It was a Monday when most American sports bettors would have been focused on Atlanta, where the last of $10 billion would have been wagered on the NCAA basketball championship game.
Instead, about $5 million landed on Nebraska and Oklahoma. No, not the Cornhuskers and the Sooners. It came in at a couple of little tracks in Grand Island and Claremore. And for them it was big money.
Even though it is behind closed doors with fans locked out, horse racing is about the only U.S. sport going during the coronavirus pandemic. The only tracks that have been running Mondays and Tuesdays have been Fonner Park, about an hour and a half west of Lincoln, and Will Rogers Downs, a half-hour out of Tulsa and more than two hours from Norman. They also race on Wednesdays. But on Monday and Tuesday, they are the only games in town. Make that the nation.
To say they have seen their handles soar would be an understatement.
“Whose wildest dreams would put us in the position that we’re in now?” said Chris Kotulak, a Nebraska native who became CEO of Fonner Park last year. “We share a little bit with Will Rogers on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. But there’s a good few hours when we’re the only thing out there, and our mutuel handle shows it as well.”
John Lies, the familiar summertime TV host at Del Mar who works this time of year as the racing secretary and announcer at Will Rogers Downs, said: “The handle is what it is, and it’s fantastic. We just crushed our all-time record and actually passed $5 million for total handle (Monday).”
Fonner Park might have collected $300,000 on a typical race day before the pandemic. Will Rogers Downs was bringing in a little more than twice that. This spring each track is typically reporting daily handles of more than $2.5 million. A big carryover on a Pick 5 last week helped Fonner Park’s handle reach a record $7.8 million.
But the tracks do not keep much of that. “Before people start getting gaga, it doesn’t just get injected back into the purse money,” Lies said.
Most of the handle goes back to successful players and to the takeout for the platforms like advance-deposit wagering that are conduits to nationwide betting. So these little racecourses that so many gamblers have just discovered are still scraping to make ends meet.
“What we’re getting now is just a fingernail of the mutuel handle,” Kotulak said. “And believe me, we need every penny of it.”
He said the loss of money from in-person wagering — not to mention food, drink and program sales — is what really hurts a venue that would routinely sell out its 6,000 seats on a springtime Saturday.
“When money is wagered on-track, we have an 18 to 20% hold,” Kotulak said. “When it is wagered off-track out of state, there is a 3% hold.”
It is a little more complicated at Will Rogers Downs, which is part of the Cherokee Nation.
“We are heavily subsidized by casinos,” Lies said. “In the state of Oklahoma, that is why horse racing exists. And at Will Rogers, it is a symbiotic relationship between the Cherokee casinos and the racetrack here. If one wasn’t open, the other couldn’t be open.”
That is why race purses are still about $5,000 to $10,000 at Fonner Park and $7,000 to $27,000 at Will Rogers Downs, a far cry from those at bigger tracks that are 10 times as much or more.
Even though the money is tight, the equine population is not. With so many other tracks under racing suspensions, owners and trainers and their horses have gravitated to Nebraska and Oklahoma. Race fields have been full and figure to stay that way.
“I think you’re going to see this product all the way into May,” Lies said. “We’ve seen the tracks that are closed and the ones that pushed back their (spring and summer) meets. Some of those impact us directly, such as Lone Star Park, Canterbury and Prairie Meadows. The longer they push back, the longer you can expect this product to continue all the way through this season into May.”
But at some point the seasons must end. The Will Rogers Downs meet ends May 23. Lies said a lot of the horses will move down the road to the 5-furlong track at Fair Meadows in Tulsa. About the only adjustment being considered to Will Rogers’ calendar is to keep races on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays rather than shift as scheduled next week to Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays. “That model is based on (the now-suspended) casino business on Saturdays,” Lies said.
However, horsemen are pushing to keep Fonner Park open past its scheduled closing April 29. But it has to make financial sense to track management.
“I would say it’s 50-50,” Kotulak said. “My foremost goal is that the horses back there in the stable area remain fed and that the people that feed them are being fed and that they’re able to keep their livelihood going. I don’t want to become a refugee camp where we have 900 horses stabled here. How far down the road could we go after April 29? The math has to be right because we simply cannot recover from any deficit that we would face.”
For now, though, the two tracks bask in being the only choice for early-week bettors — not only in the U.S. but around the world. And while bigger-picture matters hang over them, some day-to-day questions provide positive energy, such as those seeking local knowledge when it comes to handicapping the races.
“You might see a horse that may have run a couple lackluster 4-furlong races early in the season, but you could see deep down in their past performances that they’re much better at 6 furlongs or a little bit longer,” Kotulak said. “That first chance that they get to go 6 furlongs, I love that as an angle. And I will say right now at Fonner Park the rail is live. The bigger question is: Do you have a remote control to get your horse to the rail?”
In his role as racing secretary, Lies identified a more subtle betting angle just starting to come into play at Will Rogers Downs.
“My tip is to play 3-year-olds against the older horses, especially at certain restricted claiming conditions,” he said. “We write a lot of races that are ‘non-winners of two’ (previous races) and ‘non-winners of three.’ If you’ve got a big full field of those and there’s a 3-year-old in there, play those 3-year-olds because you’re getting value. They often get overlooked. If you’ve got an older horse that’s 4, 5, 6 years old and he’s still a ‘non-2’ or a ‘non-3,’ bless his heart, he’s just not very good. By this time the 3-year-olds are better than the older horses at that condition.”
If nothing else, these heartland towns with a combined population of about 70,000 have the attention of an untold swath of bettors for two days a week.
“We are proud of this product,” Lies said. “Keep on playing.”
“As I like to say,” Kotulak concluded, “bring on the Fonn.”