Can the industry benefit from coordinating post times?
story by James Witherite
On the evening of Dec. 26, 2017, management from Northfield Park, Pompano Park and Cal Expo agreed to coordinate post times in an effort to maximize each track’s visibility and handle. Ultimately, their joint efforts yielded overwhelmingly strong results. Could their experiment—which produced seven-figure handles for all three properties—be a springboard for maximizing handle on a larger scale by putting as many races in front of simulcast players as possible?
“The system was really good,” said Chris Schick, whose Golden Bear Racing LLC operates Cal Expo. “We were the only three tracks running that night in the country—there was no Thoroughbred racing that night. So, we decided, ‘OK, what’s in everybody’s best interests? Let’s draw up a little schedule, and this will be the plan. If somebody gets a little hiccup or gets in the way, everybody just pivots and tries to go off seven minutes past the last guy.’ It worked out really well.”
From a nationwide standpoint, there were only three overlaps in the evening portion of the schedule: Most notably, Northfield’s fourth race went off at the same time as the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita Park, while both Northfield and Pompano went to post simultaneously with Golden Gate Fields on one occasion each. From 7:56 p.m. Eastern—Golden Gate’s final post time—on, no two races in North America that night began within four minutes of each other, and the three-track round robin gave undivided attention to each race and yielded million-dollar handle figures for all three tracks.
“We all did over a million dollars in handle,” Schick said. “I think Dave (Bianconi, from Northfield) did about $1.3 million, and both we and Gabe (Prewitt, from Pompano) inched over the million-dollar line. It was a fun night for all of us.”
With only three tracks running on the Tuesday night after Christmas a little more than two years ago, there was ample space for each one to command the bettors’ undivided attention and fewer moving parts to adjust in the event of unforeseen issues affecting the flow of the schedule. But would a similar treatment be able to tame a typical Saturday evening—with at least a dozen harness tracks and a handful of Thoroughbred tracks in action across North America—and still be able to yield positive returns for all parties involved?
“Inevitably, if you have five or six tracks racing on a night, we can’t do it as cleanly as we did with Northfield and Cal Expo,” said Gabe Prewitt, whose role at Pompano includes setting post times for every race. “If you’ve got five tracks and you go four-minute intervals, that’s already 20 minutes.”
Not only does Prewitt feel that timing would become an issue on more congested days, but also product placement.
“Who’s the one who has to go behind The Meadowlands?” he said. “Whereas the track who has to go behind Pompano might not be so concerned.”
Schick concurs, noting that time slots right on the tail of The Meadowlands or Woodbine Mohawk Park—perennial kingpins in terms of wagering turnover—would prove disadvantageous.
“Let’s say you went long and you went 24, but you had to get nine other tracks in that time,” Schick said. “That would be, theoretically, a race every two minutes. You’d have the third track going and there’d be two other tracks that hadn’t gone official yet. And if it was somebody that was bigger on the totem pole acquiescing to the other guy, you’ll say, ‘I’m not going to run there when The Meadowlands isn’t official yet.’ You’ll have those types of issues. Who do you include or not include, or do you include everybody?
“And then, somebody’s going to take the short end of the stick. If I draw in the No. 2 slot and have to go off two minutes after The Meadowlands or two minutes off of Woodbine, am I going to want to do that? The minute I start seeing my handle dissipate because I’m not in what I consider a good spot, what am I going to do?
“You’d have to get everyone to agree, and then, how would the lineup be determined? Would it be potluck? Could certain people opt in and others be lone rangers? I think the way they do it in the U.K. is if you don’t do it this way, you don’t get your race on TV and you’re not going to get any coverage for this race.”
Schick especially sees minimal incentive to relinquish control of his placement of the Cal Expo product, noting the unique circumstances—both legislative and geographic—by which he is bound in the Golden State.
“I host 10 import (races) into California and I’m running against Los Alamitos, and then Los Alamitos is hosting 10 imports,” Schick said, noting that Cal Expo’s import races are typically drawn from The Meadowlands—a major player whom Schick tries to dodge in the grander scheme.
“I go much slower than most harness tracks in the country until Los Alamitos is done,” he said, noting that Los Alamitos’ 28-minute interval between races enables him to maximize Cal Expo’s visibility as well, particularly among West Coast clientele. “Then when they end, I go normal because I’m the last guy out there, so to speak. For me, my No. 1 thing is to stay off my import. I’m hosting The Meadowlands; I’m not going to run on them. That would hurt me on both ends—on my own live and The Meadowlands. Next to them, I don’t want to run on Los Alamitos, which is the other live product in California.
“If someone on the national level said, ‘Cal Expo, you have to run here, here and here,’ but that put me on top of Los Alamitos, I would be opting out of that plan right away.”
Just as geography and California simulcast laws create a unique situation for Cal Expo, every racetrack has to account for circumstances that are unique to its placement in the wagering market. Some smaller tracks, in particular, thrive on robust weekend attendance, while other facilities depend almost solely on simulcast revenue. The $64,000 question is twofold: Would the breadth and variance of those individual concerns too severely hamper practical implementation of a coordinated post time schedule, and would the benefits from such a system outweigh the inherent drawbacks?
“If you had someone that made it their job to study what was best, I think the industry would have to buy in and give it a try—not just for a few nights, but for an extended period of time,” said Prewitt. “At Pompano, we changed what days of the week and times we raced—all factors would have to be considered. You’d have to get the major players on board to commit. If you say you’re going off at 7:24 p.m., then you’ve got to go off at 7:24 p.m. You’d have to fully commit to it. Once you get them, everyone else is more likely to fall in line.”
While days with six or fewer tracks running at any given time would prove ideal for post time coordination on a continent-wide scale, busy Friday and Saturday nights in the summer (as they stand currently) would present quite the juggling act, as Schick and Prewitt indicate.
That said, either a more regional approach to divide the time between races from major tracks or a system in which track operators bid for optimal slots for key races to air on a nationwide multi-track simulcast signal could prove a reasonable compromise on more crowded race nights to still give “action” players a steady dose of one race after another, while also keeping particular groups of racetracks that certain players gravitate to clear of each other.
“Almost like an in-house TVG—how great would that be?” Prewitt said. “You’re just going from one track to the other to the other.”
While an ideal solution to a gridlocked simulcast market—if one even exists—may still be out of reach, Cal Expo, Pompano, and Northfield have definitely proven that a little bit of foresight and a lot of teamwork can go a long way toward increasing visibility and wagering turnover.
And when racetrack operators and horseplayers alike are happy, it’s a rare win-win in harness racing’s current climate.
James Witherite is a freelance writer living in Delaware. To comment on this column, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.