An increasingly endangered species.

Bettors may need to look farther afield for wagering value, according to HANA.

by Linda Dougherty

Tracks in the mid-Atlantic region did not fare well in the 2015 Horseplayers Association of North America (HANA) Racetrack Ratings that were announced April 9, in many cases falling far short of their competitors in Kentucky, Florida, California and New York.

The HANA ratings are not based on racetrack popularity, or factors such as the price and quality of food, but based on what HANA considers measurable factors with regard to horseplayer value: takeout rates, wager variety, field size, signal distribution and handle size/trend.

Topping HANA’s list for the first time was Kentucky Downs in Franklin, Ky., which has a short, all-turf meet. Kentucky Downs dethroned Keeneland, which led all tracks for the first six years of HANA’s published ratings.  Keeneland came in second in the latest ratings, followed by Saratoga, Del Mar, and Woodbine.

Kentucky Downs was top dog because of its low takeout across all wagers and an average field size of more than 10 horses per race.

Of the seven major racetracks in the mid-Atlantic region — a list excluding Colonial Downs, which did  not run last year, and the very brief meets at The Meadowlands and Timonium — Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N. J. ranked the highest, and was 20th overall of 62 rated tracks.

The Jersey Shore fixture ranked 22nd on takeout score, and its overall rating was boosted by its robust pool sizes; its per-race mutuel pool average was the survey’s 11th highest.  Monmouth’s Pick 4 and Pick 5 takeout were only 15%, while its exacta takeout was 19%, just a shade higher than Kentucky Downs’ 18.25%. It also sported average field sizes of 7.99 horses, higher than Saratoga (7.97), Santa Anita (7.95), and Belmont Park (7.72).


Second in the mid-Atlantic, and ranked 28th overall, was Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia. Charles Town’s takeout rates for trifecta, superfecta and Pick 3 wagers were actually lower than Monmouth’s (22 vs. 25%, respectively), but its Pick 4 and Pick 6 wager takeouts were higher (22 vs. 15 and 20%, respectively). It also has much smaller pools than Monmouth, and its overall handle trend was down nearly 20 percent, while Monmouth’s handle was down less than four percent.

“Regardless of whether or not the rankings existed, we’d be looking at them [takeout rates] to see if there’s a way we can impact them for the betterment of our business,” said Erich Zimny, Charles Town’s vice president of racing operations. “I think it shows in some of the things we’ve acted on. About 3-½ years ago, we made a reasoned decision to go forward with a pretty big cut in the takeout on Pick 3s, Pick 4s, trifectas and superfectas from 25% down to 22%. That’s a 12% relative cut, which isn’t small. We’ve tinkered with the fractional wager base with a few different bets over the last couple years. We do what we can to impact field size but with the paucity of horses right now, that’s a big challenge.”

Pimlico and Laurel Park were ranked third and seventh in the mid-Atlantic (35th and 44th overall, respectively), with Pimlico holding the lone distinction among mid-Atlantic tracks of having a positive handle trend of 3.09%.

But both Maryland ovals were given “F”s by HANA in their Signal Distribution Grade category. Higher grades are awarded to tracks that make their signals available to all advance deposit wagering systems with a minimum of restrictions and at a reasonable cost.

Jeff Platt, president of HANA, said that those “F” grades were given because The Stronach Group, which owns the Maryland tracks, is very restrictive of its signal, and charges a high signal fee.

“At HANA, we believe the more choice the bettor has, the healthier the industry is,” said Platt.

Both Pimlico and Laurel also have high takeout rates for their trifecta, superfecta, Pick 3, Pick 4 and Pick 6 wagers, all just above 25%.

“We are definitely looking at our takeout rates,” said Sal Sinatra, vice president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club. “We implemented a Pick 5 for this Pimlico meet with a takeout of only 12%. The concerning part is that the betting pool on that wager has been disappointing so far. The Pick 3 and Pick 4 pools are always larger and they have a much higher takeout. I’m looking at cutting a few more takeouts when we get back to Laurel, but the Pick 5 numbers are making me become skeptical.”

With takeout rates that are among the highest in the country, it’s no surprise that Penn National and Parx Racing are ranked near the bottom of the HANA ratings.

Penn National has industry-worst takeout rates of 31% for trifectas and 30% for superfectas, while Parx has industry-worst takeouts of 30% for superfectas, 26% for Pick 4s, and 26% for Pick 6s.

Penn National’s handle trend is down nearly 19%, while Parx is down more than 7%. The two Pennsylvania venues are averaging just north of seven horses per race.

“Both Penn National and Parx have received billions of dollars in slot subsidies, yet they have not grown their racing product and have done nothing to entice horseplayers,” said Platt.

Representatives from both Parx and Penn have not responded to requests for comment.

“The long-term solution for horse racing is under everyone’s nose… it is not slots,” said New Jersey-based handicapper Norm S., a prolific horse racing Tweeter and blogger who requested his last name not be used. “Tracks and horsemen’s groups must reduce rakes (takeouts) in a dramatic way soon, as declining field sizes only magnify high rakes.”

[su_box title=”HANA RANKINGS” style=”glass”]
  1. Monmouth Park — 20th overall
  2. Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races — 28th overall
  3. Pimlico Race Course — 35th overall
  4. Delaware Park — 38th overall
  5. Laurel Park — 44th overall
  6. Penn National Race Course — 50th overall
  7. Parx Racing — 56th overall
Linda Dougherty has been writing about horse racing since 1990 for publications such as Daily Racing Form, The Blood-Horse and Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred. Follow her on Twitter @PaThoroughbred.