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Thursday Thoughts: Is Harness Racing Ready to Bounce?

by Al Cimaglia

August 16, 2018

Back in my days on the exchange floor, traders would make comments after a stock went down an unhealthy 5% or even more. The sarcastic remarks suggested if that type of decline kept up, it wouldn't be long before the shares went to zero. In reality that seldom happened. Although in the corporate world, declining share prices often find a level and bounce but if the selling doesn't relent the end of the company could be near.

I'm not saying the ultimate demise for harness racing is coming in the near future, and handle totals are not share prices. But lately with the disturbing reports about declining handles there is an ominous similarity.

In Canada, which in my view has the best year-round racing in North America, the handle is down 5.53% between August 14, 2017 and August 14, 2018. There's consolidation in Canada as well as in the U.S. so, some of the decline can be justified because of fewer race dates. But what is most disturbing is the average handle per race is also down 1.84% from last year at this time. Obviously fewer race dates and less money bet per race is not a good combination.

It has been reported the Meadowlands handle for 2018 took a nose dive. The card couldn't have been more competitive on Hambletonian Day, yet the on-track handle was down 3%. Including thoroughbreds, the on-track handle was down 9% at the Big M for 2018. There was also a decline on the handle for imported and exported signals.

Maybe this down turn says more about the condition of racing in New Jersey rather than the entire United States. Through August 14, the year to year handle in the U.S. according to the USTA is down only fractionally, .29% and the average wagered per race rose 3.8%. Those numbers are a ray of sunshine but the issues at the Meadowlands and in Canada shouldn't be brushed off.

Much of the problem centers around politics in New Jersey which may or may not be rectified in the next couple of months. Other jurisdictions nearby have subsidies, larger purses and more horses. Smaller purses lead to less breeding and ultimately a shortage of horses. The lack of horses has led to short fields and many times the races at the Big M aren't competitive. When this happens the betting public in general stays away, and especially the more serious players.

What seems to be the case is the poor state of racing at the Meadowlands has led gamblers to go elsewhere with their betting dollars. The numbers in Canada could also be indicating gambling dollars are not finding their way to the track. If that's the case harness racing may not have reached a level low enough to bounce.

Check me out on Twitter, @AlCimaglia