Thinking ’bout the old times: Racing trends, then and now

by | 01.14.2013 | 7:31am

I came across some old Daily Racing Forms in my office recently and couldn't help but get a little nostalgic about horse racing's “good old days.” Not the 1940s or ‘50s, but what I consider modern (and pretty good) times: the late 1980s, when I had been working at the Form's Los Angeles office and decided to accept an offer from Thoroughbred Times and move to Lexington, Ky.

First off, a Racing Form from 1988 cost just $2. Compare that with the $7 we have to pay now. (According to a Consumer Price Index calculator, $2 in 1988 is worth only $3.89 today, so the price of a Form has more than outpaced inflation.)

Daily Racing Form truly was “America's Turf Authority” then. It was the sport's only record-keeper, charting races and compiling attendance and handle figures from every recognized racetrack in the United States and Canada. But Walter Annenberg, the Form's longtime owner and considered a close ally of horse racing, in 1988 sold the paper's parent company to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., a move that worried The Jockey Club and member tracks of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations.

Shortly thereafter, those two organizations established Equibase, which gave ownership of the sport's data to an industry-owned company. Daily Racing Form (which has changed hands several times since Murdoch bought it in 1988) lost its monopoly on past performances and was no longer horse racing's de facto record-keeper.

But I digress.

This particular 1988 Racing Form edition I was looking at was called the “Annual Turf Review”, which published comprehensive statistical information on the previous racing year. The paper's front-page headline was: Inter-Track Impact: New Records–Total Attendance Hits 57,300,042; Handle on Continent Near $9 Billion.

It was a business snapshot of a time when horse racing was transitioning into the era of simulcasting, or inter-track wagering as it was then called.  There were no casinos outside of Nevada and Atlantic City, N.J., and horse racing didn't have the competition then that it does today. A little booklet published by the Form in the late 1980s proclaimed horse racing the No. 1 spectator sport in America by total attendance.

Today, most tracks don't even release attendance figures.

I wondered how the statistics in this “Annual Turf Review” from the 1987 racing year stood up to those from 2012 – a 25-year comparison.

As I mentioned, Daily Racing Form (which each week used to run the “Trend of Racing,” a track-by-track comparison of attendance and purses) no longer publishes the “Annual Review Edition.” Much of the information is no longer available, and, in fact, Equibase has refused to provide handle statistics on individual racetracks to Daily Racing Form. (Does anyone else find it troubling that the industry is so secretive about its data?)

Equibase publishes a bare-bones monthly and annual review showing aggregate wagering, purses, and racing days from U.S. tracks.

Here's what I learned comparing 1987 to 2012.

—The 1987 U.S. handle of $8.2 billion was derived from 7,667 racing days. That's an average handle of just over $1 million per race day. Adjusted for inflation, $8.2 billion in total handle would be $16.6 billion in 2012 dollars and the daily average of $1 million would be the equivalent of  $2.2 million today.

—The 2012 U.S handle of $10.9 billion was derived from 5,310 racing days, an average of $2 million in daily wagering. So even though total handle has fallen far short of the inflation-adjusted mark of $16.6 billion, a 31% decline in race days kept average wagering per day down only 9% of what it was in 1988 dollars ($2 million vs. $2.2 million).

—Purses totaled $650.6 million in 1987, an average of $84,860 per day. Those same dollars would be worth about $1.3 billion today, or $171,975 per race day.

—In 2012, purses stood at $1.1 billion. Average daily purses are $211,725 per race day.

—In 1987, $1 in purse revenue was generated by $12.60 in wagers. That means 7.9% of each dollar wagered went into purses.

—If we applied that same formula to 2012 ($10.9 billion in wagers x 7.9%) purses would be $863 million, suggesting a minimum of $261 million in purses were generated by alternate gaming such as VLTs, slots, or racetrack casinos.

That $261 million in gaming subsidies is probably a conservative number. In 1987, most wagering was still conducted on-track and the takeout was divided pretty evenly between purses and racetracks. In 2012, betting dollars are divided up more ways, with ADW companies getting an increasingly bigger share of the pie, leaving less for tracks and horsemen.

This is not a healthy trend, especially if you believe an increasing number of states is going to reduce or eliminate horse racing's current share of alternate gaming revenue.

  • Mhmh


  • David

    You’re correct; racing’s glory days weren’t just the post
    war era.  In fact from the early 80’s
    through the turn of the century, the game actually grew in real and
    inflation-adjusted dollars.  IMO the
    trend saw a plateau and declined when further growth became dependent upon an
    industry driven strategy (TV to standards to marketing to maximizing on-line to
    a true season and on and on).  Had the
    business allowed the NTRA’s charter to gain traction a slighter downturn would
    likely have given way to renewed growth. 
    The irony is the interstate boon from an exchange of product has now
    exposed an underbelly of an industry that is simply incapable of working

  • Jjvera62

    People say to me why dont tracks promote racing?…..because they dont make money on racing.  Tracks w casinos (penn national) would love to see racing go away.  Thats the problem!!!

  • Bocephus

    Who is stupid enough to pay $7 for a Racing Form?  Much of the same information is in track programs, which are a LOT cheaper.  Unless hard core gamblers who rely on Beyer Speed Figures start reproducing at an alarming rate, the Form is a dinosaur stuck in the tar pit and doomed to a slow but certain death…

  • Caroline

    So is the inference that continuing declines in race-dates will somehow prevent aggregate real contraction from fatality? Because that seems sort of counter-intuitive, particularly taking the argument that fewer race-dates is a solution to its logical conclusion. Or, is there some implicit theory here that there’s an optimal (presumably lower) number of race dates at which the real decline in handle per day would cease? And, is there any evidence to support such a theory?   

  • Glimmerglass

    If you go to an OTB there is no “track program” – that’s what the Form is for. The last time sales were revealed was back in 2009 when the DRF was acquired by a private equity firm. So four years ago “circulation [averaged] nearly 33,000 daily … less than 20 years [prior] it was closer to

    Everyone can assume the trend towards smart devices and using the internet to print off at home have accelerated the sales shrink.

    As for your assurances of an impending death of the Form I suspect they’re far more nimble that you give them credit when it comes to the collection and sale of information.

  • AJ

    Finally!  Inflation-adjusted analysis of handle.  Total numbers are useless on Jockey Club site when $6bn or $7bn 30 years ago is WAY different than it is now.  More of this thinking, less of the old.

  • Francis Bush

    Most wagering fans don’t care for lengthy descriptions of the racer’s past family history. What they enjoy mostly is trying to understand what the racing form tells them about performance. For instance, whether recent performance has more attraction than past performance. What most do no understand is the jump from one level up or down. Say the change from running for $5,000 to $20,000 and vice versa. A confusing issue is running for claiming versus allowance versus stakes races. Lengthy details like nonwinners for two races since December 2011 and claiming events for nonwinners of less that $12,000 in 2012 continue to contribute little to the understanding of the general public.

  • Ron Hale

    The owners of Daily Racing Form back then made a huge mistake.  The Jockey Club and Thoroughbred Racing Assn. begged DRF to join in a partnership to house racing’s daily statistics and past performances, but the Form felt it was strong enough to put anyone out of business who challenged it.  They were wrong.  Just twenty years earlier, New York Mayor Wagner begged the NYRA Board of Trustees to open and operate a New York Off-Track Betting Corp., but the board was almost unanimously opposed to off-track betting and forced the hand of the city, which in 1972 began its own off-track operation.  These two major mistakes changed racing’s history.  (Disclosure:  I have written a monthy column for DRF for the past 14 years.)

  • James Staples

    OTB’s in Virginia do have programs (all info one needs to cap races) for all the tracks they simulcast…COST $1.25 per track…so screw the drf & their $7.00…sob will be $10.00 soon…  


     PLUS MARKUP PUT ON IF BOUGHT OFF TRACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • SteveG

    Why would anyone pay 7 dollars for a paper Form when one can use DRF formulator, a far more robust & inclusive handicapping tool, for 60 cents a card? (on the monthly plan)  Seems a no-brainer for anyone who plays regularly & prefers the “traditional” Racing Form format to getting their eyes around another format…say, BRIS.

    Speaking more broadly, perhaps the dinosaurs are those horseplayers who remain wed to the paper format…apparently, at all costs.

  • Jack

    shows you how full of #$%^ the CPI is….they manipulate it to no end

  • Jack

    you can buy an annual on-line subscription for unlimited race cards at DRF.  If you have a group of racing friends and you want to stretch your money, split the cost of the subscription. 

  • Concerned Observer

    What is the point where a decline in racing days also results in a decline in total handle?
    There is obviously some elasticity in the model but the argument gets silly if you speculate that on the far end of the spectrum…. that only one track running 200 racing days a year would generate the same nationwide  handle as 50,000 days of racing.

    Those geniuses that keep advocating that fewer racing days holds the key to future success, have failed to define and explain the tipping point….. where it all begins to crumble and fall apart.

  • Lowechris18

    One of the “dinosaurs” here that cannot handicap without the hard copy in front of me. It is less cost efficient for me to print out the form from the website via Formulator. Sorry if prehistoric horse handicapping isoffensive to you.

  • Larry Ensor

    Not sure why people constantly like to pick on Penn National and I don’t disagree that horse racing is somewhat of a step child. But in all fairness every advertisement I have heard on the radio has always including horseracing. Unlike Parx (Philly Park). They did a great job on rebuilding the grandstand seating with excellent view of the track, comfortable table seating, decent food and a nice “den” area with couches and comfy chairs.
    They could put a much bigger effort into the indoor betting area by the paddock. And like most tracks rebuild the stables area. Though they have put up more new barns then Parx. The racing office is always very nice to do with. Far better then what it became from the time it first opened.    

  • James Staples

    A group of racing friends in Virginia???…U BS me???…The ONLY reason Colonial Downs is still OPEN???…SLOTS!!!…& it AIN’T going to happen in this COMMONWEALTH (only the common have the wealth!!!)… DOS IN RICHMOND…DEAD ON SUGESTION BABY!!!…  

  • SteveG

    Not offensive…I’m a dinosaur myself (who uses Formulator)  If you’re a dinosaur who prefers the paper Form & finds it more cost effective, more power to you.

    I apologize if the comment about dinosaurs ruffled your feathers because we all know there were feathered dinosaurs…

  • James Staples

    & the likes of Alex Waldrop trying to run the show (in the ground)…he couldn’t run a ANT COLONY!!!…

  • Larry Ensor

    I’m in your camp. I feel “naked” or “under dressed” walking into the track without a Form tucked underneath my arm. Plus it’s hard to handicap with a print out no room to scribble over and it just doesn’t “feel” right. I also like reading everything in between races. Just call me Fred Flintstone though some days I feel more like Barney.

  • Lowechris18

    Funny chit, no apology required!

  • Longerbeam67

     nothing like the form gives you all the info you need, go to snj, they give all the major tracks for free, and usually comes out a few days ahead of race day, havent bought a form in 8 months

  • Citation

    A trip down memory lane is sometimes good for the soul.  25 yrs ago I was consider a younger person at the track, today am middle-age.Lol.

    At the time I was working and living in Phila., so I had the chance to attend PHA, Del, Garden State, Brandywine, Pim, Lrl.  2 of those tracks no longer exist and neither does Sportsman that is on the cover of the DRF in the picture.  Ct was holding on and PN was the last stop for TB’s.  Now PN is a huge gaming Co. and CT is doing very well.
    Another big change was Poker was just a ‘back-alley’ game.  This was until ESPN made it a big event.  The people my age 25 years ago are now playing poker today.  I see it all the time  at a racino. 

    The DRF was once sold at newstand, stores..etc.  Havent seen a DRF being sold outside of a track in years.  KYW, a news radio station in Phila., would give results of races.  that is long gone.  Speaking of the DRF, does anyone remember a challenger to their empire…I think it was called the Racing Times.  It didnt last long, but had a lot more info in it.  Did the DRF buy it?

  • Figless

    So much for the oft promoted theory that there is too much racing, racing dates have decreased 31% in the last 25 years, and it has not cured the industries ills. Purses have not kept up with inflation, even with influx of casino money. Sorry, as an accountant, this is a horrible trend. As a horse owner who entered the game in 1986 I can testify that it is nearly impossible to pay bills on an solid, average, racehorse now. I would guesstimate that my monthly bill has increased by 75% in those 25 years.

  • Stanley inman

    Wouldn’t our macro-views
    be informed by investigating
    A couple of micros-
    Places where crowds go
    and places they don’t.
    comparing what sells
    What doesn’t.
    “…I like that blouse
    And not those shoes”

    Looking at the universe

  • Stanley inman

    (Last sentence crashes in the rocks.)

  • Don Reed

    1988’s $2 equating to 2011’s $3.74 must be – has to be – a false/fabricated inflation index. 

    It cannot possibly account for the increased State & Federal tax obligations – payroll witholding tax, social security tax, and the completely out of control private and public insurance obligations.

  • Don Reed

    Larry, racing isn’t “somewhat of a step child.”

    At this point, with a few notable exceptions, it is completely flat broke and cannot independently operate without infusions of cash from allied businesses such as casinos or state government payments..

  • Don Reed

    Ray, get it over with.

    On You Tube:

  • Don Reed

    Remainder (if needed):




  • RayPaulick

    That was my station, Don. Art Roberts, Larry Lujack et al. WLS (World’s Largest Store=Sears, Roebuck & Co.)



  • Larry Ensor

    If your definition of grandstand seating is fold down chairs sitting out in the wind then you are correct there is no “grandstand” seating in the traditional sense. The “grandstand seating” now is behind glass and is tiered with table seating giving a fine view of the racecourse. I believe in given credit where credit is due. When they rebuilt the place they did not have to devote such a large part of the structure to this. I did not find the food to be overly price. Heck it cost $7 to get a Big Mac, coke and fires these days and that’s self service and eat in your car. I have no problem paying $15-20 for decent food brought to a nice table by nice servers. When we go to the races we make night of it.

  • Larry Ensor

    Don, I was trying to be kind. I do believe there could have been more of a symbiotic relationship had the racing industry had embraced the relationship. Instead of being antagonistic. You would think the industry would have learned from its mistake by not embracing TV and the NYRA not taking the helm of OTB when offered. No track IMO can stand completely on its own if they continue to use their outdated business model. I often read look at Keeneland and how well it does and it’s not subsidized. Sure it is not by gaming but by the money it generates from the sale of horses. Without that “subsidy” Keeneland would be just another boutique “fair meet” as it basically was before they set up the Breeders Sales company in the 40’s. The strength of any business is not the sum of just one widget but the sum of many. Each subsidizing the other in one form or another. When racing had the gaming monopoly it had the luxury of relying on just one profit center, betting at the track. The writing on the wall started with OTB 40 years ago and was ignored as was the impact of the internet and social media which started in strength 20 years ago. I’m old school and was lucky to have grown up in the sport and business in its “hay day”. I don’t peculiarly like what it has become but it is what it is and I am not so set in my ways not to realize it’s a new world out there. Get on the bus or or walk. 

  • BobC

    7 bucks and they don’t give you any winners.  I quit buying The Form when their “spot plays” at individual tracks consistently ran out of the money.  Even worse was that most of their picks were never a factor at any point in the race.

  • Jahura2

    I remember waiting for the Greyhound bus to bring the forms in the morning to my college town of Richmond, ky. Reading the form has always been a process for me that I enjoy, it was something I could do that others couldnt. I loved comparing times, breeding, analyzing fractions, there was just a romance to it that doesnt exist any more. Now its just not cost effective to pay 7.00 a copy when I can get better info off of Brisnet for free when playing at home. Unfortuantely I do think the forms days are numbered unless they really step it up. I will continue visiting on a regular basis, I have paid for that right, but my days of spending 7.00 for the hard copy are over.

  • Don Reed

    “I often read look at Keeneland and how well it does and it’s not subsidized.”

    You are correct.  You’re kind.  I’m blunt.  We both remember lessons from the past.  You digress.  I tend to do that as well & hate it.  It takes all types.  Why do we pick on Penn National?  It’s earned the attention it has received & has failed to attract positives reviews.  I digress.  Ravens beat the Pats.

  • Larry Ensor

    “Ravens beat the Pats” I hope so I am from Maryland. I’ll digress even more; grew up with the Colts. Still remember how I felt walking into school on Long Island when they lost to the Jets. Never forgave them for moving to Indy land and haven’t watch them play since. Shouldn’t have been allowed to take the name with them.

  • Don Reed

    Darn!  Raised false hopes.  My apology.

    I took a harder look at the stats and am forced to immediately retract what I said (not the Notre Dame method, which is to keep going with the original mistake and try to bluff your way thru).

    Reversed call: Pats win.  I have idea whether or not they cover the spread.  Ergo, just watching the game.

  • voiceofreason

    Forget about how the track has changed… the game and even the payers have changed far more. I remember the old timers talking about their favorite horses with so much pride. And here’s the thing, they talked MORE about the loses than the wins. It wasn’t about finding the easiest competition to hold on to the “unbeaten” streak… rather… owners SOUGHT OUT competition for the sake of sport. Testing horses to show true class. i remember this one guy talking about some of Slews losses with such passion, as if they were even BETTER than the wins. Those days are gone. It’s all about ducking competition and winning.

  • voiceofreason

    From wikipedia:
    “Sitting far back, Willie Shoemaker (on Exceller)
    took advantage of the fast pace. Exceller made a strong move on the far
    turn and saved ground by moving inside Seattle Slew as the tiring horse
    bore out turning for home. Exceller took the lead at the top of the
    stretch, but Seattle Slew fought back and lost by a nose in a photo
    finish. This stretch run is still remembered as among the all-time best,
    ranking with Sunday Silence and Easy Goer’s Preakness in 1989 and the battles between Affirmed and Alydar. Despite the defeat, many analysts considered this to be Seattle Slew’s greatest performance. Andrew Beyer
    (a Seattle Slew skeptic when the horse was a three-year-old) wrote for
    his lead, “Exceller won Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup. Seattle Slew
    was its hero.”

  • voiceofreason

    And yes, i will say it. Zenyatta impressed me far more in that single loss that the other 19 races. She could have been one of the all time greats, if only tested. We will never know.

  • Don Reed

    LE: Congratulations!  WSCoulda stayed with my original statement.  No matter.  Hope you enjoyed the Baltimore victory!

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