Last summer was horse racing’s time to shine. Bob Baffert, the snowy white-haired trainer who is arguably the sport’s most recognizable figure, delivered something that had been missing since the 1970s.
Baffert devised the game plan, and American Pharoah delivered the Triple Crown, which many hoped would serve as a magic tonic for a sport stuck in a downward spiral.
American Pharoah and Stephen Curry, who led the Golden State Warriors to their first NBA championship since 1975, were the stars of the summer. For the first time in a long time, horse racing was a consistent front-page story.
“I always said, what could a Triple Crown winner do for horse racing?” said John Avello, Wynn Las Vegas race and sports book director. “It did bring people out to the track, but it was kind of short-lived. It’s something that is exciting at the time and then dissipates.
“There are a lot of factors contributing to the decline of horse racing. We dropped off quite a bit. It’s unfortunate.”
The racing wagering handle in Nevada topped $700 million in 1998 before a steady regression hit — the handle dropped from $565 million in 2006 to $386 million in 2009 to $310 million last year.
A Triple Crown winner did not rescue the sport, and back-to-back winners would not do the trick, either. Nyquist, the undefeated Kentucky Derby winner, is the 3-5 favorite in the Preakness Stakes on Saturday. Exaggerator is the 3-1 second choice in an otherwise uninspiring 11-horse field.
“Is that a good betting race? Probably not,” Avello said.
The business side of horse racing is broken, and there’s no simple solution. Track takeouts in the 20 percent range drain wagering pools to cheat the loyal bettors who are barely keeping the sport afloat, and bookmakers who want to promote the sport are facing higher operating costs while dealing with a diminished product. In many ways, horse racing and boxing are mirror images.
“Which is sad,” MGM Resorts race and sports book director Jay Rood said. “American gambling history is deeply tied to both of those sports.”
The Kentucky Derby handle on May 7 was down about 25 percent from 2015, Rood said, though it’s not a fair comparison. The Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao fight in Las Vegas on the same weekend a year ago created a simultaneous betting whirlwind for boxing and horse racing, and it was unsustainable in both cases.
As a college student in the early 1990s, Rood frequented Sunland Park in New Mexico. He said he “loves” horse racing yet now considers it in “dire straits.” While the sports wagering handle in the state surges toward $5 billion this year, the horses are losing ground.
“It’s a struggle,” Westgate race and sports book director Jay Kornegay said. “The remodeled books will probably be geared more to the sports players. I do my best to give people what they want, but there are only so many decent horseplayers out there. We have not been able to capture the younger generation. There are very few new players.”
This is not breaking news: Most horseplayers, similar to people who want to pick up a newspaper instead of reading on a computer or a phone, are getting old or dying off.
Las Vegas bookmakers are preparing to make pari-mutuel wagering available on mobile apps while exploring other ways — such as contests and creative bets — to make horse racing more appealing to young crowds.
“In Nevada, we have a lot of good bookmakers, a lot of good minds, and we’re trying to keep this thing above water,” Avello said. “We’re trying to come up with new ideas to promote the business. Hopefully, we can revive the industry a little bit. We’re holding on to the rope, and we’re not letting go.
“It’s just a difficult chore. The takeout is too high. It’s six-horse fields, and even bettors who have been around for a while don’t want to bet that type of race. You see that more often than not.”
While shrinking fields and takeouts hurt horse racing, it also suffers from a lack of unified leadership.
“I’m not a fan of (NFL commissioner Roger) Goodell and how he rules with an iron fist,” Rood said, “but I think horse racing needs a little bit of that.”
If Goodell were commissioner of horse racing for a day, he probably would suspend Nyquist for four races for some odd reason. But, Tom Brady jokes aside, racing fans are getting desperate for answers.
Kornegay said he “grew up at a dog track” in Colorado that has since disappeared. Many of the surviving tracks have been saved by accompanying poker rooms and gaming revenue.
“Pimlico” Frank Carulli, a prominent Las Vegas horse bettor who is at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore for the Preakness, said: “Horse racing would be almost nonexistent if the states that have casinos didn’t fuel the purse funds at the tracks. The only proven formula is the biggest races draw big crowds and millions in bets. The summer boutique meets at Del Mar and Saratoga are also a hit, but none of it solves the year-round sustainability necessary for trainers, owners and the sport in general to survive.”
The forecast for the Preakness calls for heavy rain and light fan interest.
In the meantime, we can envision the California coast and the sunny days of July and August at Del Mar, where horse racing creates an illusion of perfection.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow on Twitter: @mattyoumans247