Handicapping the future: Racing in for big changes

May 20, 1994|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Daily Racing Form FOAL DROP The Jockey Club Foal Crop Statistics. BIG BUSINESS Gaming and Wagering Business Magazine RACING CARD Daily Racing FormSun Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE,KY — LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Thomas Meeker, the man who revived America's most famous racetrack, has seen the future of thoroughbred racing.

Smoke-free theme bars. Live bands. Guided tours of barns. Fewer horses and more wide-screen televisions. In short, a lean, fan-friendly, technology-driven entertainment business that is ready to shuck some tracks in order to survive.

"The time of long-term growth is over. The industry will survive. But it will be a different industry," says Mr. Meeker, who became president of Churchill Downs in 1984 and executed a remarkable turnaround.

Here, and at a handful of tracks across the country, racing executives are reinventing the sport, replacing dingy grandstands with colorful bistros and jazzing up the tired show with everything from petting zoos to driving ranges.

And they are earning riches selling telecasts of the races.

But even Mr. Meeker acknowledges that the strategy, which has given new hope to the sport, will go only so far toward aiding marginal racing operations. He is unapologetic about the trends: "The horse industry is in extremis -- no doubt that -- and it's a largely self-inflicted wound."

Among the potential casualties: Maryland, where organized American racing was born 250 years ago and which is the home of one of its premier events, tomorrow's Preakness Stakes. Its future as a major force in the sport is far from assured.

"We're going to move the way that makes economic sense. The tracks that figure out how to do it will succeed," says Richard Wilcke, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

"I think racing is on its way to becoming a secondary sport."

Interviews with track managers, trainers, economists and others in racing reveal a glimpse of where American racing is headed:

* Extensive television betting from home is considered a certainty before the century ends, with wagering conducted first by phone and later by interactive cable devices.

This would bring the sport to millions of new fans, and bring in millions of new dollars in betting.

* Some tracks are likely to go out of business altogether, and the survivors may be arrayed into a handful of "supertracks" producing most of the big races and a network of "minor-leaguers," testing young horses and running a few live races as a backdrop to telecast, or "simulcast," betting.

* The tracks of tomorrow are as likely to feature card games, live bands and water slides as they are a daily double.

Having lost their monopoly on legal gambling, tracks will have to find other ways to attract new customers and embrace casino gambling to keep the old ones.

What could it all mean for Maryland? Plenty. Organized racing meets began here before the Revolutionary War, when George Washington, among others, competed for tobacco and helped establish the sport of kings in the colonies.

Since then, it has grown into a $1 billion-a-year enterprise with two major thoroughbred tracks and a few minor ones, a pair of harness tracks and picturesque breeding farms spread across the state. By one estimate, 20,000 residents are employed at least part-time in the business, directly or indirectly.

Seedy image

Once one of the United States' most popular sports, racing has suffered in modern times from a seedy image and an inability to compete with newer alternatives, from VCRs to the National Football League. And its monopoly on legal gaming has been dashed by state lotteries, Indian casinos and riverboat gambling.

In 1992, legal betting in the country totaled $330 billion, the most recent figures available, according to Gaming & Wagering Business Magazine. That was up more than 250 percent from the levels recorded for 1982. Horse wagering grew only 35 percent during that period.

Almost everyone in the business agrees that there will be less racing at fewer tracks in the future; only the degree of retrenchment is in dispute. As for breeding, estimates range from a 20 percent drop in thoroughbred births over the next few years to optimistic forecasts that overseas demand will keep the farms at their current levels.

Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, recently completed a long-range strategic study, and projects that the number of U.S. tracks will be cut by more than half by the turn of the century, to 45. The survivors will fall into a couple of castes, headed by a handful of powerhouses that will produce the top races and sell the telecasts, the internal study suggests.

Beneath those supertracks will be a network of "B-grade" tracks, which will offer mostly simulcasts augmented by short live meets to introduce the sport to newcomers. Among the "A" tracks will be Churchill Downs, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in Southern California, Gulfstream in Florida and a track or two in New York, Mr. Meeker says.

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