Horse racing is a wagering sport. From the first time one horse owner was heard to say to another “my horse is faster than yours,” possessions or money have exchanged hands in the form of a bet. In fact, the term ‘handicapping’, used in racing predominantly for the process of figuring out what horse will win a particular race, originated from the old English term ‘hand-in-cap’ where two sides would forfeit something based on the outcome of a sport and it would be placed in a cap.

But wagering on horse racing in North America has stagnated under the 150-year-old pari-mutuel system, in which all bets of a particular type are placed together in a pool, taxed by the government and the house (takeout) and then payoff odds are shared from the pool to all winning bets.

It can be argued that horse racing’s current woes, public perception, drugs and transparency have all contributed to a decline in wagering. In the U.S. alone, wagering is down 50% in the last 16 years. Now tracks are scrambling to pursue the best way to boost betting and lure new fans.

Statistics for 2019 were not available for the printing of the 2020 Jockey Club Fact book, but wagering on thoroughbred racing in the US was 11,038, down from 2018.

At Woodbine, the biggest track in Canada, all sources of wagering for the year was $516,189,880, a drop of 3.2 percent with on-track wagering in at $92,472,151, a number that continues to slip.

Pari-Mutuel VS. Fixed Odds

Wagering drives purses which makes for a healthy and sustainable industry. There is no more a critical time than now for horse racing to expand on pari-mutuel wagering and put new initiatives in place in order to combat a very competitive sports wagering market.

Track takeout on pari-mutuel wagering, often in the range of 20% or higher on wagers such as the popular Pick 4 bet, has soured core bettors for years, pushing them to betting on fixed odds platforms offshore or betting exchanges. Betting exchanges, offered by offshore companies, allow members to bet against each other, rather than a bookmaker. Customers can offer odds to, or request odds from, fellow bettors.

Woodbine’s CEO Jim Lawson has been lobbying for fixed odds wagering, which is coming to New Jersey’s Monmouth Park this summer through an Australian gaming company. Fixed odds allow bettors to lock in a wager at certain odds on a horse, much like a point spread in football. This is more appealing to bettors who, in this age of computer wagering, may see a horse they like go from 3 to 1 before the race to 8 to 5 as the gates open.

Australia now has almost 50% of its wagering as fixed odds which has helped grow its industry by billions.

Single Sports Wagering

The arrival of single game sports wagering is also front and centre in the gambling world and it is expected to land in the US this year. “Single game sports wagering needs to come to Canada; currently we just have the parlay wagers,” Lawson told the TDN Writer’s Room Podcast Feb 19. “Should single game sports wagering be introduced, racing must be a part of it. It would not be an obvious profitable venture for the tracks, but it would introduce younger people to the track.”

Woodbine’s technology and innovation department has been busy working on its “Dark Horse’ wagering application for android and Apple phones with a planned launch this spring in an attempt to attract new customers. “It is a mobile app that will use artificial intelligence to predict outcomes of races and our beta testing shows high win rates. It will stream races live as well. This is set up for a new customer who comes to the track and rather than trying to figure out the [Daily] Racing Form, it simplifies things.”

Historical Racing

Historical Racing machines, originally introduced in the U.S. the late 1990s as Instant Racing, have found their way into Kentucky and Virginia tracks in the last five years. The machines, which resemble a slot machine but allow players to handicap previously run races (the races are masked in a manner that you can’t look up the result) and handicap manually or simply spin a wheel. Churchill introduced its first historical games a year ago and from early returns, announced a 46% purse increase in May 2019.

On Feb. 19, 2020, Churchill Downs Inc. announced that it would be partnering with Scientific Games Corporation and Ainsworth Game Technology in order to introduce customers in Kentucky to a new range of advanced historical racing games in a $25 million historical games parlour.

Free Racing Data

While some of these methods of boosting wagering at the track are still some time away from arriving, if at all, one immediate initiative has come to the forefront recently, mostly from the not-for-profit Thoroughbred Idea Foundation (TIF): free racing data.

More and more regular horseplayers are frustrated with the expense of racing data, such as the Daily Racing Form or the track program which offers Equibase information on a horse’s past races. The TIF’s paper, presented more than a year ago, was entitled “Embracing a Future with Free Racing Data” and offered four recommendations for Equibase: 1) provide free data feeds to individual users who register to receive them, provided such use is for their own non-commercial purposes; 2) provide free basic past performances for all North American races; 3) create responsive channels for users to submit feedback in an effort to refine data; and 4) connect with the significant researching power of higher education to study and improve racing’s data.

However, nothing has been done in the area of free racing data, while every week another horseplayer announces on social media that they won’t play racing in North American without free data. Instead, North American betting dollars head overseas where jurisdictions such as Australia or Hong Kong offer data to its customers free of charge.

Catering to customers is the basis of all businesses and horse racing must pick up the pace if it going to compete with so many other attractive gambling options.