- Bill Finley
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By most any definition, Hollywood Park is major-league place. It offers top-class racing, the daily average handle is huge and it has a rich history. Pimlico is the home to a Triple Crown event, offers a decent brand of racing and has an illustrious past. Handle numbers there aren't great, but neither are they terrible.
Yet, Hollywood Park has been given three years to live and Pimlico management has been threatening to haul the Preakness out of town and they say there's no certainty the track can survive.
On the surface, it doesn't add up. Neither place is exactly Dirtwater Downs. The answer? Slot machines...or the lack thereof. Hollywood and Pimlico's problems are among the first signs that there is going to be a great divide in this sport between the haves (slot tracks) and the have- nots (non-slots tracks).
It has already happened at the Maryland tracks. It used to be that they dominated the area. Pimlico and Laurel had a solid racing program, with a bunch of steady, hard-knocking mid and upper-level claimers to go along with a nice complement of allowance and stakes horses. Meanwhile, their nearest competitors–Charles Town and Delaware Park–were both so down and out that they both closed down for a while because business was so bad and the quality of racing was so poor.
But both were reborn with slot machines. Very few people come to either place for horse racing, but that doesn't matter as long as the blue-haired old ladies keep pouring their dollars into the machines. Charles Town and Delaware are very healthy, offering huge purses and attracting the types of horses they couldn't dream of getting in the pre-slots era.
Delaware, in fact, will put on quite a show this weekend, offering six stakes worth a total of $2.3 million. That includes the $1 million Delaware Handicap, the first $1 million race ever run in Delaware.
Purses drive racing, and the Maryland tracks can't compete with their slot-happy neighbors. What happens is an endless cycle. Top horses in Maryland are lured to Delaware and Charles Town by the better purses That means smaller fields at the Maryland tracks and a lower quality of racing. That means lower handle as bettors gravitate toward the better products that have bigger fields and better horses. Lower handle means a reduction in Maryland's purses, which means even worse racing and smaller fields. And on it goes.
Things are already bad in Maryland and the state's racing industry is about to get hit by a freight train. Slots are coming to the Pennsylvania tracks and expectations are that they are going to have an enormous impact on purses. Allowance races at Philly Park might go for $50,000 or more, one more excuses for trainers and their good horses to leave Maryland in a mass exodus.
With no slots available at tracks anywhere on the West Coast, Hollywood Park has not been hit nearly as hard by the one-armed bandit phenomenon. Not yet, anyway. The inception of slots at Aqueduct has to damage California racing. The two circuits compete for the same type of horses and stables, the top-level outfits that produce the classiest horses anywhere. What will happen when slots come to New York and the purses, including those for stakes races, go through the roof? It's not hard to imagine a dramatic shift toward New York, with the best horses in the country all training and racing there, leavening the Southern California product a shell of what it is now.
That will mean smaller fields and poorer quality. That will mean lower handle. Simulcast bettors, who provide the vast majority of handle at any track, are already tired of the short fields in California. With so many tracks offering bigger fields and racing that is as good, if not better, how long will it be before no one is interested in betting on California racing? It will be impossible to stop the cycle.
Some non-slots tracks will be fine. Churchill Downs has the Kentucky Derby. Keeneland has the mystique and huge purses that get a boost from the yearling sales. Oaklawn is the only gambling game within hundreds of miles. Even Southern California racing isn't going anywhere. It may just have to do without Hollywood Park, whose new owners, Bay Meadows Land Company, have said they will develop the property after three years if slots don't come to California--a longshot at best.
But what about a place like Suffolk Downs? How can it survive? Calder will soon be forced to fend for itself without slots, while neighbor Gulfstream will have them. The future certainly doesn't look good for Calder. What about the Chicago tracks and the tracks in Texas? When will top trainers there start abandoning ship for places like Philly Park and the NYRA tracks? How rosy is the future for the Ohio tracks?
Slots have been great for tracks that have them and a disaster for those that don't. Welcome to horse racing's new order.