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Who Needs Racetracks These Days?

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Several years ago, I read an article in the Daily Racing Form predicting that horse racing was on its way to becoming a “studio sport.” Horses would run at a dozen or so tracks in New York, Florida, Kentucky and California, while fans around the country watched and wagered at off-track betting parlors, or on their home computers.

    It’s already that way for big-time players. Maury Wolff, a “whale” who bets millions of dollars a year, only goes to the track about 10 times a year. The rest of the time, he plays the horses from his home office, where he can watch race replays or consult his archives, and where there’s no one to whisper bad tips in his ear.

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    Wolff likes to play the big tracks -- Belmont, Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Churchill Downs. The betting pools are bigger, which means the payouts are bigger too. At Santa Anita, the Pick Six -- a bet requiring gamblers to predict the winners of six consecutive races -- sometimes pays over $1 million.

    The Pick Six pool at Hawthorne Race Course currently contains $6,156. Where would you rather bet?

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    Since off-track betting was introduced to Illinois in 1988, racing fans have increasingly ignored the horses on the track in favor of the horses on TV. In 1989, according to the Illinois Racing Board, local gamblers wagered 98 percent of their money on local races. Now, it’s down to 22 percent. And the guys actually hanging out at Hawthorne are hardly betting at all. They contribute 5 percent of the racetrack’s pool, about as much you’d expect from mooks who have nothing better to do on a Thursday afternoon but hang out in Stickney.

    Illinois law requires a racetrack to stage 30 days of racing in order to operate an OTB. That may be all the live racing we have left, if Gov. Pat Quinn refuses to allow tracks to slot machines.

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    The races on the track will become a floor show, peripheral to the races on TV. But if our tracks exist only to beam in races from New York and Louisville, eventually we’ll have no racing left. Because even the guys who do all their betting on the Internet didn’t fall in love with horse racing by logging on to youbet.com. They fell in love with horse racing by going to a racetrack, and watching real live horses run past the grandstand.

    Horse racing is not as compelling a TV spectacle as baseball or football. The races only last a minute and 13 seconds. You can argue that if gamblers only want to bet on a few big racetracks, we no longer need small racetracks. But without those small tracks, the sport has no way to sell itself.

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