Some readers commented on this website and elsewhere online about last week’s post titled “How Well Managed is Churchill Downs, Inc.?” by conveying the view that CDI is pursuing advance deposit wagering and alternative gaming to the detriment of on-track racing. Following is my take on that understandable concern.

This week brought several news items that once would have seemed highly unlikely, if not preposterous.

First, the USA’s women’s soccer team played Japan in a German stadium in the title game of the World Cup. WWII veterans probably were most struck by the irony.

Second, a news report originating from Danang, Vietnam stated: “Three U. S. Navy ships were welcomed yesterday by former foe Vietnam for joint training, despite China’s irritation following weeks of fiery exchanges between the communist neighbors over disputed areas of the South China Sea.” Vietnam War veterans might have done a double take on hearing this one had it not been for the fact that the two former bitter enemies also conducted joint naval exercises last August. Onetime “Hanoi Hilton” POW and  retired Navy Captain John McCain–presently a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee–must be at least a little surprised at this turn of events.

Third, the giant bookstore chain Borders announced that it would liquidate because it could not find a buyer acceptable to its creditors. Bricks and mortar bookstores have long been an integral part of the American scene. Yet book browsing at Borders is soon to be gone with the wind, to recede into the past like spending lazy days at some once-crowded racetracks. Barnes & Noble will be the only national bookstore chain left in the United States. According to estimates by the Institute of Publishing Research, sales of traditional books are declining by 11.4% in 2011 whereas sales of e-books are growing by 111.1%.

Finally, a report said that investors were leery of Intel because the personal computers that use the company’s chips are rapidly  losing out to mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad.

Anyone over the age of 50 who resides in a developed nation in many ways might as well be an immigrant. The country may be the USA, or Great Britain, or wherever, but the modern era in that nation is dramatically different than the one he or she grew up in. Lots of the old rules and ways of living and doing business no longer apply. Some people adapt, while others never do and become prisoners of the past.

The inescapable lesson for those of us who are aficionados of horse racing as it once was is this: Regardless of how fervently traditional horse racing fans would prefer to bring back the halcyon days of the past, when fans spent leisurely sunsplashed days at the racetrack and bet with a real, live pari-mutuel clerk, we cannot, excepting at a few venerable throwbacks like Saratoga, Del Mar, and Keeneland. We can lament that racetracks have become part of casino companies and that online wagering is the wave of the future, but alas, lamenting it won’t change the facts of the situation, circa 2011, or move the industry forward.

We can cherish our memories of how racing used to be, while joining the younger generation of racing executives and fans to figure out how to move racing upward and onward in a new world where erstwhile battlefield enemies collaborate, books are increasingly sold online and read on digital devices, and pari-mutuel bettors instantaneously transmit their picks to racetracks around the globe.

A scaffold can be used for hangings but also as a platform for building something new. Racing can have a viable place in the ever-evolving business and leisure milieu of the 21st century.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business


  1. Amen. On to exchange wagering and other innovations that can revitalize the sport.

  2. Bill Shanklin says

    In industry after industry that has been disrupted, there is one definite pattern: The disrupter usually comes from outside the imperiled industry. The latest case in point regarding racing is exchange wagering. Executives within an imperiled industry have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and therefore tend to resist a new technology or a new business model. This is the main reason that the worst people to ask about how to revitalize racing are current racetrack executives or other prominent industry players.

  3. Furthermore, Bill, I would suggest that the particular innovation isn’t the point of your analysis.

    It’s most important for racing to think of remaking itself to work with change, to be what people need, and to therefore be indispensable.

    Then racing has no GREAT problem. It will be part of the solution, regardless of what else is happening.


  4. Graeme Beaton says

    Adaptation, as you say, is the secret, Bill. Or ‘creative destruction’ as Greenspan put it. But one of the things that frightens me is that many countries are seeing a decline in racing simultaneously, even in places such as the UK, where potentially beneficial innovations such as exchange wagering are widespread. Racing’s leaders have to find a way to ride the wave of the texting generation. They haven’t in this country and I doubt they ever will. My money says that the model will come from somewhere where racing administration is less conservative, less fractured and less in thrall to horsemen who don’t really care if such things as drugs or whipping or break-downs repulse potential new fans. We need to develop a product we can sell to this new generation before we can sell it effectively. If we don’t, this industry is going the way of boxing.

  5. The issue isn’t Churchill and the pursuit of their strategy. The issue is why does the balance of the industry find itself so absent a strategy?

    Horseman, Stronach, NYRA, Penn, Breeders Cup, TOBA all lack a cohesive well articulated strategy for themselves and their standing in the industry.

    Horsemen – nothing.
    Stronach – nothing even with the new high priced talent they’re going nowhere.
    NYRA – dodge and weave State regulators.
    Penn – Gaming, gaming, gaming. “Oh we run horses too?”
    Breeders Cup – My name is, my name is, my name is????? I work at Breeders Cup.
    TOBA – Owners and Breeders with no control of their own fate. To Others Belongs ADW.