J.N. Campbell Commentary: Racetracks...how does your total handle grow?

Woodbine had a huge handle for their Mile weekend ... Read J.N. Campbell's take in this commentary piece ...
Woodbine had a huge handle for their Mile weekend ... Read J.N. Campbell's take in this commentary piece ...

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This past weekend at Woodbine Racetrack in Canada, the communications office readied their copy. It was a massive weekend of racing, and as the numbers rolled in, it was almost as if the forthcoming press release would write itself. In that eventual posting, “highlighted” was the fact that the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile on Saturday afternoon brought in $2.2 million. However, the punctuating statistic was that “total handle” across Woodbine Racetrack and Woodbine Mohawk Park generated $30,391,567.55.

On the surface, a press release like this one, looks quite impressive because one might automatically assume that Woodbine, or any other track that reports an increase in what is called its “total handle,” is proof-positive of a successful business model. In turn, we might leap to the conclusion that the sport is “alive and well,” poised for a bumper crop. 

But this is bound in a gross set of assumptions that will have huge ramifications if something is not done about it.

These tiresome “press releases,” which you can find on the websites of racetracks across North America, are misleading and lack context. To put it another way, the health of Thoroughbred racing cannot be found in “surface” numbers like these, but yet they appear to be published with that intent. 

What is needed from the track front offices is something way more expansive that drills down into what is truly going on. Where precisely does your “total handle” come from? Tell us … give us specifics, and if you can’t, then please explain why this is the case. If that doesn’t happen soon, entities as seemingly disparate as horsemen’s groups, owners and breeders’ organizations, along with racing fans and horseplayers alike, need to demand transparency when it comes to accounting for racing’s wagering business.

The narrative that is being shopped here is “good news” built on the excitement that previous tallies are being smashed in droves. These countless post-meet pieces are nothing short of a tout. The way it looks is that they are peddling, hawking this idea in such a way to be overly persuasive. Is any of this really “good for the game,” if, say, 95% of the 17.3% increase from 2020 came from one player, or a couple of high-volume syndicates, who are betting more thanks to juicy rebates, direct access to the pools, and without regard for the sustaining the sport?

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It is now well-established in the record that computer-assisted wagering (CAW) and “whale outfits” that flood pools with syndicate money just before a race goes off can have a huge effect on odds and influence over the handle. (See Paulick Report publisher Ray Paulick’s recent piece on this topic) Not only that, but we also know that what are called host fees, can vary depending on deals that the tracks (who are literally running races) make with those that pick up their signal through a complex set of contractual obligations. Thus, every wagering dollar extracted before payoffs are calculated is not always clear-cut, and can be impactful to the pocketbooks of those doing the wagering. 

Those accepting bets on races should be more transparent concerning where the money is coming from and what are the “real” takeout rates that customers are paying. Why can't we know what percentage were on-track vs. high volume syndicates? How about simulcast outlets vs. OTBs? Once we have that kind of information, then we can begin to ask seminal questions like what these numbers really mean, and how they impact the retail horseplayer … and so on. In all likelihood, tracks will not report these figures on their own, so maybe oversight needs to fall to their regulators - the commissions? Their enforcement could be significant, since we do know that they have to approve those host fee structures that tracks implement in order to be paid for their signals. It is time for oversight at the state level to ensure fair and equitable wagering takes place.   

Here is where this kind of disclosure is going to truly come into play? It concerns the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which continues to be a source of hope for the future of racing. If tracks, and their patrons are meant to pay for such an entity (and this is a point of discussion already in the patchy discourse), shouldn’t we have a firm idea of who is funding what and where? 

In the end, paying for this revolution is not going to be inexpensive, and we still do not know how it is going to all shake out. Tracks can go a long way when it comes to participating in good faith measures by engendering confidence, and building trust. Everyone who freestyles in a pari-mutuel pool should know who else they are swimming with and to what extent.

What needs to be done is for racetracks to be pushed to report exactly how much money is wagered on their own races. Let’s pull back the proverbial Ozian curtain, and really begin to understand the state of the game. Enough with frivolities and tiptoeing around issues that could have massive reverberating effects on a sport that we all want to see thrive. It is time to retire the simplistic realm of the tout when it comes to this integral issue. Instead, expansion and disclosure should be the goal. 

The smashing of previous records at Woodbine and every other locale, is “good news,” but only if it doesn’t assume that economic growth is headed in the proper direction. Ensuring expansion is a worthy goal, but these press releases must evolve. Racetracks and the commissions that regulate them, can and should do better when it comes to transparency. It is time to define and explain what “total handle” actually means. The clock is ticking … 

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