In part 1 you learned why the horse track is better than the casino because you get to experience the race in person and how you can avoid the temptation of slot machines at some tracks.
Here in the second part, I explore three more reasons why the horse track is better than the casino, including some of the history of horse racing and the importance of elder tracks and how they avoid the modern trappings of the rest of society.
3 – Racetracks Don’t Try to Be Theme Parks, Museums, or Shopping Centers
Taking a stroll down The Strip in 2019 is a far cry from Las Vegas’ glory days as a gritty hub for all things gambling.
Today you’ll find much of Planet Hollywood occupied by the Miracle Mile shopping mall, a permanent Dale Chihuly blown glass art exhibit at the Bellagio, and a full-scale Adventuredome at the Circus Circus.
These family-friendly amenities are a big reason why more than 42 million tourists made their way to Las Vegas last year, that much is certain. And without a doubt, seeing Sin City transform from a haven for depravity and debauchery into a metropolitan playground fit for toddlers and teenagers is exciting on many levels.
The gambling industry will always be dependent on “incidental” income, as wives, husbands, and kids who either don’t want to or can’t gamble find other ways to spend their time – and money. This supplementary revenue even trickles down your way, as the casino Race Book is more willing to toss a few complimentary drink tickets to bettors knowing the tourists are happy to spend $12 on a watered-down gin and tonic.
Any experienced horse racing bettor can likely attest to the hassles wagering in a casino can bring. Large crowds of tourists blocking your way to the betting window, recreational punters taking their sweet time while post time approaches, and little ankle-biters distracting you during last-minute preparations are genuine concerns.
Take your bankroll to the racetrack though, and all of that changes for the better. Suddenly, you’re surrounded by kindred spirits who appreciate the art of handicapping. With everyone in attendance there for the races, and the races only, you’re free to focus on the task at hand without fear of distraction.
At some point in a gambler’s lifetime, the window dressing modern casinos use to keep tourists happy becomes entirely irrelevant. Nightclubs, whiskey bars, and chic eateries owned by celebrity chefs will always have their place within the casino industry, but horse racing aficionados who only need the dirt and a good colt at their disposal are happy to dispense with the distractions.
4 – America’s Top Racetracks Are Genuine Historic Sites Worth Seeing
You’ve heard the names before, both on this page and in bated breath from racing announcers like Bob Costas, Donna Brothers, and Mike Battaglia.
Churchill Downs. Pimlico. Belmont.
Each of these historic racetracks is over 100 years old, and Pimlico – the Baltimore, Maryland home of the Preakness Stakes – will celebrate its 150th birthday in 2020.
Even on the West Coast, venues like Santa Anita Park in California have taken wagers since 1934, while Pleasanton Fairgrounds Racetrack at the Alameda County Fairgrounds predates the Civil War with an opening date of 1858.
You just can’t find history like this in the casino industry, where the concept of “creative destruction” ensures even the most beloved venues can be imploded and rebuilt on a billionaire owner’s whim. The oldest casino on The Strip is the Flamingo, but with an opening date of 1946, some 39 years separated it from Belmont’s first races.
Head to the Downtown district on Fremont Street and you’ll find a similar story. The oldest casino on the original “Strip” is the Golden Gate, which began life as the Hotel Nevada in 1906. But gambling didn’t come to the Hotel Nevada until 1931, and the Golden Gate as it’s known today wasn’t born until 1955.
Before betting on your own skill and instinct was commodified in the name of capitalism, historic race tracks formed the foundation of their communities as social hubs. Gamblers aren’t known for being a sentimental bunch, but anyone who appreciates the inherent value of a historic site should consider race tracks as a tangible connection to America’s roots.
5 – You’re Doing Your Part to Help Save a Dying Industry
I’ve touched on this regrettable topic a few times already, but let’s cut to the chase shall we – the horse racing industry could very well be on its last legs.
Between the arrival of Las Vegas, hundreds of tribal casinos nationwide offering Sin City in the suburbs, and lotteries bringing cheap gambling to the masses, the ponies just can’t keep up.
The statistics paint a grim picture no matter how you slice them…
Per the latest data compiled by the American Jockey Club, the total number of thoroughbred races held across the country has declined sharply over the last decade and counting. Back in 2004 race fans had 53,595 events on the schedule to sweat, but by last year, the count had plunged to 37,628. In fact, the number of races fell each and every year during that span.
Over the same 13-year period, the annual list of registered foals fell from 34,800 to 19,925 – meaning there’s fewer horses out there to compete in fewer events.
In Nevada, the country’s gambling epicenter, horse racing handle – or the total amount wagered with Race Books and OTB parlors – dropped off sharply from $596.5 million in 2007 to $269.1 million last year.
According to polling conducted by the research firm Harris in 1985, four percent of Americans ranked horse racing as their favorite sport, good for eighth place overall. Three decades later, however, and the same Harris polling saw that figure shrink to just 1 percent. That makes horse racing the 13th most popular sport in America, trailing niche athletic pursuits like swimming, track and field, and mixed martial arts (MMA).
Alex Waldrop – who serves as president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) – offered this stark assessment of the sport’s plight in an interview with Reuters:
“We’re no longer the only game in town. There are casinos on every street corner.”
Waldrop’s view that casino games have siphoned precious expendable income away from the race track seems to be quite accurate.
Per the American Jockey Club, total handle in the U.S. peaked at $15.2 billion back in 2003, before falling off the proverbial cliff to land at $10.6 billion in 2015.
The slow, but steady, erosion of America’s horse racing industry shouldn’t be considered solely in statistics or dollars and cents either.
In a profile titled “Horse Racing Falls Victim to Casinos, Video Gambling, Politicians,”, which was published by the Chicago Tribune in 2015, reporter John Kass wrote about how the decline of Balmoral Park Racetrack has impacted the humans and animals who call the place home. The track – which opened in 1926 as Lincoln Fields in the town of in Crete – was essentially shuttered in 2016 after Illinois racing regulators scheduled no events at Balmoral.
In his piece, Kass interviews veteran trainer Sondra Brown, who watched her workplace and home track close down due to a combination of lack of demand for racing and increased competition from casinos:
“All my life that’s what I’ve done, work with the horses here.
It’s all I ever wanted to do, ever since I was a little girl. And now it’s ending and I don’t know how to deal with it.
Here’s what I worry about. I worry about the horses. I worry about the people, the old-timers.”
Meanwhile, as casinos cannibalize gambling revenue from their racetrack cousins, the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB) reported $11.9 billion in revenue for Silver State gaming establishments last year alone. That massive haul marked the fourth consecutive year of annual win growth for Nevada casinos, and eight year-on-year bumps over the last nine years.
Limiting the scope simply to sports betting, bookmakers in Nevada took in $597 million in wagers during the month of March 2019 alone. That set a new monthly revenue mark for the industry, proving that gamblers are still willing to wager on athletic pursuits, even if playing the ponies is no longer a priority.
If you have any vested interest in preserving America’s horse racing industry, skipping your next sojourn to Sin City in favor of a trip to the track is a great way to chip in. These struggling venues need all the help they can get, so if you’re able to divert a few hundred bucks out of the corporate casino coffers and into your favorite race track, you’ll be doing yeoman’s work.
It can be all too easy to dismiss the racetrack as a relic from a bygone age. When you see dilapidated or shuttered tracks standing in the shadows of a glittering casino resort, it’s only natural to associate the former with failure and the latter with success.
Indeed, the horse racing industry has seen better times, and casinos shoulder much of the blame for that sorry state of affairs. Nonetheless, gamblers who take their craft seriously have every reason to prefer the race track over the modern casino environment. When you simply want to wager – without wading through scantily clad nightclub crowds and family-friendly attractions – the racetrack is by far the better option.
Casinos are slowly replacing racetracks, and the surviving tracks are increasingly turning to casino accouterments like slots and VGTs, but every gambler owes it to themselves to visit a traditional old-school racing venue at least once in their lives.