Day At The Track

Impacts, good and bad, felt by the industry

03:00 AM 08 Apr 2020 NZST
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Batavia Downs, Harness Racing
Batavia Downs

BATAVIA — With the virtual shutdown of the entire State of New York, everything has taken a major hit; from schools and athletics to businesses and every day lives, things won’t be the same again for quite some time, if ever.

That, obviously, also has applied to one of the oldest and most cherished sports in the world — the sport of horse racing. More specifically, harness racing.

While every track in New York has been shut down, including the thoroughbred venues, there have been a small number of tracks that have remained open throughout the country, though none of those include harness tracks, like the oldest lighted harness track in the country at Batavia Downs.

“All New York state racetracks are currently shut down until further notice and are anxiously awaiting word when they can reopen,” said Todd Haight, the Director/General Manager of Live Racing at Batavia Downs.”Before the New York State racetracks ceased racing operations, they were racing with no patrons in attendance. That could be a way of getting these racetracks open sooner rather than later.”

Yet as of March 16, tracks across the state have been temporarily closed to the COVID-19 pandemic, including Buffalo Raceway, which was midway through its current season.

However, though there will not be any live racing any time soon, the state mandates have not shuttered all aspects of the sport down completely.

“The racetracks that were open before the shut down remain open for training purposes,” Haight said. “Equines must be allowed to get out of their stalls for exercise and receive their proper care. The only real change there is training hours have been reduced. Racetracks that were scheduled to open in April and early May have all delayed their openings; in fact, Vernon Downs and Tioga Downs have delayed opening up their barn areas until further notice.”

With the majority of racing shut down, three “major” thoroughbred tracks have remained open, which includes Oaklawn Park, Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Park. Oaklawn Park is in Arizona, while the remaining two are in Florida, with Gulfstream having hosted the 2020 Florida Derby just over a week ago, with Tiz the Law winning easily in front of zero spectators.

Is that something that is capable of being maintained?

“Of the three it appears in the short term they will be allowed to complete their season,” Haight said. “That said, Oaklawn Park is scheduled to close for the season on May 2 and Tampa Bay Downs May 3. Of the major tracks that would leave just Gulfstream Park — located in South Florida — racing although officials at Santa Anita in California are feverishly trying to that track reopened.”

With the lack of any major sport taking place during the spread of coronavirus, increased majoring on horse racing has followed suit. Though Haight isn’t 100 percent sure that has to do with there being no baseball, basketball, hockey, etc...

“I’m not sure I can attribute the increased handle numbers to the lack of sporting events. Rather I think the lack of competition from many or any racetracks running at the same time,’ he said. “I can tell you at Batavia Downs Racetrack our biggest total handle of the week is Wednesday night, which I’m sure surprises many people. Yes, on Saturday night we by far draw our biggest crowds but due to so many other tracks racing we don’t see the big off-track wagering numbers that we see on Wednesdays. In fact, it can be as high as 50 percent greater than the other race nights and this is all due to the lack of competition.”

However, there may still be a correlation nonetheless between the lack of gambling options and the increased interest in horse racing betting.

“Yes racetracks have reported increases in handle due to the lack of competition. Gulfstream Park saw an all-sources handle for the Florida Derby card, March 28, a record $53,555,529, eclipsing the previous mark of $49,909,070 handled in 2018,” Haight said. “And remember this number was attained with not one person wagering in the grandstands as the races were closed to the public. That’s truly remarkable.”

There have also been other tracks across the country that have reported huge increases, including Fonner Park in Nebraska and Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma, with the former still up and running without spectators.

Will Rogers Downs saw a 657.5% increase in the March 2020 handle over March 2019 with betting up nearly $13.7 million from the same period last year, according to Haight, while Fonner Park, saw a 272.7% increase in March handle, up more than $8.4 million.

Specifically with Batavia Downs, they have also seen an up-tick in wagering in the recent weeks, for whatever the reason may be. In 2014 the Downs introduced Batavia Bets, an online wagering platform that has continued to be highly success, while Haight says it took in nearly $200,000 in wagers last week alone.

Haight has also seen a small increase in the number of signups for Batavia Bets since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, with horse racing being virtually the only sport still running that people can gamble on.

Moreover, cable networks such as Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports have continued to show live racing on television, including the Florida Derby in late March.

“And keep in mind that’s with many of our customers most popular racetracks current closed,” Haight said in the increased wagering at Batavia Downs. “When you take Aqueduct, Meadowlands and Buffalo Raceway off the board it is going to have an effect on wagering numbers. We’re very pleased with the success of Batavia Bets.”

For Haight and the rest of the world of racing — and life in general — everything at the moment is simply a waiting game. And the effects of the last month are something that the world will likely never fully get over.

“COVID-19 has changed the landscape of horse racing - that’s for sure. We are living in unprecedented times and the safety of our patrons, employees, and horsemen remain a top priority,” Haight said. It remains to be seen how long it will take to get back to normal and what the new normal will indeed be.

“The effects of this pandemic have been felt worldwide and in all sports,” he added. “We’ll continue to monitor the situation and provide updates on our website, social media and via press releases in regards to our live racing product which is scheduled to begin on July 22. We’ll be working very closely with the New York State Gaming Commission and the Western New York Harness Horseman Association on this process.”

Here’s to hoping at least part, if not all, of the upcoming Downs season will go on as usual.

By Nate Rider

Reprinted with permission of The Daily News Online

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