How can we move racing forward?
The competition for the gaming dollar is now more intense than it has ever been. Those who seek the excitement of gaming now have opportunities to play the various lottery games, try their hand in slot machines and visit the mushrooming mint-casinos that are now scattered all over the island.
The racing product has not changed since it was developed centuries ago. We still have horses competing with each other where we bet into a pool and a percentage comes back to the 'investor'. Those who risk their money have to wait until the end of the race to hear what their return (if any) will be. This is not the case with other forms of gaming.
A spin of the roulette wheel predetermines what odds are being played for, as is the case with slot machines, dice games, card games and nearly all other forms of gaming. Sports' betting is now the largest form of gaming, and here the odds constantly change, depending on the amount of money being wagered on each team.
In this competitive climate, the promoters of horse racing need to be creative and innovative if they wish to attract the gaming dollar.
Major capital costs
When we consider the major capital costs that are required to provide the facilities - a track that is consistent and constantly maintained, a stand with adequate seating to accommodate the customers, dining and other facilities to encourage attendance - all these assets and more are a prerequisite for staging races.
The high capital cost and recurring operational expenses are much higher than any other gaming and entertainment facility. It is, therefore, most important that the production from this asset is optimised. To have an expensive facility that is only productive 80 days in any one year is a recipe for disaster. Can you imagine a hotel with only 25 per cent occupancy, or a manufacturing plant with 75 per cent down time? A racing plant is no different and ways and means have to be found to increase the use and income from this asset.
Innovative and creative
Operators of racing plants have had to be innovative and creative in finding additional productive use of their assets. Gaming rooms have been introduced and these have been most successful, especially in Canada. Regular concerts are now a feature of most tracks. Amateur boxing matches put on between races are a common feature at Canterbury Downs in Minnesota.
Merchandising of racing memorabilia, and whatever else is attractive to the customer, is also an additional source of revenue. Dining facilities that encourage visitors - all of these are additional sources of revenue which can form the basis for fuller utilisation of this expensive asset.
We need to be more customer-focused and must appreciate that it can't be business as usual. I keep reminding our decision makers that "if we keep doing what we always do we are going to keep getting what we always get".
We need to have a serious look at our age-old pari-mutuel system. What can be done to make this more attractive? Exotic bets are one step in the right direction. A group of entrepreneurs in England have been quite creative in establishing betting exchanges. In five years, they have grossed £4 billion and have caught the imagination of thousands. You can place a bet on a horse to run last at fixed odds, you can bet during the course of the race. This is a most exciting concept and the success is a clear indication of what can be achieved by giving the customers what they want.
One of the interesting features of racing in South Africa is the opportunity which punters have to make fixed odds betting. The two promoting companies have formed a company with a bookmaker to offer this facility at all the tracks. This is an attraction which adds another dimension to compete with the numerous gaming opportunities. It is an innovation that is well worth considering at Caymanas Park. This would go a long way in bridging the gap between the bookmakers and the promoting company.
We have agonised for years about the "parasitic" nature of our bookmaking industry. From time to time there is talk about a tote monopoly. What we need to understand is what it is that attracts people to placing bets with the bookmakers. Find out what they do and do it better. Why have we not established a proper system catering to those who wish to place bets over the phone?
No more committees
We have to find ways to do what we do better. We have to believe that tomorrow can be better than yesterday. We can't do everything but we can certainly do something. We do not want any more committees. What we need are people who can take action. People who have a passion for the industry and are committed. We need people who will come out of their comfort zone and appreciate that failure is only because we have not been as good as we want to be.
Change is vital but we will forever hold on to our paradigms because change is risky, it is uncomfortable and it is unknown.
Let us who have the passion and are committed move forward with a sense of purpose, realising that we are the only ones who can make tomorrow better than yesterday.
Howard L. Hamilton is a former chairman of Caymanas Track Limited. He is the current president of Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders Association. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.