JC / Railbird

Harness Racing


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.

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.

Online Only

Pull the Pocket points to interesting news on the sulky side: The magazine Harness Edge is going online only beginning in August, a move its publisher is phrasing in positive terms:

“No longer will be there be a subscription charge. And the new format is a major bonus for advertisers because there are no longer limitations. Anyone, anywhere in the world can view the publication which means unlimited exposure,” said publisher Harold Howe.

“Now that there are no printing or mailing costs we are able to dramatically reduce advertising charges. In this embattled economy that is terrific news for the Standardbred horse industry.”

While merely the latest in what’s an ever-growing general list of print publications shifting to web-only models due to cost pressures and declining revenues, Harness Edge is the first publication in racing, thoroughbred or harness, to make the jump.

In other web news: Noticed this a few days ago, but NYRA announced today that house handicapper Andy Serling can be found on Twitter. According to the press release, “Serling’s Twitter entries will use the hashtags #belmont, #saratoga, and #aqueduct depending on to what track the tweet pertains. There will also be messages with hashtags corresponding to other NYRA topics, such as #travers and #alabama.” Savvy! What’s not is that Serling isn’t (yet) following a single tweeter back. Maybe once he settles in …

Speaking of Twitter, DRF makes its first foray onto the service with @DRFInsidePost, the feed for its new blog, Inside Post, which promises “real-time racing information” Wednesday through Sunday. So far, the DRF handicappers and reporters contributing to the site are showing a lot of gusto for the live-blog form. It’ll be interesting to see if they (or their readers) can keep up such an enthusiastic pace five days a week.

In other racing news: Now that Rachel Alexandra is declared for the Haskell, Monmouth has a new goal for its big summer race. “Now that we have Summer Bird and Rachel Alexandra,” said track president Bob Kulina, “we’re going after Mine That Bird again.” A rematch, all three? That would be must-see.