BUSINESS OUTLOOK FOR AMERICAN HORSE RACING IN 2020

How well the American horse racing enterprise performs in 2020 will depend largely on the overall economy, competition, and humane issues.

Economy

The macro environment is very favorable for the U. S. economy continuing its trajectory from 2019.  Here’s why:

The U. S. Federal Reserve and global central banks will keep interest rates low and will expand balance sheets, which is a liquidity tailwind for stocks and higher stock prices fuel the “wealth effect” that promotes consumer spending.  Moreover, there is massive fiscal stimulus from consumer and corporate tax cuts and government spending.  Corporate profits are at a record high level.

(Congress’ profligate deficit spending is a huge long-term problem but won’t affect the 2020 economy unless a heated job market leads to inflation. This would increase government borrowing costs and possibly cause the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates.)

Consumer outlays account for 70% of U. S. Gross Domestic Product and consumers have the means to spend.  Unemployment is at record low levels, including for minorities, wages are at an 11-year high, household net worth is at a record high level, and debt-service is at a record low level. Moreover, the lowest-wage earners are seeing their incomes rise.

All of this bodes well for consumer spending on leisure and discretionary activities like betting on horse racing.

Competition

In the wake of the U. S. Supreme Court decision that legalized sports betting, at least 20 states and the District of Columbia permit sports betting and many others are considering it.  What effect sports betting has on pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing is not yet known with certainty.  The risk is that sports betting will cannibalize wagering on horse racing.  In addition to sports betting, six states have legalized online casinos.

Humane Issues

Horse racing in 2019 suffered considerably from adverse publicity, owing mainly to a rash of horse fatalities at Santa Anita Park in California.  The big unknown for racing is the extent to which negative publicity erodes fan support and bettor participation.  Will racing be able to reform itself to present a more humane appearance or will infighting stifle meaningful reform?

Conclusion

Economic conditions for racing are more favorable than they have been in many years.  On the other hand, the industry will not be able to capitalize on the opportunity if it does not take concrete steps to burnish its public persona and find a way to leverage the mushrooming popularity of sports betting by encouraging crossover wagering.

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business

ON SANTA’S GIFT LIST FOR AVID RACING FANS: “TALL TALES AND STRAIGHT TALK FROM THE BACKSIDE”

A recently published book that I purchased for reading over the holidays is one that Santa Claus would be advised to deliver to racing fans:  Better Lucky Than Good: Tall Tales And Straight Talk From The Backside of the Track.

The book is published by the Louisville [Kentucky] Story Program, a nonprofit that “strengthens the bonds of community by amplifying unheard voices and untold stories.”  Better Lucky Than Good superbly achieves this mission by profiling folks who work on the backside at Churchill Downs—as well as some of the businesspeople who serve them in the poor neighborhood surrounding the famed racetrack–hard-working individuals who labor in relative obscurity. 

Better Lucky Than Good has no vignettes about high-profile owners or trainers.  Rather, it is full of first-person narratives from behind-the-scenes characters who keep the railroad running, so to speak—grooms, exercise riders, farriers, assistant trainers, and more.  The book “took three years to engage backside workers and residents of South Louisville in conversations and a collaboration that…led to the most caring, in-depth look into the lives and stories of equine workers ever published.”

In all, Better Lucky Than Good contains 32 vignettes or short chapters that take the reader into a fascinating world of its own.  One can learn about the life of a female exercise rider from near Seattle who is also an MMA fighter.  Or about how a former Peace Corp volunteer from Indiana came to head up the Backside Learning Center.  The grandson of the founder of Wagner’s Pharmacy, where racetrackers like to eat breakfast or lunch, describes the long history of the ramshackle place.  A groom from Mexico tells of his journey into the world of horse racing. 

Photographs accompany these and other intriguing stories.

I don’t know anyone at Louisville Story Program, but appreciate the unique and entertaining perspectives provided in Better Lucky Than Good.  “Tall tales and Straight Talk from the backside of the track” is an apt description.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business

(Better Lucky Than Good is available new in paperback at $30 plus shipping at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or LouisvilleStoryProgram.org.) 

DEFECTIVE RACING HALL OF FAME SELECTION?

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame inducted Jerry Hollendorfer in 2011.  His biographical sketch begins: “At the time of his Hall of Fame induction, Jerry Hollendorfer ranked in the top 10 in all-time wins and purse earnings among North American trainers.”

Last Saturday, Mighty Elijah became the eighth race-related horse fatality for Mr. Hollendorfer in the past 13 months, when the gelding suffered a leg injury at Los Alamitos and was euthanized.

Mr. Hollendorfer is banned from Santa Anita and Golden Gate Field, both owned by the Stronach Group.  He got a court order to permit him to train and race at Del Mar. This is incongruent with a Hall of Fame profile.

Did Mr. Hollendorfer’s training abilities erode since he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011 or did the HOF selection committee fail to do sufficient due diligence?

Major American professional sports have a superior system for evaluating HOF candidates.  For instance, in the National Football League, a player or coach cannot be considered until he has been retired for at least five years, which allows for a more objective retrospective assessment of a person’s body of work. Mr. Hollendorfer would likely not be voted into the HOF today, given what is known about his recent widely publicized sordid record with horse fatalities, a record that has contributed mightily to tarnishing racing’s image, especially in California.

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Continuing with the subject of horse fatalities, consider the following narrative from Harness Racing Update on December 13, 2019:

“Famed researcher Dr. Tom Tobin of the Gluck Institute at the University of Kentucky said studies show one death per 700 starts in Kentucky thoroughbreds, one death per 1,000 starts for the same breed in England, and one death per 16,600 starts in the Ohio standardbred.  A thoroughbred is 36 times more likely to succumb to a racing injury than a standardbred.”

California has one Standardbred track, Cal Expo.  The last time a horse fatality occurred there as a result of a racing injury was 2006.

When critics call for reform or abandonment of horse racing, the harness folks get unfairly painted with a broad brush.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business