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Competing

This post has been corrected. Please see the note at the end.

Plainridge Park’s new slots and video gaming parlor took in $6,154,626.38 during its first week of operation, or more than $703 for each of the 1,250 machines per day. Even considering opening week excitement and whatever pent-up local demand there might have been, that’s an impressive haul.

More than $6 million — that’s an incredible number … Plainridge is showing it can certainly compete with the existing casinos,” New England casino market expert Clyde Barrow tells the Boston Globe.

The nine percent of those revenues designated for the Race Horse Development Fund totaled $553,916.37; that’s $138,479 for harness racing, which takes place at Plainridge. I was going to insert a sentence or two here noting how much Plainridge handled on live racing during the same period, and maybe try to draw a conclusion from the slots-RHDF-handle numbers, but tracking down harness handle figures turns out to make Thoroughbred racing look like a transparent, open industry. (Harness friends, any tips?)

So, let’s use 2014 numbers, taken from the racing office’s annual report (PDF): Last year, the track handled a total of $1,108,715 on-track on 82 race days, or $13,521 per card, and handled another $6,576,620 on its simulcast feed, for an average of $93,724 per card. Pull the Pocket does a bit of estimation/comparison:

Let’s say Plainridge does $100,000 in handle per card. At a low signal fee, let’s set revenue at 5% of that handle, which would mean the track and purses would drive $5,000 per card in revenue.

If they race three cards a week, that’s $15,000 in revenue.

$15,000 from racing, $567,000 from slots.

His conclusion: There’s no point to doing the work of growing handle when there’s so little payoff compared to the casino money. Plainridge is booked for 105 cards this year. Assuming they average about the same per card as last year, they’ll handle almost $10 million, while paying out approximately $4 million in purses (estimate based on averaged recent daily purse levels; in 2014, Plainridge paid $2.6 million in purses). There’s not much incentive to push casino patrons into betting on the local racing product either: The track’s portion of daily live handle runs roughly $1400 per card on-track, or about the gross on two slot machines.

1:35 PM Correction: This post was originally published using only the on-track handle total for 2014, which led to an incorrect conclusion re: daily revenue. This was because I did not include simulcasting handle, listed as “Export Simulcast” in the annual report. The post has been revised to include that figure, and the new and/or altered text is indicated in bold above.

Cutting Down (or Not)

Steve Davidowitz on the too many races, too few horses situation:

In my own judgment, racetrack managers in most states have failed to see the problems they have created for themselves. Fact is, there are so many tracks open for so many months each year, the majority have had to cut down on the number of races they offer each day.

Instead of a five day racing week with nine and 10 races per day, Santa Anita just ran four-day race weeks, with eight races on Thursday and Friday. That pattern is repeated in many states that used to operate five and six days a week with plenty horses left over after running nine and 10 races a day! Even Gulfstream Park had eight race cards …

And yet, when Saratoga opens for 2015 on July 24, it does so with 427 races planned, or about 14 more than 2014, when NYRA slightly reduced the total. The schedule calls for nine-race cards on Monday, 10-race cards Wednesday-Friday and Sunday, and 11-race cards on Saturday, excepting the Travers and Woodward cards (PDF). This is also during a meet in which most graded stakes have been moved to weekends and stakes that previously headlined days — such as the Personal Ensign and Sword Dancer — have been bundled into a “Big Day.” As Mike Watchmaker, taking on the super card trend, observes, “The daily stakes schedule at Saratoga does look pretty lean in the middle of this upcoming meet” (DRF+). Saratoga is great, and it can be a grind. I fear this year it’s going to be more of the second for even the most devoted fans.

Plainridge Morning

Plainridge Park

It’s the only horse racing going in Massachusetts right now, so I went to Plainridge Park on Monday to catch Thursday’s rescheduled card. First post was 11:00 AM — too early to enjoy a snack before at Doug Flutie’s Sports Bar, although not too early for the crowd that was already settling into the new, cacophonous casino floor with its 1,250 slot and video gaming machines. When I emerged onto the track apron — after following a winding hallway that lost more glitz the closer it got to the beige and Formica simulcasting room — it was almost a relief to count only 28 other people out there with me.

That number went up, although not by much. By noon — that was race four — fewer than 100 people were along the rail or watching the flat screens inside. What I took for a larger group in the simulcasting room turned out to be eager casino patrons signing up for players’ rewards cards — Plainridge was processing their new loyalists in the one place they had space and the noise level didn’t make it impossible to capture that all-important marketing data.

I don’t know much about Standardbreds or harness racing, except that they’re sturdy animals who often run weekly and that horses breaking from the one hole have an outsized chance at winning because of likely ground saving. I also know that at Plainridge they’re now running for higher purses funded by casino licensing fees and a percent of gaming revenues via the 25% split harness racing gets from the state’s Race Horse Development Fund, which makes total handle a little less of a concern for horsemen and the track, and that — today, anyway — they were running races every 12 minutes. It was almost as though they were running the card as a formality.

Plainridge Park
The Plainridge Park simulcasting room.

Plainridge Park
Grandstand exterior. Tents and picnic tables were set up along the wall.

Plainridge Park
Lining up for the start of a race. A classic car with “Raceway Park” stenciled on the doors handled gate duty.

Plainridge Park
Coming down the stretch for the first time.

Plainridge Park
Debs Girloffortune (#1, outside) wins the first race.

Plainridge Park
A horse warms up in front of the crowd along the rail.

Dreamy Trêve

Trainer Criquette Head-Maarek blows a kiss after Treve wins the 2015 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud

Trêve is traveling well towards a third Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, winning the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud on Sunday by 1 1/4 lengths over classy Flintshire. Trainer Criquette Head-Maarek (above) said after that she was quite confident:

“I was never worried. She was a little on her toes before the race but Thierry rode her beautifully. I’m delighted as Flintshire is a very good horse. It’s just a dream.”

The Saint-Cloud was the 5-year-old mare’s second win in as many starts this year, a much more promising record than her early 2014 campaign — she was 0-for-2 at this time last year en route to her second Arc victory.

On avait le terrain un peu trop ferme pour elle mais on dit que les bons chevaux vont dans tous les terrains,” said jockey Thierry Jarnet of Trêve’s effort. Google Translate comes to the aid of my high school French to reveal that he was saying something along the lines of, “The ground was a little too firm for her, but they say good horses go in any condition.” Watch the replay:

More on the Saint-Cloud: “Flintshire famously loves a fast surface and he will surely never have a better chance of turning over Treve.”

Postponed

Suffolk Downs’ application for three days of live racing this year — July 11, August 8, and September 5 — has been knocked back another month. In the Massachusetts Gaming Commission meeting on Thursday morning, general counsel Catherine Blue reported to the commissioners that her office was still reviewing public comments on the proposal and had sent several questions to the track’s executives seeking clarification on various points. Blue said that she expects to return with an update on the application at the second MGC meeting in July, which means the first planned date “won’t be possible.”

Conditions for 12 races on July 11, previously available on Equibase, have been removed, and the July 11 steeplechase scheduled at Suffolk Downs has been re-carded at Parx. An August 8 jumps race at the East Boston track is still on the National Steeplechase Association’s calendar.

Hundreds were lined up to play the slots at Plainridge as soon as the doors opened on Wednesday, “and within three hours … the casino had hit its fire department-imposed capacity of 3,750 people.” Not everyone loved the crowd:

Al Valenti of Framingham said he waited about an hour to get in, and was dismayed by the congestion inside.

“I like to be able to spread out,” he said.

Mr. Valenti should come back on Monday for racing. That’s when Thursday’s card will be run, with first post at the unlikely hour of 11:00 AM. “Plainridge postponed Thursday’s harness card because of anticipated casino traffic,” tweeted Tom LaMarra, adding later, in conversation, “I don’t think they get how bad this looks.” So it does, but here’s the thing — nobody’s watching. The money pouring into the ringing, dinging, blinking machines is too distracting.

Opening Day

If you’re a fan of Thoroughbred racing, or anyone affiliated with Thoroughbred racing, in Massachusetts, then today is probably a bittersweet day, emphasis on the bitter — the state’s first slots parlor opens this afternoon at Plainridge, the state’s sole harness track. “The casino is projecting $20 million a month in gaming revenue.” Nine percent of that revenue will flow into the Race Horse Development Fund, set up to support horse racing in the Commonwealth with a split of 75 percent for Thoroughbred purses and breeding, 25 percent for Standardbreds. Millions have been banked, millions more will be added.

Purses at the harness track are already running higher:

Plainridge offered $38,300 in purses on Tuesday’s 10-race card. As recently as 2013, the average purse was $2,700 and last year they averaged $30,000 but were overpaid by $900,000.

“We’ve already turned $3,000 claimers into $4,000 claimers and purses can only go up. It’s all positive,” said trainer and driver Jim Hardy.

Bill Abdelnour, a director of the Harness Horseman’s Association of New England, told the Sun Chronicle, “People can pretty much count on harness racing being around for a long time.”

The same can’t be said of Thoroughbred racing, which is looking for dates and a home after Suffolk Downs and Mohegan Sun lost their bid for a Boston-area casino license to Wynn in September 2014. An application to run three days this year at the track is before the Massachusetts Gaming Commission; an update on the application is on the agenda for the commission’s June 25 meeting. The three-day proposal was criticized as not doing enough for New England horsemen in a public hearing two weeks ago.

Neither breed has enjoyed robust days in recent years — attendance and handle have been in decline for both — and how Plainridge won the slots license and Suffolk Downs lost the casino is a more complicated story than fits this post, but Thoroughbred racing was the bigger draw, employer, and revenue generator of the two by far. It’s just the latest odd turn on the long road to expanded gaming in Massachusetts that as the doors open on casinos, the future of Thoroughbreds in the state is what’s in doubt.

Saturday, Churchill

Eric Crawford on American Pharoah parading at Churchill Downs on Saturday:

Crowds show up for one reason, to watch you run. Instead, he was being led over and turned not up the tunnel to be saddled, but kept straight on the grandstand, introduced as “Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah,” to each section, as ovation followed ovation.

Entering the paddock, a throng just as large, it seemed, as the one on the frontside was waiting. He passed a man wearing a pharaoh’s headgear. Rows of fans pressed forward on every balcony. The paddock was full, with fans holding signs and shouting to the horse, as if he could understand.

“I’ve waited all my life to see you,” one man said.

It was something to see, so many people pressing to catch a glimpse of the the 12th Triple Crown winner. The cheering was constant.

I saw American Pharoah earlier in the day, getting to the backstretch in time to watch him gallop. He was accompanied by a band of fans to the track and back, surrounded by admirers as he was bathed. Everyone was taking pictures. That part I’ve seen before. What I never have, though, is what happened next, when his bath was done, and he was led into the barn to walk the shedrow wearing his Triple Crown winner’s blanket — his audience applauded.

Photos from Saturday:

American Pharoah gallops at Churchill Downs

American Pharoah gets a bath

American Pharoah walks the shedrow

American Pharaoh parades in the Churchill Downs paddock

Fans line the paddock fence for American Pharoah

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