As the saying goes, “It takes a village.”
That’s a good way to describe what’s happening in harness racing in the State of Indiana.
The Hoosier State, known much more for hoops than hopples, has everybody on board as Hoosier Park, not a major a player in the sport historically, now has management, government, patrons and horsemen all on the same page, as the seven-eighths mile track continues to make its way toward the sport’s mainstream.
For the next two weeks, Hoosier Park, currently fifth in North America in purse distribution, will take center stage in the sport. They are in the midst of a furious brush to the center of the harness racing universe as the Breeders Crown comes to town for the first time October 27 and 28 (Eliminations on October 20 and 21).
“We were ecstatic,” said Hoosier Park President and Chief Operating Officer Jim Brown on being contacted by the Hambletonian Society to host the year-end championship races. “We knew we were gaining a good reputation in the country as being horseman-friendly. People made sacrifices to make this happen.”
The process actually began in 2006, when Hoosier Park (which opened for business in 1994) was acquired by Centaur Gaming from Churchill Downs.
“That was a turning point,” said Brown. “We don’t look at racing as a spreadsheet item. We look at the grand picture of our company, and racing fits right in as an integral part.”
Further strides were made when Centaur acquired Indiana Grand in 2013. This allowed Centaur to strip both Hoosier Park and Indiana Grand down and rebuild as breed-specific facilities. Hoosier as the harness venue, Indiana Grand as the Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse track.
But Brown, and chairman and chief executive officer Rod Ratcliff have long histories in racing.
“Both of us have been affiliated with racing for our entire adult lives,” said Brown. “And believe racing operated within a gaming facility has to be as important as anything else. You don’t make money in housekeeping, but that doesn’t mean you operate a dirty facility. We both love racing. We like to joke that we are either a casino company that loves horse racing or a horse racing company that knows how to run casinos.”
So why does it work at Hoosier?
Hoosier signed a seven-year agreement with theirs in 2014, giving owners, trainers and drivers some stability and confidence.
“The money that the horsemen got from casino revenues was attached to the state budget,” said Brown. “And every year, there would be a bill proposed to take that money away under the guise of why are we subsidizing that industry? So, as we are trying to build an industry, we had horsemen uneasy who might have wanted to relocate to Indiana because it was unstable."
“We worked with the state legislature to create a bandwidth of 10-12% that would go to racing and move it off the state books and back into the owner-operator and horsemen relationship with one another. The horsemen do a lot for us in bringing their best efforts to our facilities. We could pay them 10 or 11% for the length of the agreement, but we wanted to pay them 12% because we were in a building mode of the industry.”
The economics are apparently working. Hoosier races 160 cards a year and the horsemen have approximately $56 million in purse money a year to work with. Between Hoosier and Indiana Grand, casino revenues total about $461 million (after $14 million in “free play” is factored in). Based on a sliding scale where the state takes more as gaming revenues rise, the most the state can rake from the pot is 35%. In terms of where they rank, Brown says that Indiana is in the lower end of the top third in terms of how much the state takes.
“Economic impact studies show that racing has a value of over a billion dollars a year to the Indiana state economy,” said Brown. “And that’s an important responsibility on our part to make sure that we treat racing with the respect it deserves. We worked with Purdue University on several studies that showed the economic value of horse racing in the State of Indiana. Out here in the Midwest, that means something.”
Brown and his team are trying to leave no stone unturned as the Breeders Crown draws near, but knows there are limitations based on his location in Anderson, Indiana. “We have about 20 different committees meeting on the Breeders Crown. We want to get it right. It’s the first time in Indiana. It’s all of us on a mission. We’re not in New York or Chicago. We are surrounded by corn fields.”
That’s why Hoosier relies in a big way on its simulcast presence, as 95% of money wagered on Hoosier’s races are wagered off track. “We have a great commentary team and we try to come up with new camera angles that don’t get people confused along with the fundamental information that bettors need,” said Brown.
How will Brown measure success with the Breeders Crown he’s about to host? “By how we feel as a team in what we did compared to what we had hoped for. Another is customer feedback to us, whether it’s an export customer or someone at the track. It’ll also be measured by handle. Those are pretty much the three main areas. Another important one is what our horsemen and visiting horsemen think.”
“A goal was to try and get a Breeders Crown,” said Brown. “We weren’t sure it would be offered to us, but then the Hambletonian Society contacted us. The horsemen voted to dedicate $500,000 of their money to the event and we dedicated $400,000 of our money and said, ‘We want to put on a show’. We want to raise the bar on every aspect of the event.”
And with everybody working together, Hoosier Park figures to do just that.
(Hoosier Park photos)