Frank Floor Talk: Sports wagering could reinvigorate the horse racing tradition

March 23, 2023 8:00 AM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • John G. Brokopp, CDC Gaming Reports
March 23, 2023 8:00 AM
  • John G. Brokopp, CDC Gaming Reports

For the better part of the 20th century, thoroughbred racing ruled as the Sport of Kings in America and reigned supreme as the most popular form of legalized gambling in the country. Shortly after the dawn of the new century, it became apparent that the expansion of state sanctioned and tribal casino gambling across the land, exacerbated most recently by legal sports betting, was destined to send the royal crown into exile.

Tom Rooney, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), is not about to let that happen. A former U.S. Congressman who represented his Florida district in the House of Representatives from 2009 to 2019, Rooney hails from a family rich in thoroughbred racing tradition. He is in a position with his knowledge of the industry and his leadership skills to guide the sport into a new era of prosperity.

Rather than look upon the burgeoning sports wagering sector of legal gambling as an opponent, Rooney views it as an opportunity – or, as he explained to this columnist when I reached out to him for his thoughts, “Sports wagering will play a huge role in the future success of thoroughbred racing in the United States”.

The NTRA, headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky, is America’s most powerful and influential advocate for thoroughbred racing. The broad-based coalition of interests within the sport owns and manages the Eclipse Awards, the top thoroughbred and 3-year-old weekly polls, and the National Horseplayers Championship, among other brands and initiatives.

“The best way for us as a sport to engage the next generation of sports bettors is by incorporating horse racing into the platforms that young people are already using on a daily basis,” explained Rooney, whose family owns the thoroughbred racing and breeding complex Shamrock Farm in Woodbine, Maryland, which was founded by his legendary grandfather, Art Rooney, Sr.

And yes, in case you were wondering, the same Art Rooney, Sr. who became the majority owner and operator of the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers in 1933, and whose children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren are celebrating 90 years of ownership in the proud NFL franchise this year.

Just how important is it to keep the sport vibrant and relevant?

Thoroughbred racing is woven into the very fabric of Americana. Man ‘o War was as much of a part of sports lore as baseball legend Babe Ruth during the Roaring Twenties, and Seabiscuit gave citizens hope during the Great Depression, traveling the country as the underdog “horse of the people”.

The most successful jockeys were household names, including Todd Sloan, whose epic journey to England to ride in and win the Epsom Darby was immortalized by George M. Cohan in his Broadway classic “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.

Eddie Arcaro, Bill Shoemaker, William Hartack, Steve Cauthen (The Sports Illustrated “Sportsperson of the Year” honoree in 1977), were media celebrities.

My, how times have changed,

In the last decade, once proud race tracks around the country have been shuttered and demolished to make way for business development.

Historic Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Illinois, a northwest suburb of Chicago, finalized a deal with the Chicago Bears earlier this year with the intent of using the hundreds of acres of prime real estate to build a new stadium.

The original grandstands of Arlington, which opened in 1927, were destroyed by fire in 1985. Two years later, under the leadership of owner Richard L. Duchossois, the track reopened with a thoroughbred palace of a grandstand the likes of which will never be seen or built again.

Today, Illinois horse racing is on life support. The Chicago area was once home to seven tracks. Today only one remains, Hawthorne Race Course, which has been granted a license by the state to develop a racino. The project is currently on hold.

Even though the new wave of legal sports books accepting action on professional and collegiate athletic events has taken the public by storm, just remember that horse racing was the original.

Well over a century ago, independent contractors operated on the race track grounds to handle all the betting action.

Opposition to this form of gambling in many states almost spelled doom for betting on horse races and the sport itself until the “pari-mutuel” method of betting, introduced in France in about 1870 by Paris-based businessman Pierre Oller, was offered as a compromise.

The technology that revolutionized pari-mutuel betting was the development of the totalizator system a century ago. Tickets were issued at the betting windows and calculations were made to determine the Win-Place-Show payoffs.

This breakthrough led to a dramatic period of growth in horse racing in the United States and actually paved the way for the “golden age” of the thoroughbred sport in states where pari-mutuel wagering was legal.

Handicapping the races is a past time enjoyed by many, as the recent National Horseplayers Championship at Horseshoe Las Vegas will attest.

Among the great appeals of betting on horse racing is the cerebral input that serious handicappers use to select winners. Computer software and the availability of advanced statistical information makes pari-mutuel wagering a studious pursuit.

Whereas the popularity of Texas Hold’em is credited in great part to the mental acumen necessary to play the game successfully, similar attributes associated with betting on the horses have not resulted in attracting large new legions of fans.

Horse racing was once upon a time covered in the media as a major sport on a daily basis. Every newspaper had a “beat” reporter in the press box, handicapping the races and filing stories for every edition.

The legendary sportswriters Red Smith and Grantland Rice were devotees of the turf, frequently waxing poetically in their writings about racing lore and the many characters who frequented the stable area and grandstands.

The results of the Daily Double were printed on the front page of the afternoon newspaper editions. The first late morning edition was called the “turf” edition because it had the late scratches from the local racetrack and other tracks around the country.

Horse racing was a fact of life in America. It enjoyed a reputation as the nation’s No. 1 spectator sport for decades. Racetrack grandstands in major cities were filled to overflowing on weekends and holidays.

Competition for America’s entertainment (and gambling) dollar soon became intense. State lotteries, casinos, the proliferation of motor sports, in-home entertainment outlets, the internet, and the expansion of other sports and their seasons, have all helped to push horse racing out of the lime light it once enjoyed.

Next came the phenomenon of “racinos”, or horse racing and casino gambling under one roof. The idea caught on with major race track conglomerates jumping aboard by forging alliances with casino operators, making for rather strange bedfellows.

Tom Rooney isn’t one to give up, acknowledging the resiliency of the sport by saying “A good first step in this has been FanDuel being the first U.S. sportsbook to offer pari-mutuel horse racing and sports betting on a single platform”.

“I come from a family with deep roots in sports history in addition to being a former Congressman,” he added. “My goal is to work with the industry and law makers to ensure that horse racing and sports betting together are a part of racing’s future”.

John G. Brokopp is a veteran of 50 years of professional journalist experience in the horse racing and gaming industries