Recently I’ve seen pictures of several racetracks that existed at one time in Las Vegas. One, the Joe E. Browne Racetrack, was located on the site that today’s Westgate occupies, next to the first convention center in town. In another picture, I was reminded of a second track that operated behind Caesars Palace in the ’60s, complete with a parking lot on the infield.
All this time, I thought the only racetrack that ever existed in Las Vegas was way out in Henderson, where there’s still a street called Racetrack Road. It was far from the Strip, especially in those days of no superhighways in Vegas, so it’s not surprising that it failed.
But failure, unfortunately, is the story of horse racing in the U.S. and around the world. For a variety of reasons, this beautiful sport has slowly faded away. When I was a kid in the 1950s, the decline had already begun, as racetracks began to close around New York City, where I grew up. In newsreels from the 1920s and ’30s, the same tracks were packed, with thousands of people ready to wager meager earnings on their nag of choice.
The movie (and even better book) “Seabiscuit” is amazing, and part of a genre of horse racing movies I love. But if you haven’t seen “Phar Lap,” an Australian movie about the same Depression era, you’re missing a gem. There are a dozen other great racing movies that testify to the emotional connection we all have to horses—particularly ones with big hearts.
At the core of horse racing, of course, is gambling. In many places, horse racing was the only legal gambling available at the time. Gambling on a horse race is a bad bet. The takeout on the prizes is astronomical—although not nearly as bad as a wager on a lottery ticket. Even though the bet is very unfavorable, I have to admire the faithful horse players who can eke out a profit against all odds. Their attention to detail and analytical minds are more like a poker player’s than any other kind of gambler.
Atlantic City Race Course today stands empty and lifeless. It once was vibrant and exciting, with the likes Frank Sinatra and Princess Grace attending. There are hundreds of tracks across the country that have similarly fallen to the public’s fickle desires.
Yes, some tracks survive. Most do so by depending on casino gaming, part of the “racino” community that is itself slowly slipping away. Dog tracks have become almost nonexistent, but the casinos built to support them live on. Most horse racing meets are short, six weeks or less, and the “crowds” that come to see them are minimal, made up mostly of inveterate horse gamblers, a breed unto themselves.
Yes, it’s sad to see the decline of horse racing. The Sport of Kings has failed to keep up with the times, and even worse, has often been accused of abusing the very animals it depends upon for survival. If you can’t keep your star product safe, you really don’t deserve to prosper.
So what lessons can casinos learn from the demise of horse racing? The first is to keep the hits coming. The 10 to 20 minutes between races is a killer for the gambler. That’s when the “historic horse racing machines” were born, which are now just replicas of our favorite slot machines. Yes, casinos offer more bets more quickly with a better payout than betting on real races.
Casinos added amenities that racetracks could never offer. Yes, there was a “turf club” or some other high-end restaurant at most tracks, but there were rarely hotel rooms, spas, meeting space, pools or any of the amenities commonplace in today’s casino resort.
The challenge for casinos, particularly in the Covid-19 era, is convenience. The reluctance of people to go out in public to enjoy their chosen form of entertainment, whatever it may be, is palpable. Online gaming in New Jersey and Pennsylvania soared during the initial lockdown and have continued apace now that casinos have reopened—albeit in a severely truncated manner.
How are these massive casino resorts going to rejigger their business models when people are uncomfortable being within 6 feet of other people? Can showrooms return to full form? Will attendees at meetings and conventions get over their aversion to crowds, or even be able to convince their companies to allow them to travel again? And how will the casino floor be redesigned in a way that’s appealing and welcoming without shut-down slot machines and Plexiglas between the customer and employee?
Casinos have a challenge not unequal to the one that the horse racing industry failed to navigate. It’s going to take the most brilliant minds to find solutions. Let us know your ideas, and we’ll spread them far and wide.