THE JOCKEY CLUB’S GROWING (AND PROFITABLE) FAMILY

by | 11.17.2010 | 12:46am
By Ray Paulick
Will a bet-processing tote division be the newest sibling in the Jockey Club's family of companies? That's the word I'm hearing from a variety of sources within the industry who say the not-for-profit breed registry is itching to get into the tote business with a new, for-profit subsidiary along the lines of Equibase, the horse industry's official database for racing information that the Jockey Club owns in partnership with the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North America.

Alan Marzelli, the Jockey Club's president and chief operating officer, declined to comment when asked by the Paulick Report about the company's possible entry into the tote business.

It makes perfect sense for the Jockey Club to take over yet another segment of the Thoroughbred industry, though it would be a move that is not universally supported. Would its entry into the tote business be a case of merely doing what's right for the industry, or an opportunity for empire building by the Jockey Club, which already has six for-profit divisions? Those divisions are Jockey Club Information Systems (a data provider to industry publications, sale companies, and others); equineline.com (which sells breeding and racing statistical reports); Equibase (which sells past performance information to Daily Racing Form and for programs sold at racetracks and provides some free information to the public); TrackMaster (which sells customized handicapping information); InCompass (which bills itself as a technology solutions company for the industry and is involved in such areas as racetrack paymaster accounts); and TJC Technology Services (which provides technological infrastructure and support for the various Jockey Club companies).

These Jockey Club companies are all inter-related. For example, Jockey Club Information Services and equineline.com require pedigree information, which is provided by the Jockey Club's registration department. Racing results from Equibase are fed into TJCIS, equineline, and Trackmaster products for consumers and into software applications in racetracks. A bet processing or tote company and an account wagering division currently are missing pieces in a Jockey Club strategy to cover as many of the industry's bases as possible. The various companies must pay for the data, but the money essentially shifts from one pocket to another.

Let's look a little more closely at the state of the tote industry. The three existing companies – Scientific Games Racing (Autotote), AmTote and United Tote – each has roughly one-third of the North American market. All have been struggling for years, in part because racetracks have played one company against another in contract negotiations and have marginalized their business. As a result, they have not made the kind of profits that lead to substantial investment in research and development, and the end product has been one that is technologically inferior and suspect in its ability to maintain absolute integrity in wagering pools.

All three companies are for sale. AmTote, which Magna Entertainment acquired for $17.4 million in a two-phased purchase agreement in 2003 and 2006, is part of that company's bankruptcy filing. Last month, Scientific Games, a company that makes most of its money in lotteries, hired a financial consultant to look into selling its pari-mutuel division, formerly known as Autotote. Youbet.com, an account wagering company that has not been profitable, paid $49 million for United Tote in 2005 (at least two times higher than the appraised value of some industry insiders). One year ago, Youbet.com officials said they were hoping to find a buyer for United Tote.

At this stage, a purchase by the Jockey Club of United Tote seems the most likely, and sources say a deal could be announced in the coming weeks. The company has contracts with the New York Racing Association, which walks in lockstep with the Jockey Club. United Tote also serves Keeneland, whose president, Nick Nicholson, was instrumental in the development of the “family of companies” strategy when he worked as executive director of the Jockey Club. United Tote has contracts with the other Kentucky racetracks, including Churchill Downs, which employs AmTote at the other racetracks it owns.

All of the uncertainty involving the three leading tote companies comes at a time when the integrity of the Thoroughbred industry's pari-mutuel wagering systems is being questioned by racing commissions, track operators, and, perhaps most importantly, horseplayers. Autotote, in particular, has been at the center of several controversies, including the 2002 Breeders' Cup pick six scandal when three of the company's employees had the only winning ticket and were in line for a $3-million payout. It was discovered they hacked into the system and processed their pick six tickets after the first four races had been run.

Racing executives familiar with the tote business suggest that United Tote may have the best tote machines, while the back end or software infrastructure for AmTote is the most advanced. Scientific Games is viewed as the laggard of the three companies, from a technology standpoint.

SHADES OF EQUIBASE?

This all sounds a bit similar to when Equibase was created in 1990. The Daily Racing Form had been owned by Walter Annenberg's Triangle Publications for well over a half-century when he sold it to Rupert Murdoch's News America Corp. in 1988, ending what had been a very cozy relationship between the Form and the racing industry. Whether this upstart Aussie (whose publishing empire includes the New York Post, Fox and other major media outlets) upset Jockey Club pooh-bahs like chairman Ogden Mills (Dinny) Phipps or they were worried about price-gouging or additional changes in the Form's ownership will probably never be known. But under the banner of the racing industry collecting and owning its own data (versus a private company like Daily Racing Form doing it), Equibase was established in the imposing shadow of the Jockey Club.

At the time, there were pronouncements that the industry needed to provide more information to fans. Alan Marzelli, then the chief financial officer of the Jockey Club, said the “promotion and betterment of racing is behind the decision” to start Equibase. David Haydon, a longtime Jockey Club employee and the first Equibase president, took it one step further, saying the new company would “address racing's need for fan base expansion.” Jockey Club chairman Phipps himself said, “Everyone in the industry realizes we have to make a day at the races more enjoyable and less intimidating for the general public.”

Equibase has succeeded as a business. Now, instead of competing with the Daily Racing Form, which eventually closed its track and field data collection operations, the Form is its biggest customer, purchasing past performance information to provide in its daily newspaper and for its online products. Most racetrack programs now include past performances – at a fee to consumers.

But where exactly has Equibase succeeded in expanding the fan base or making the races less intimidating?

Other sports, from Major League Baseball to the National Football League, National Basketball Association, and the PGA Tour, provide extensive data at absolutely no cost to the fans. This information is used by fans to make watching the sports action that much more enjoyable, and allows them to be more informed, whether it's for their own general knowledge or to participate in the fantasy leagues that have become so popular, especially with young people.

Racing, or more specifically Equibase, insists on charging its fans for some of the most basic data. Lifetime past performances of a single horse cost a consumer $8; lifetime stats on a jockey or trainer cost $7 on Equibase's sister site, equineline.com. If you want career statistics for a baseball player, just go to Google and type “Barry Bonds stats” and you'll have a plethora of choices for free.

If you want to look at a simple race chart that's more than a few days old, Equibase charges you $1.50. You want the box score of an NBA game from last month? Go to NBA.com, and click on scores. They'll provide you with more stats on the game than you could possibly ever want – at no charge.

“It is symptomatic of our industry being a step behind,” said one racing executive who has grown wary of Equibase's profit-driven motive and thinks the company has strayed from its original mission. “It's short-term thinking. If our objective in racing is for the horseplayers to win, we should do everything we can to help him, and increase the churn. That's where the revenue for our business should come from, not from the statistics the horseplayer needs.”

Hank Zeitlen, the current president of Equibase, said fans can get deals for free past performances from some of the account-wagering companies (which, of course, have to pay Equibase to buy the data) and there is often past performances for “feature races of the week” that Equibase makes available at no charge.

“If you look back to 1990 and see what information was available and how it was made available, we've accomplished a lot,” said Zeitlen, who added that it's unfair to compare racing with other sports. “The economic models of other sports are different than ours,” he said. “Each of those leagues has revenue coming from television. We don't have that. And Equibase is not a handle-driven business.”

Zeitlen overlooked the fact that the tracks in the TRA that own two-thirds of Equibase (the Jockey Club owns one-third) are handle driven businesses.

JOCKEY CLUB'S THIRST FOR PROFITS
Perhaps it's this thirst for profits that makes more than a few people wary that the Jockey Club may be getting into the tote business. There are some in that industry who say the Jockey Club, despite its claims, is not a very savvy technology company, and that its entry into the business would not be a giant leap forward – particularly if they wind up with a monopoly. Others believe the Jockey Club should focus on its core business, registering foals, and let private enterprise take care of other segments of the industry.

It was 10 years ago that Tim Smith, then commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Associations, tried to forge a deal between the North American racing industry and IBM Global Services, which promised to modernize the tote system. An IBM executive told the Jockey Club Round Table in 1999 that he had never seen an industry so far behind in technology. The IBM proposal was blown up by some tracks who didn't see the need for change or improvements in the industry's tote and simulcasting technology.

Ten years later, we're even farther behind. It's clear something must be done to guarantee that the process of handling wagers is improved. If not, the industry will continue to lose the confidence of horseplayers, many of whom are convinced that past-posting of bets and tampering within wagering pools is all too common.

Is the industry ready for the Jockey Club's family of for-profit companies to grow? Do we really have a choice?

Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report

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