The racing industry is like a three-legged stool with the horseplayers and fans, owners and breeders, and racetracks and wagering companies comprising each of the three legs. Take one away and the stool collapses.
Horseplayers, as we all know, are the least organized, though some individuals from that group bet massive sums of money and can inflict economic punishment or rewards by shifting their action from one track to another.
Tracks are more organized than ever, largely because of the consolidation by Magna Entertainment and Churchill Downs, their respective wagering companies, ExpressBet and TwinSpires.com, and their joint venture simulcasting consolidator TrackMedia.
Owners and breeders are somewhere in between. Negotiation of purse and simulcast contracts with racetracks are negotiated by local horsemen's groups (state division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, the Texas Horsemen's Partnership, and Thoroughbred Owners of California).
Following the startup of TVG and other account wagering companies during the past decade, some of these horsemen's groups began to notice a troubling trend. Increases in handle were being accompanied by a decrease in purses. The terms “leakage” was entering the racing vernacular and it was not the kind of leakage a package of Depends could help control.
This leakage of purse revenue was caused by multiple factors: more money was being bet off-track, with off-shore rebate betting shops and with fully licensed and state-regulated account wagering or advance deposit wagering (ADW) companies.
The economic pie (wagering on horse racing) was previously cut up with the biggest slice going to horseplayers, and the next largest divided equally between tracks and purse money for horse owners, and a smaller slice going to state and local governments.
A new player began bellying up to the table and demanding its own slice: account wagering companies.
The promise was that these companies were going to help bake a bigger pie and fatten everyone up. In truth, there has been only small growth in handle and more redistribution of wagering from on-track and inter-track to telephone and internet bets through account wagering companies. The net result is a reduction in the percentage of each dollar wagered ending up in purses for horse owners.
Some people think horse owners get enough in purse money already. I guess if you think a dollar invested should be rewarded with a half-dollar in return, you're right. Horse owners put over $2 billion into the game each year so they can fight over $1 billion in purses. That's not a very sound investment strategy.
Tracks were hurt by this trend, too, at least in the beginning and until they realized the need to operate the account wagering companies themselves.
State horsemen's groups started talking to each other about this “handle up, purses down” phenomenon and formed a study group to seek solutions. Late last year, after determining that the economic business model for distribution of account wagering dollars wasn't working, they decided to form a company, the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Group, in an attempt to change the model.
Thoroughbred Horsemen's Group counts 18 horsemen's organizations among its members in 16 jurisdictions (California, Kentucky, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Louisiana, Maryland, Delaware, Arkansas, Virginia, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Indiana and Ontario).Collectively these groups negotiate contracts with 52 North American tracks.
Bob Reeves, a third generation horseman with decades of executive experience in the health, insurance and venture capital fields, is president of the TGH. He's been head of the Ohio HBPA and that state Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. TGH's sole employee is Wilson Shirley, a consultant who formerly worked for the national Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and Thoroughbred Owners of California.
Reeves and Shirley, on behalf of their member organizations, are negotiating with account-wagering companies to reshape the distribution formula from one that favors the wagering companies to one that puts more money into purse money, which will strengthen live racing and, ultimately, the racetracks themselves. “We are a shared resource,” Reeves told the Paulick Report, in reference to the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Group, which he called an “intermediary” in negotiations.
Sort of like William Shatner and Priceline negotiating with hotels for the best deals on behalf of consumers.
“We are trying to change the model to one that distributes the account wagering revenue based on a percentage of takeout instead of a percentage of handle,” Reeves said.
Reeves said the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Group has hired attorneys intimately familiar with anti-trust issues and is confident the organization is not in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Churchill Downs Inc. has sued the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Group, alleging violations of the Act.
The formulas for distribution of account wagering revenues are complicated. Account wagering companies first pay a host fee to the track and horsemen where the live race is being run on which a bet is placed. There sometimes is a source market fee, if the bet is made by someone who lives in a racetrack market. That fee is divided between the local track and purse accounts for that track. But more often than not, a bettor does not live within 25 miles, so the account wagering company pays no source market fee and retains the money as profit. That is where a big part of the leakage occurs. The net result is that the company handling the bet is getting more money than the horse owners who are putting on the live race on which the bet is made.
That's like a retail store making more on a product than the manufacturer of the product. It's backwards.
Naturally, the account wagering companies – especially those owned by the racetracks – don't want to change the formula. The wagering companies see greater profits for themselves as more people stay home and bet rather than drive to a track or OTB. (And with $4-plus per gallon gas, that number could soar.) There have been stalemates in negotiations involving account wagering, which is why horseplayers were not able to bet by phone or computer on Churchill Downs, Lone Star Park, Calder and other tracks. Churchill reported large declines in handle and purses at their spring-summer meeting.
Horsemen won in their negotiations with Ellis Park owner Ron Geary, who threatened to close his track rather than change the previous account wagering structures. That victory should inspire the local horsemen's organizations to stay the course in the current and upcoming negotiations. There may be short-term pain but remaining firm in their position will result in long-term gain.
“I am delighted with the resolve the different horsemen's groups have shown,” Reeves said. “We are trying to save racing.”
By Ray Paulick
Copyright ©2008, The Paulick Report
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