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The Alternative Scene: Part One – Slot Machines/Racinos

Racetracks like Indiana Downs have seen significant increases in purse structure since adding new forms of alternative wagering.

Racetracks like Indiana Downs have seen significant increases in purse structure since adding new forms of alternative wagering like slot machines, but can the good times last?

In a poll that went about three and a half months longer than planned, the readers of this blog voted convincingly that slot machines are the most important form of alternative wagering for the long-term health of the racing industry. 

The voting was neck-and-neck between slots and advance deposit wagering in the poll’s early goings. As time wore on, slots pulled away to an insurmountable lead. 

Let’s have a look at the results…

Which form of alternative wagering is most important to racing’s long-term health?

Slot Machines – 58% (123 votes)
Advance Deposit Wagering – 22% (46 votes)
We don’t need no stinking alternative wagering – 8% (18 votes)
Instant Racing – 6% (13 votes)
Card Rooms – 3% (6 votes)
Other – 3% (7 votes)

Total votes: 213

“Other” answers (some of the answers could be placed in one of the categories above, but because they were placed in “other,” I am keeping them here):
– “table games, that’s what they want, only slots is not the answer”
– “telephone/Internet wagering”
– “All of the above”
– “exchange betting”
– “Simulacast”
– “Racino”
– “nothing we’re dooooooooomed”

There is no question slots have had an impact on the racing industry, and will continue to do so. Just look at the career path of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. 

The classic winner started his career at Woodbine, enjoying slots-enriched purses on his way to nabbing the Sovereign Award as Canada’s top juvenile. His earnings in Canada alone were enough to secure him an invitation to the big dance at Churchill Downs, which removed the pressure from taking the road to Louisville going through New Mexico.

Mine That Bird worked his way through the Derby preps at Sunland Park, which would have been a laughable strategy only ten years ago, and is unorthodox at best today. With the help of alternative wagering (mainly casino-style gaming) in 2009, the Sunland Derby offered a purse of $900,000, among the biggest prizes offered to three-year-olds in the country.

The race was not graded, and Mine That Bird finished off the board, but his eventual win in the Kentucky Derby put New Mexico in a position to become a legitimate path on the Derby trail. The little Birdstone gelding that could’s success has spearheaded the campaign to get the Sunland Derby designated a graded stakes race, officially making it more than a cash-grab race for Derby wannabes.

Simply put, without casino-style gaming, Mine That Bird is clunking around the California allowance ranks, Calvin Borel doesn’t tearfully celebrate his biggest upset on national television, Sunland Park still runs cheap Quarter Horses, West Side Bernie wins the Kentucky Derby and nobody goes home happy.

The story doesn’t end there. Just recently, the connections of Mine That Bird spurned the Haskell Invitational, and a rematch with Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra, to challenge the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer. If Mountaineer were still in the slums of the racing hierarchy, as it was before the implementation of slots, a trip through the hills of West Virginia wouldn’t have even crossed the minds of team Mine That Bird (even if the gamble did blow up in their faces, leaving with a third-place finish).

Alternative wagering, slots in particular, does not only give gamblers more options at the racetrack. It also leads to horsemen having the option to try their charges in spots previously considered no-man’s land for horses with any class. Mountaineer landed a Kentucky Derby winner. Charles Town landed Commentator for the Charles Town Classic. Last year, Hoosier Park enticed Pyro, once considered one of his crop’s heavyweights, to enter the Indiana Derby. There is a $1 million race in the middle of Pennsylvania for crying out loud.

Even if for a brief moment, racinos can draw the big horses to come to your local track and thrust it into the national spotlight. If a few curious onlookers become serious followers of the sport, the track will be ahead for the day – and all thanks to a room full of retirees mindlessly hitting the “spin again” button.

However, the honeymoon between racing and slots may soon be coming to an end.

Many racino tracks are still struggling to find an identity for themselves, especially when the quality of racing has yet to catch up with the caliber of purses being offered.

Despite becoming a beacon for horsemen from non-racino states (just take a look at all the Michigan-based connections racing at Presque Isle Downs), Pennsylvania still faces issues with keeping the balance between the racetrack and the casino. Further complicating the situation is the radical discrepancy between the money the live handle kicks into the purse structure versus the purse money generated by the slots (as high as 20-to-1 at Presque Isle). According to the article linked to in this paragraph, Pennsylvania racing’s heavy reliance on the slot machine dollar paired with its difficulty generating its own funds could be seen as a sign of blood in the water by other groups looking to profit from gambling monies.

Though it has been confirmed at Prairie Meadows, an Iowa racino, that live racing actually boosts the slots revenue, the track plans to restructure its schedule for next year, with plans to jettison standardbred racing and ask for fewer Thoroughbred dates. While purses have steadily risen, live handle has steadily dipped despite being one of the first racetracks to adopt casino-style gaming.

The racetracks of today are the lab rats in the study of the miracle cure known as slot machines. Tracks with slots get the medicine – tracks without get the placebo. Early returns appear positive, but the side effects are still being discovered. Little is known about the long-term effects slot machines will have on the racing industry because they have only been around for the short-term. Proponents say slots will bring racing to an even playing field with competitors and will encourage the breeding of better competitors, while others worry the bottom line will eventually drive the “Rac” in “Racino” to become a full-blown “Cas”.

The answer is likely somewhere in the middle, but as it stands right now, there is only one way to find out.

A poll running this long deserves a post just as lengthy. To help preserve your eyes and attention spans, I am splitting it up into two separate entries. The next post, examining some of the poll’s runner-ups, will be up whenever I get around to writing it. Keep your eyes peeled.

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Revenge at the River

With slots on the way, River Downs could become a major player in the near future. A muddied With Wings returns from a race with Vernon Bush aboard.

With slots apparently on the way, River Downs could become a major player in the near future. A muddied With Wings returns from a race with Vernon Bush aboard.

Last summer, during another one of my road trips with Jeff Apel, we headed north to Cincinnati for a visit to River Downs. I didn’t cash a single ticket that day.

The thought was still fresh in my mind when my travels brought me back to the River a year later, making the purpose of my stop less about leisure and more about revenge.

It’s nothing personal, River Downs, just business.

River Downs was the last stop on my tour of mid-level midwest tracks before heading back to Michigan. Having been inspired the movie Public Enemies (more John Dillinger himself than the actual movie, which wasn’t great), my plan was your standard smash, grab and make the clean getaway, hopefully making it home by a decent hour.

The parking lot at River Downs is unique in that cars can literally touch the track’s outside rail with their bumpers. Though I did not see anyone doing it this time around, my visit last year saw many people back their trucks up to the rail and watch the stretch drive from their tailgates or a lawn chair in the back of the truck. Perhaps it was more of a weekend thing, but it was still an interesting feature of the track to be able to gather up a cooler and some buddies and watch the best part of a race without having to leave the parking lot.

This wouldn’t be very much fun to read if I had just stayed in the parking lot, so I ventured into the track’s plant. Admission was free.

My first stop was to the program stand.

River Downs’ live card is set up in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. Ohio has three Thoroughbred tracks, with live meets that often overlap each other. To keep the tracks from directly competing for the simulcast dollar when this happens, the 7 & 7 system was put in place. In this system the two overlapping tracks, in this case River Downs and Thistledown, alternate broadcasting their races on one simulcast signal. While one track is bringing its horses over to the paddock, the other is sending theirs to the gates. From a live racing perspective, each track gets seven races, but there are 14 races in the program.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is $1.50 for a program is a pretty good deal.

After looking over the day’s races for a while, I met up with track photographer/awesome tour guide Emily. She showed me around the grounds, including the press box, which resides on the other end of a mildly terrifying catwalk suspended over the grandstand.

The view was impressive from the press box window. For a mid-to-lower rung track (heck, even for a lot of the higher-level ones), the infield is quite scenic and well-landscaped. Behind the track is the Ohio River and a heavily wooded hill, which provided a stunning backdrop for the day’s races.

The plant itself could benefit from some renovation, but that could be on its way in due time. The grandstand had long rows of ticket windows, but only a few were manned by mutuel tellers. In the plant’s main concession and simulcast area, a massive wall of television screens hangs suspended over several rows of benches showing the best races a Thursday afternoon has to offer. I wish I had taken a picture of it because it is quite the imposing structure.

Emily also filled me in on the state of Ohio racing. It sounded a lot like Michigan’s situation with a more cooperative governor and less tribal interference (though it sounded like the church lobby might be comparable). After a long battle, it looks like Ohio will, in the near future, become a slots state. With it will likely come renovations to the facility and increased purses, both of which ought to draw patrons.

Shortly after the walkthrough, the horses began coming to the paddock for the first race. Those of you who have been following along have probably noticed my complaints regarding the paddock areas at the previous stops on my trip. I didn’t have those issues with River Downs.

The paddock is divided into a saddling area and a walking ring, similar to Beulah Park, but not as spread out. The paddock stalls are arranged in an anchor shape with the lane to the walking ring going down the middle. Of all the places I have visited, the River Downs paddock offers the closest access to the horses while they are saddling. I like being able to get a good, close look at each horse, and this paddock affords handicappers the chance to do so standing still and on the walk. It makes taking pictures much easier as well. Consistent with the rest of the landscaping, the walking ring is well-kept with trees and flowers. River Downs’ paddock easily ranks among my favorites.

I spent most of my day at the River hanging out in the photographer’s office with Emily. Positioned near the paddock, the office got lots of traffic from nearby trainers. The stories they told gave some extra intrigue to the upcoming races. The most notable backstory came from a trainer who, after dropping a horse from stakes races to $4,000 claiming company in less than a year, planned to retire his charge to the hunt and jump circuit if he did not win his race that day. His horse ended up soundly trumping the field.

During my road trip, I had good luck with Michigan-breds and Michigan-based connections stepping up their games and finding the winner’s circle. My day at River Downs kept the streak alive, with Here’s the Melody notching her first victory in 16 starts and breaking the bank at $50.20 for a $2 win ticket. Though the horse was an immediate throw-out during my review of the card, it was nonetheless a proud moment. The other MI-bred entered in the day’s card, With Wings, finished fourth later in the day.

After a few races, I was met by River Downs’ Director of Publicity and Public Relations, John Engelhardt, who shared in my excitement of the Michigan breds’ success. The day before my visit to Cincinnati, I visited the Thoroughbred Times office to catch up with my former co-workers. After hearing of my plans to visit River Downs, Managing Editor Tom Law sent an email to Engelhardt asking him to show me around. The results are as follows…

After the horses entered the walking ring for the upcoming race, Engelhardt led me into the middle of the ring to take pictures. A former track photographer himself, he gave me some pointers on the best places on the grounds to position myself.

After the next race, Engelhardt took me once again over the mildly terrifying catwalk and introduced me to the track’s stewards, including 1970 Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Mike Manganello (who won the race on Dust Commander).

Afterward, we headed up to the announcer’s post , the workplace of Peter Aiello. I immediately became a fan of Aiello’s work after the first race of my visit last summer. Few announcers can get me excited about a $5,000 claiming race in which I have no money wagered, but Aiello managed to do it. I have spoken highly of him to anyone that will listen ever since.

As it turns out, Aiello is a reader of the blog and a fan of Mount Pleasant Meadows, so we hit it off immediately. Aiello said his time working on the Arizona fair circuit while attending the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program gave him an appreciation of racing’s smallest venues.

We swapped unbelievable small track stories one would only see at the most obscure bullrings. I volleyed with my famous “Chipmunk in the mailbox” story, but conceded defeat when he countered with a story about a trainer beaning his own jockey (still on the horse) in the helmet with a beer bottle from the bleachers, getting thrown in the county jail (on the same property as the track), then winning the following race.

While I was up there, I also got to watch Aiello call a race. First-rate as always. One of these days, he’s going to be announcing at one of the marquee tracks. I’m calling it right now.

Between races, I hopped on a golf cart with Engelhardt and headed over to the six furlong chute to photograph the start of the last race. Having never watched a race from this vantage point, it was fascinating to see the pre-race motions often overlooked by racegoers on the apron. As the horses approached the gate, Engelhardt told me to go up tp the starter’s stand to photograph the start. Though I managed to keep it hidden on the outside, I began doing a giddy jig on the inside.

For someone who probably isn’t going to end up being a professional racetrack photographer, this was a once-in a lifetime opportunity. Not a good time to screw things up. With that in mind, I decided to use some of my sweet new camera’s tricks to ensure I’d get it right. My plan was flawless – once all the horses were loaded in the gates and pointed forward, I would hold down my shutter button and start the camera’s burst function so when the gates did open, I wouldn’t miss a second of it.

I took my position on the starter’s stand, got the gate into frame and focus and waited for the horses to take their marks. When everyone was loaded and appeared set, I pressed the button. Shortly afterward, a horse began tossing his head, delaying the start of the race. I released the shutter, but was then met with the photographer’s most hated word: “Processing.” As the camera thought things over, the gates opened. I managed to get an out-of-focus shot of the field passing by once the camera shook off the cobwebs, but clearly, that’s not what I was up there to do. I was pretty disappointed in myself, but grateful for the opportunity. I didn’t get it on film, but it was still fascinating to see from that angle.

After the race, I said my goodbyes, thanked to my impromptu tour guides, then hit the road for the seven-hour drive home. I ended up giving an awful lot of money to the racetracks, but as those of you who have been following along have seen, I had a lot of fun, took lots of pictures and have loads of stories to tell. Without a doubt, I had a blast everywhere I went.

Oh, and for those who were still wondering, my plan to get revenge on River Downs failed miserably. Once again, I did not cash a single ticket. Dillinger would be deeply ashamed.

But that just means I will have to make a return trip someday to try it again. This time, it’s personal.

Behind the jump are some pictures from my day at River Downs…

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Waking up in Shelbyville

Interesting things happen at Indiana Downs, but bring your walking shoes. Valance comes back after a race with Thomas Pompell aboard.

Interesting things happen at Indiana Downs, but bring your walking shoes. Valance comes back after a race with Thomas Pompell aboard.

To an outsider of the industry, Indiana Downs might appear solely responsible for the decay of horse racing in the Midwest.

The Shelbyville, Indiana racetrack’s slots-enriched purses have leeched people, horses and handle from nearby states lacking the benefit of casino gaming, further weakening racetracks already in dire straits.

Similar in class and proximity, Ellis Park is showing signs of throwing in the towel if it can not throw its own one-armed haymakers. With a Quarter Horse purse structure that often trumps Mount Pleasant Meadows’ entire Quarter card in one race, the Michigan track has been left consistently putting out four-horse fields.

Obviously, Indiana Downs is not entirely to blame for the woes of its neighbors, but it sure isn’t hard to make the connection when one sees the regulars from his or her local establishment appearing, and winning, in the Hoosier State.

Regardless, there is clearly something appealing about this track, but was it strictly the dollar signs or was it a worthwhile destination for racegoers as well?

From the road, Indiana Downs, the adjacent casino (Indiana Live!) and its parking structure form an intimidating figure. I began to wonder how much I was going to have to shell out before I even made it to the apron. In a pleasant surprise, admission and parking were free (or at least I managed to get where I needed to go without having to pay anyone. Maybe I’m just good at being sneaky).

As a fairly new track, the grandstand did not have much in terms of grit (I like tracks with a little bit of grit. It gives them character). The entire structure is enclosed. The first level is mostly simulcast outlets and places to get food and drinks. Both sections of the first floor resembled a mall food court but didn’t afford many opportunities to watch the live races on much else but a screen.

The second level was reserved table seating and a handful of general admission movie theater-style bleachers. My aimless wandering eventually led me to the third floor, but my time upstairs was short when I realized it was mostly for track administration. Nothing up there for me.

With few options to watch the actual live races from ground level indoors, the track’s apron more than makes up for it in its expansiveness. By the quarter horse portion of the card later that night, the apron was impressively filled considering its size. It was far from shoulder-to-shoulder, but the benches were filled and securing a spot on the rail meant having to do a little jockeying for position.

Though the large apron was useful for containing the audience, it also contributed to the track’s most fatal flaw.

Separated from the apron by a playground and a whole lot of empty space, the saddling paddock was way too far from the action inside the plant or on the track to be practical. It is literally positioned at the quarter pole, and making the walk back and forth got old quickly. To watch the horses saddle in the paddock and head out to the track requires making a commitment to do so. You will miss the post parade and will be hard-pressed to find an open spot on the rail during the race, especially after spending time in the betting lines. There are no television screens or tote boards near the paddock, meaning horseplayers have to squint to see the odds a quarter mile away, and are completely in the dark in terms of potential exotic payouts (If anyone in a position of power at Indiana Downs is reading this, build a small lean-to by the paddock and place one small screen and a betting machine inside. Then watch your live handle rise).

It almost feels like the paddock was built as an afterthought. There were no PA speakers around that I remember, so the announcer’s presence was nonexistent (speaking of which, Indiana’s announcer, John Bothe’s voice bears a striking resemblance to the announcer from the old Star Wars Episode 1 Podracer video games. I know only a small percentage of my readers will get this reference, but pop in the game after a trip to Shelbyville. It’s uncanny). Finally, once nighttime rolled around, I found the paddock to be poorly lit, with a dim light over each stall and little else. After weighing out the pros and cons of making the hike over to the paddock and factoring in my increasingly aching feet, I decided to stop going over there by the fifth or sixth race.

To some, my beef with the paddock may seem like a minor thing, but I saw this as a major point of disconnect between the track and the fans. This is where parents and grandparents take their young ones to teach them about handicapping and how a good horse is put together. This is where new and disinterested fans go to look at the pretty horseys. This is where regular players make their final decisions between two horses who look exactly the same on paper. It may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about a racetrack, but the paddock is a key part of a track’s aesthetic, and by putting it in such an inconvenient location, Indiana Downs became a much less enjoyable place to see a race.

Though I was a long way from home, the day’s card was full of Michigan ties. Two Mount Pleasant Meadows regulars were entered in the Thoroughbred portion of the card (they ran last and second to last), as well as another Michigan-bred (second). The three Quarter Horse races were even more populated with local connections, with appearances by MPM jockeys Julie Veltman, Harold Collins and Juan and Oscar Delgado, along with trainers Ron Raper, Tony Cunningham and Dicky Benton. The Mount Pleasant contingent represented itself well, with a Cunningham-trained horse taking the ninth race, ridden by Oscar Delgado. A Benton/Veltman horse also took second.

The service at Indiana Downs was was generally friendly and efficient, if at times a little unusual. While ordering a cheeseburger in the food court area, the cashiers looked at me, then my camera, and said “Hey, weren’t you here last week?” After explaining to them it was my first time at the track, they became convinced I was there to take their picture. I am not sure what led them to believe this, but I obliged. The burger was ok.

After the races, I decided to give the so-called savior of the racing industry a try and went into the casino. I turned a dollar into $18 and change, then proceeded to lose it when I put it all on black at the roulette table (because that’s what you do when you’re in the midst of a slump at a casino – you put it all on black). My unhealthy gambling habits aside, I was impressed by what I saw in the casino. A live band played in a bar in the center of the complex and several clubs and restaurants surrounded the outskirts of the sea of slots and virtual table games (yes, even the table games are computerized. They get an awful lot of mileage out of the “V” in “VLT”).

My experience with casinos was limited to the Soaring Eagle in Mount Pleasant, so I am far from the authority on what makes a good casino. That said, Indiana Live blew the doors off the Soaring Eagle. If Michigan should ever be fortunate enough to get casino gaming and they set it up anything like Indiana Downs, there is little doubt I will spend the rest of my life in poverty.

But I’d sure have a lot of fun along the way.

Here are some pictures from my day at Indiana Downs. Keep in mind that it gets hard to take pictures without flash as it gets darker (security tends to frown on sudden bursts of light around high-strung animals), so the quality of the photos sinks with the sun. Have a look…

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