23RD MAY 2017 | WRITTEN BY: CHRIS SIEROTY
A veteran racetrack executive believes the next step in the evolution of pari-mutuel racing in the United States is to allow tracks to offer historical horseracing, also known as instant racing, which allows players to bet on replays of horse races.
“The fact is that in most jurisdictions we are not being allowed to sell our own product in the most modern and productive way,” Scott Wells, president and general manager of Remington Park and Lone Star Park said at the Pan American Conference.
Wells said a live horse race every 25 minutes is the traditional way to sell horseracing, but “many of us are stuck thinking that’s the only way.”
Wells said the industry’s product is not just the visual experience of watching the race.
“It’s the results of the race that are our core product,” Wells told several hundred trainers, racetrack executives, politicians and racing officials gathered inside a Grand Hyatt ballroom in Washington, D.C.
The Pan American Conference, which offered a number of panel discussions on the health of the horseracing industry, racetrack design and marketing, was held May 17-20.
“The results of the race are what determine the winners and losers … and the distribution of the mutuel pools and purses. And the results are filed away forever. It doesn’t have to be that way,” Wells said.
Wells cited Oaklawn Park’s success with historical racing at its track in Hot Springs, Arkansas, which first offered the games in 2000, as an example a new revenue stream for racetracks.
Churchill Downs is also considering adding historic racing machines at the Louisville, Kentucky, track.
Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Churchill Downs, said during a first-quarter conference call in April that the machines have already been put in place at racetracks Kentucky Downs, Ellis Park and the Red Mile.
“We are intrigued by the idea and continue to analyze it closely,” Carstanjen said.
Historical racing games play like slot machines but base payouts on a pari-mutuel formula with winning combinations determined by previously run horse races.
“Historical horseracing gives us the opportunity to sell our real product — the results of the race — repeatedly in a modern, fast paced way, which is what the marketplace demands,” Wells said.
For those skeptical that historical racing is legal, Wells said that “as long as it is done in a pari-mutuel way, it is clearly been approved in all gaming jurisdictions.”
“Not to allow racetracks to have historical racings … is a restriction of fair trade. It keeps the industry in handcuffs,” said Scott Wells of Remington and Lone Star racetracks.
Wells added that unlike video gaming terminals (VGTs), which have saturated some gaming markets, instant racing should only be done at racetracks. Allowing the product more widely would “add dramatically to purses and the viability of the breeding and racing industries.”
During his 45-minute presentation titled “The Racino Experience,” Wells admitted that running two racetracks can “get a little depressing,” especially with the declining numbers of on-track bettors.
Wells also showed a few Remington Park commercials that incorporated jockeys to promote the track’s casino. As well as two commercial racinos, Oklahoma is home to 124 tribal casinos on Native American lands.
“Off course there has been a proliferation of gambling choices for everyone,” Wells said. “Where for many years Las Vegas and Atlantic City were the only choices that allowed gambling … now that pie has been divided into a thousand pieces.”
Defined as a marriage between casino gambling and horseracing, West Virginia pioneered the racino concept in 1990 when MTR Gaming Group was allowed to introduce gaming machines to Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort in Chester.
Today there are 55 racinos nationwide, according to data compiled by GamblingCompliance.
In Oklahoma, racinos were legalized when a state-wide ballot measure was passed 60 to 40 percent in the fall of 2004. Wells said Remington Park was on the verge of closing when the measure was approved by voters.
“The racino model was very beneficial to Remington Park and the Oklahoma horse racing industry,” Wells said. “Our purses rose by 400 percent … our handle is up 30 percent.”
But increasing attendance at the track is still a struggle.
In Wells’ experience, 25 percent of racing customers play in the casino before they leave; only 5 percent of casino players bet on racing.
Wells cited those numbers in saying opponents of racinos could justifiably argue that basing your business on slot machines will just keep eroding horseracing.
“That’s a difficult argument to dispute,” Wells said. “But let me say I’ve had the racino experience and the non-racino experience for the last four years as the manager of Lone Star Park.”
Based in Grand Prairie, Texas, Lone Star Park is owned by the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. The tribe have also owned Remington Park, located near Oklahoma City, since 2009.
“Texas is surrounded by Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, all of which have casinos to support racing at the racetracks,” Wells said. “That has been catastrophic for the Texas horseracing industry.”
Wells was also critical of a move last year to try and adopt historical horseracing in Texas.
Under pressure from the state’s political leaders, Texas racing commissioners voted in February to rescind regulations that would have permitted historical racing machines at tracks.
“Texas politicians had one hand [behind their backs] … taking donations from politicians in other states, especially from casino interests in other states,” Wells said. “Texas has been held to a standstill.”
Wells admitted that Lone Star Park was “not doing well,” but he praised the Chickasaw Nation for their willingness to invest millions of dollars in both tracks.
This year, Lone Star Park will host 50 days of racing between April and July. Remington Park hosts 119 days and is in the midst of an annual quarter horse meet that runs through June 3, with live thoroughbred racing between September and December.