is mounting, as large track owner Magna Entertainment filed for bankruptcy protection last year and another large operator, the New York Racing Association, warned of a shutdown earlier this year.

“It’s not as if one group has any magic bullets here,” said Bennett Liebman, executive director of the Government Law Center at Albany Law School and a member of NYRA’s board.


Many industry executives say subsidies like slots or government support are a must and that more bankruptcies or closures are likely among the country’s 100 or so tracks.

“Running a racetrack is now a negative gross business,” NYRA President Charlie Hayward said.

Another concern is racing’s aging fans. Some worry about finding new ones to replace a majority base of men over the age of 50 who make up the industry’s heaviest bettors.

Tracks are pushing hard to lure younger crowds, turning to music and food festivals as draws. Some even downplay the races to get people in the door in the hopes they will gamble later.

“You really don’t see horses in our ads at all anymore. It’s really all about ... coming to the races is a social scene,” said Craig Dado, a senior vice president with Del Mar, a racetrack outside San Diego founded by crooner Bing Crosby in the late 1930s.

The share of Del Mar’s female visitors has jumped 5 points to 40 percent in the last five years, while those under the age of 35 now make up almost half of the total, he said.

Some executives see things bottoming out. Magna's assets were purchased by MI Developments Inc MIMa.TO and NYRA, which operates New York tracks at Belmont, Saratoga and Aqueduct, got a $25 million loan from the state, which is moving to approve slot machines for the tracks.

However, most agree the industry needs to be leaner, and some tracks are already moving that way.

Monmouth Park in Oceanport, New Jersey, halved its racing days this year to 71, but attendance is up 12 percent and wagers have risen 38 percent at the track and more than doubled off track. As a result, purses awarded to horse owners have ballooned to $1 million a day from $380,000 last year.

“This has worked incredibly well,” said Robert Kulina, the track’s vice president and general manager. “Less is more.”

Many believe that in the future, large tracks with the biggest purses and best horses will host races only on weekends, while smaller tracks supply races to televise at other facilities and drive gambling the rest of the time.

“Not even the New York Yankees play in Yankee Stadium 100 straight days,” said Nick Nicholson, CEO of Keeneland, the largest seller of thoroughbred horses in the world and operator of a track that races only 32 days a year.

The Internet offers further hope. If gambling ramps up online to allow bets on cell phones and other personal devices, the potential is huge, especially overseas, said Alex Waldrop, CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. The U.S. made up a small portion of the $115 billion globally wagered on horse races in 2008.

“Horse racing is still very popular around the world,” he said. “There are still large, new markets that we can access.”

Reporting by Ben Klayman. Editing by Robert MacMillan