Recession hurting tournament handle

This is prime season for horse handicapping tournaments in Las Vegas. Today we’re into the second day of the Horseplayer World Series at The Orleans.

Three weeks ago, we had the National Handicapping Championship at Red Rock Resort. The South Point Finale will be April 17 and 18, and Pick the Ponies is at the Las Vegas Hilton from April 29 to May 1. That’s four big-money tournaments in less than 90 days, which seems to paint a rosy picture, but that’s not quite accurate.

Having been the fastest-growing part of horse betting, handicapping tournaments are suffering from the same malaise that’s hurting the national pari-mutuel handle. In a bad economy, horseplayers are spending less money.

The sky was the limit when Mike Lavine introduced tournament play in Las Vegas in the early 1980s. The concept was win-win because horseplayers also spent freely throughout the casino, whether by betting sports, playing slots and table games, eating in restaurants and spending on shopping and shows. A tournament created commerce just like a business convention.

Some of the discretionary spending couldn’t be fully measured, but you knew it was there.

Now casino accountants insist that each department show a profit, goodwill and ancillary revenue be damned. So with tournaments, pari-mutuel handle is the main measurable revenue stream, and that is slowing. Today’s tournament player might not be as big a gambler as 25 years ago.

Intelligent, yes. Free spending, no.

I thought tournament organizers years ago should have moved to a live-money bankroll format, in which the real handle is generated from all tournament action. Also, the format positively affects strategy. A $200 real money win bet on a 30-1 long shot versus a $200 fantasy contest play takes randomness out of decision making.

Regardless, we tournament players need to find ways to support the concept we have grown to enjoy so it doesn’t fade away.

• ALIANTE — I will host a free handicapping seminar in the Aliante Station race book at noon Feb. 27. The first 50 attendees will receive a copy of my newcomer’s book “Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies.” I’ll go over that day’s Santa Anita card and answer questions from the attendees.

• HANA — Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., was chosen as the best overall racetrack among 65 rated by the Horseplayers Association of North America. The tracks were judged according to wager variety, field size and takeout.

I like betting Keeneland because it is best in terms of betting a little to win a lot. Next in the ratings were Kentucky Downs, Remington Park and Hoosier Park.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com.

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