But every racing fan knows what happened instead. When slots were legalized, the machines proved to be so lucrative many track owners lost interest in the sport and viewed it as a nuisance. They made no effort to improve the game or attract new fans; slot players are more profitable customers.
The day-to-day racing at tracks such as Philadelphia Park and Delaware Park is just about as dreary as it was before slots inflated the purses. One track that has made the most of slot money is Woodbine, in Toronto, which offers some of the best daily cards on the continent and uses its resources to promote the sport and to create new horseplayers. But Woodbine is a rarity.
More often, slot money props up tracks that have virtually no fan base and couldn’t exist on their own merits. This is true of most harness and dog tracks, and some thoroughbred operations — such as Presque Isle Downs. Two previous racetracks in Erie, Pa., went broke from lack of support. Presque Isle was built when slots were legalized in the state, and it had to be a racetrack to get the machines, but its racing business is as pitiful as that of its predecessors. The track’s average attendance last season was 705, and those customers bet an average of $35,000 per day on the live product. Yet Presque Isle pays huge purses — more than $200,000 a day.
While the money has benefited owners, trainers and Pennsylvania breeders, it has done nothing to popularize or improve horse racing. On the contrary, it has hurt the sport in some ways. At a time when almost every track is suffering from a shortage of thoroughbreds, the horses who go to Erie could be running at viable tracks, helping them to offer a better product, instead of racing in a place where almost nobody watches them.
Too many people in the thoroughbred industry are content with the status quo. In the crowded mid-Atlantic region, racetracks should agree to pare down their schedules, offering fewer races with larger fields that fans want to bet. But horsemen habitually resist such cutbacks, and most tracks continue to lose fans.
However, the status quo is unsustainable because more and more politicians will be asking: Why should we subsidize a sport that so few people care about? Why should we help an industry that won’t help itself? And thoroughbred racing can offer no good responses to these questions.
For Andrew Beyer’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/beyer.