As virtually every sport has shut down across the country, there remains one that thinks it can stay open, even with no one in the stands: horse racing.
On Saturday afternoon, Santa Anita will run eight races in front of only a handful of owners and state officials. Unless you have a California Horse Racing Board license or are considered essential personnel, you won’t be able to attend the races. And, if you are among those allowed at the track, you won’t be able to bet the races through tellers or self-service betting machines.
So, does this spell disaster for an already struggling sport? Not necessarily.
“Yes, we have no one at the track, but there are no other sports running,” said Aidan Butler, acting executive director of California racing for the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita. “It’s an interesting experiment. I don’t think we’ll see that much impact. It’s certainly not as bad as it could be.”
On Friday, there was no racing at Santa Anita or Los Alamitos, which runs mostly quarter horses at night, because of the rain in Southern California. The rest of the country’s race tracks are already one day into this new world. Gulfstream Park in Florida, Aqueduct in New York, Laurel Park in Maryland, Turfway Park in Kentucky and Oaklawn Park in Arkansas are all running without fans.
At Aqueduct on Friday, the all-sources mutuel handle was up almost $1 million (28%) over a comparable date last year.
“If you look at horse racing, with the exception of the Triple Crown and a handful of other days, we are essentially a TV sport at this point,” said Tony Allevato, president of NYRA Bets, the advance deposit wagering (ADW) arm of New York racing. “I mean that in a positive way. You have to consider that 89% of our wagering comes from off track. I think, given these difficult circumstances, horse racing has that in their corner.”
This weekend, with few sports for programming, Fox Sports 2 is adding 7½ hours of horse racing coverage. Next week, Fox Sports 1 is adding six hours.
Still, most viewership for horse racing comes from TVG, an arm of FanDuel, a sports betting company.
“[On Friday], we had an uptick in the wagering business,” said Kip Levin, president of FanDuel and chief executive of TVG. “This weekend, I would expect to see a bigger audience.”
Levin said Friday was one of the biggest registration days FanDuel Racing, a new product, has experienced since its launch a few months ago.
“You will see us modifying how we broadcast things this weekend, anticipating new people,” Levin said. “We’re going to be more cognizant about teaching people about how to watch the sport and teach them more about racing.”
The business realizes it has an opportunity to play a role in offering a distraction. And pick up some new customers along the way.
“If you look at what is out there, people sitting at home, working at home, not a lot of entertainment options, horse racing can give people a little relief to what’s going on in the world,” Allevato said. “This an opportunity to put our sport in front of new fans, casual fans, and help relieve some of the stress people are dealing with.”
NYRA Bets, looking to expand its reach, is offering a free $20 bet to anyone who signs up with the service. Other ADWs routinely offer sign-up bonuses.
On Friday at Gulfstream, the casino that connects to the track was open but all the screens that would normally carry simulcast wagering were shut off. Still, Gulfstream’s handle was only slightly off and that is mostly because of having 20 fewer horses running during the course of the card.
The test will come Saturday, not so much at Santa Anita but at places such as Oaklawn, Turfway and Laurel. Oaklawn is running one of its signature races, the Rebel Stakes, a major qualifier for the Kentucky Derby, in addition to two other stakes. Turfway has the Jeff Ruby Steaks, named for a restaurant chain, plus four other stakes. Laurel has four stakes races worth more than $100,000.
Now, everyone will be watching to see whether horse racing can be a bright spot on a barren sports landscape.