A YEAR OF DISRUPTION

Like most enterprises in 2020, horse racing was severely disrupted as the result of Covid-19, which began to drastically affect the United States in March.  But not all of the disruptions were caused by the pandemic.

Covid-Related Disruptions

The racing calendar was radically altered when the Kentucky Derby was moved from May to September and the Preakness from May to October.  While the Belmont was run on its usual date in June, the 1 1/2 mile classic was abbreviated to 1 1/8 miles.  Racing fans were not permitted at any of these events and the same held for the Breeders’ Cup in November and for virtually all racetracks. 

In spite of such turmoil, pari-mutuel wagering fared remarkably well.  On December 4, Equibase released key performance metrics comparing 2020 through November to the first eleven months of 2019.  Total wagering in the U. S. was down in 2020 by only 1.48% vs. 2019 even though there were 26.28% fewer race days in 2020 (3,073 vs. 4,173) and 24.5% fewer races run (25,692 vs. 34,038).  Santa Anita recorded record betting handle on December 26, so December wagering may continue the trend.

No doubt the vastly increased TV exposure by Fox cable television, especially during the summer Saratoga meet and the fall Belmont meet, helped immensely to soften the damage done by racing without on-track attendance.

Non-Covid-Related Disruptions

In March, some two dozen racing participants were indicted by federal authorities for alleged horse doping.  These included veterinarians, trainers, and pharmacists.  The trainer of 2019 disqualified Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security was among the people charged. 

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was passed by Congress and signed into law on December 27.  It gives authority to a non-governmental institution to oversee medication and safety policies, rules, and procedures, thereby acting as an umbrella organization for state racing commissions. 

In most cases, regulation of business is best left to the states.  However, state racing commissions have such diverse policies and approaches to regulation of horse racing that it has for years created confusion and uneven treatment of offenders.  The newly authorized oversight institution will be a major step forward in terms of improving horse racing’s image among bettors and casual fans.  But it will not be a panacea, as demonstrated by the fact that other sports have a similar non-governmental body and still have been scandalized by high-profile medication and doping violations.  Anytime competition comes with monetary rewards, there will be people who try to beat the system.   

Everything considered, American horse racing did far better in 2020 than most people expected. Bettors did not pull back all that much and the industry got a huge late-year boost in terms of a federally-sanctioned private organization to impose uniformity across the states.

All sports have experienced a downdraft during 2020, most notably the National Football League, by far the most popular and most profitable sport in the United States. Nielsen television ratings service found that television viewership of NFL games is down 7% in 2020 and networks have been giving rebates to advertisers. According to a survey of 2,220 adults by Morning Consult pertaining to their TV viewership, the main reasons why fans in the study are not watching NFL games are: “17% cited politics, social justice, or general contempt for athletes”; 16% were “too busy”; and 14% specified “other entertainment activities.”

Horse racing has largely avoided controversial and inflammatory political and social issues that the Morning Consult survey demonstrates have badly damaged the National Football League and some other sports as well.

Copyright © Horse Racing Business 2020

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