Spring is in the air, which means the month or so between early May and mid-June will see horse racing jockey it’s way back into the national consciousness.
Starting on May 4 with the Kentucky Derby, followed by the Preakness Stakes on May 18 and the Belmont Stakes on June 8, casual fans and hardcore handicappers will sweat their trifectas and straight wagers on the famed Triple Crown races.
Known as the “Sport of Kings,” thoroughbred horse racing has thrilled Roman emperors and recreational racetrack bettors alike for millennia. And for much of America’s history, horse racing reigned supreme as the only legitimate way for gamblers to enjoy a legal sweat.
The first races were organized in 1655 in Salisbury, New York, with two steeds streaking down the city’s lone thoroughfare while a packed crowd of spectators lined the street. By the turn of the 20th century, the United States was home to 314 racetracks operating under regulatory organizations like the American Stud Book and the American Jockey Club.
The oldest track still in operation today is the Pleasanton Fairgrounds Racetrack at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in California, which opened to the public in 1858.
Iconic tracks like Pimlico Race Course (1870), Churchill Downs (1875), and Belmont Park (1905) soon followed, and race fans can still visit these venerable venues year-round.
When the state of Nevada legalized most forms of casino gambling – folks who enjoyed wagering on games of skill within a legal, regulated setting saw the racetrack as their only option. Accordingly, horse racing remained one of the most popular pastimes in the nation through the 1930s and a few decades afterward.
But when the city of Las Vegas sprung from the Mojave Desert sands during the post-WWII economic boom, gamblers suddenly had a new option on their hands. Since the 1960s, horse racing has suffered a steady decline in patronage and enthusiasm, sliding from the peak of American sports to niche status.
We’ll dive into the gory details surrounding the horse racing industry’s contraction later on in the page, but for now, let’s focus on one primary culprit – casino gambling. Between the allure of The Strip in Sin City – and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 which brought tribal casinos to dozens of states – gamblers can choose between horse racing and alternatives like table games, slot machines, and video poker.
Increasingly, players are choosing to bring their bankroll to the casino over the racetrack, that much is obvious.
But what’s not so clear is whether or not these gamblers are making the right choice…
Sure, games like blackjack, roulette, and craps can certainly be exciting and entertaining, but it only takes a few hands, spins, or rolls to realize that the results are heavily titled in the house’s favor. And after an hour of stand/hit or red/black binary decision making, surveying the field of up to 20 horses – ranging from longshot underdogs to odds on favorites – offers a much-needed sense of variety.
The modern crop of gamblers who have never even been to the racetrack is missing out on something special. Contrasted with the sterilized ambiance and décor of the modern corporate casino resort, an old-school racetrack feels like a living, breathing entity.
In the end, the debate between gambling at a casino or the downs is all a matter of personal preference.
As an admittedly biased observer, however, I’d like to help you make up your mind. On that note, check out the list below to learn about five reasons why the horse racing track is a better place to play than the casino.
1 – You Actually Get to Watch the Races up Close and Personal
Let’s start with the most tangible reason to visit your local racetrack, or one of the historical venues found nearby – the racetrack is unmistakably cool.
If your only experience with wagering on thoroughbred races comes from those ubiquitous off-track betting (OTB) parlors, online betting platforms like Bovada, or even the casino Race Book, you’re missing out. While those proxy forms of betting are definitely worthwhile for folks who lack direct access to a racetrack, they just can’t beat the real deal.
Stepping foot onto the concourse of a track like Churchill Downs or the box seats at Saratoga Race Course for the first time will spark instant memories to last a lifetime. From the distinct smell of fresh hay, turned over dirt, and of course, the mighty steeds themselves, a racetrack immediately lets newcomers know they’ve entered a different world.
From there, the sound of the crowd buzzing in anticipation, the bright sunlight shining down, and the goosebumps you’ll inevitably feel when the horses take their starting gates combine to form a symphony of sensory delights. The experience can best be compared to Opening Day of the Major League Baseball (MLB) season, or sitting courtside for National Basketball League (NBA) action.
Don’t take my word for it though, just ask ESPN SportsCenter anchor Kenny Mayne – a veteran observer of both the sports and horse racing universes – how the racetrack can instill a sense of wonder comparable to the greatest athletic arenas:
“I started going to the races when I was nine, usually with my Uncle Gordy.
Those memories are still some of the fondest in my life. It’s just a feeling; it’s almost indescribable.
It’s the same feeling that others describe when they say, ‘oh yeah, my uncle or my dad used to take me to Wrigley,’ or to Shea Stadium, or whatever it is.”
When you’re at the track, your proximity to the course and the horses running it makes everything seem that much more real. Throw in the pomp and pageantry associated with the “Sport of Kings,” and race fans never lack for awe-inspiring sights and sounds:
In a profile of the American horse racing industry published by U.K. newspaper The Guardian in 2015, longtime thoroughbred enthusiast Eric Peterson described the visceral appeal of visiting the track for yourself:
“Everything from the silks, to the call to post, post parade, etc. – they still do things the way they did many, many years ago, and that adds to the aura and atmosphere.
It’s also a personality-driven sport, from the jockeys and trainers to the horses themselves.
It’s great to go to the track and see the ‘stars’ up close.”
In their personal appraisals of horse racing’s appeal, both Mayne and Peterson express genuine emotional attachment to the sport.
On the other hand, you won’t find many casino gamblers out there willing to wax poetic about Bally’s Las Vegas or the Flamingo anytime soon. Descriptors like “aura,” “atmosphere,” and “indescribable” just don’t fit with the modern casino culture, which is currently dominated by corporate overlords like MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment.
When these multibillion-dollar companies decided to tear down many of The Strip’s most iconic casino landmarks during the last few decades – the Dunes (1993), the Aladdin (1997), and the Stardust (2007) come to mind – the average gambler’s emotional connection with Sin City was severed forever.
Race tracks are closing their doors in droves too, but so long as shrines to the sport like Pimlico, Churchill Downs, and Belmont still stand, thoroughbred bettors have every reason to pay a pilgrimage to horse racing’s true temples.
2 – Advantage Handicappers Aren’t Tempted by Slots and Other High House Edge Games
If you’re a handicapper capable of posting a positive expected value (EV) over the course of a year – a rare breed in the world of horse racing – casinos can be akin to your Achille’s heel.
Just picture the following scene that plays out every day in casino Race Books from coast to coast…
After studying every facet of the day’s racing form all morning, a winning handicapper heads to the window to place a few well-timed wagers. Place bets like:
From there, this punter kicks his feet up and sweats the sprints on the Race Book’s personal TV simulcast screens. Like clockwork, their tickets continue to cash, generating a healthy profit of $500 on the entire lineup – not bad for a day’s work spanning only a couple of hours.
After collecting their winnings – making sure to tip the attendant of course – this successful bettor has their sights set on a lazy afternoon spent scanning the next day’s racing form. After all, their process has been paying dividends on a consistent basis for weeks now, so why should they mess with the routine?
Heading out through the casino, however, this bettor can’t help but notice the bustling action going down at a nearby craps table. Players are cheering the roller on, the roller is dodging sevens and spiking point numbers like a pro, and everyone seems to be having a grand old time.
Our favorite handicapper doesn’t like to admit as much, but they’ve always struggled with the temptation to indulge in table games. Even though they know that the thoroughbreds offer a rare player edge – provided enough hard work and study is put in – while casino games are always designed to favor the house, this bettor has a weakness for games of chance.
Suddenly, that $500 in crisp, clean bills is clasped in hand, and the bettor is drawn to the craps table like a moth to flame. And speaking of fire, every last cent of that money is quickly burned through chasing a series of bad bets like the Hard 8 – which carries an obscene 9.09 percent house edge.
The now desperate gambler scrounges for the last $1,000 they have on hand, hoping to hit a lucky run of rolls to get even, but we all know how this story ends. After losing their last thousand, the previously flush handicapper heads home with their pockets turned inside out and their ATM account is overdrawn.
Instead of spending a nice evening identifying juicy targets for tomorrow’s races, the broke and busted bettor must resort to borrowing just so they can get action in on a single horse.
If you’re a winning handicapper, good on you for achieving a success rate most punters will never attain. But no amount of success at the race track can change the fact that casino games – even skill-based games like blackjack (0.50 percent house edge on average) and video poker (1 percent) – favor the house at every turn.
The very presence of table games and slot machines can trigger the worst impulses in a compulsive gambler, which is why racing-dedicated tracks that lack video gaming terminals (VGTs) and other Vegas-themed attractions are a godsend for many handicappers. At a pure track, they can use their knowledge and insight to make strategically informed wagers, all without having to deal with high house edge rates and pure games of chance.
Watching a horse race in person is a unique experience that you can’t find in the casino. You also don’t have to face the temptation of slot machines at many tracks, though more race tracks seem to be installing slots all of the time.
Read part 2 to learn about the remaining three reasons why the horseracing track is better than the casino.