It is way too early to figure out if Fort Erie is going in the right direction, but it seems, so far, they are going in the same direction despite a publicized new attitude and new management.
On the bright side, total handle is up 3% from $2,543,865 to $2,627,135 according to Equibase numbers. They have had one extra race this year as opposed to last year (why they added the race on a Sunday, their worst handle day and not Monday or Tuesday, is a complete mystery to me), so per race handle is only up 0.7% ($64,076 vs. $63,596 last year). There is a trend right now as bigger rebated horseplayers are starting to shift some of their action from high distribution fee tracks (like Tracknet tracks) to tracks that sell their signal for a more reasonable rate, and Fort Erie is in a position to at least hold their own thanks to that.
Live handle is pretty lousy right now (down 12.6%). Only $284,390 has been bet live this year versus $325,520 last year at this time, despite the one extra race this year. To be fair, live handle is down just about everywhere, but in Fort Erie's case, live bettors are extremely important, and they have a huge impact on sustaining current race days and purses, as horsemen get a much bigger cut on horseplayers who bet live (whether it is Fort Erie or another track on the simulcast menu).
Field size has been a problem at most tracks this year as well. Keeneland dropped to under 8 horses a race this spring compared to over 9 the year before. Fort Erie's field size average is down from 7.87 horses a race last year at this time to 7.48 horses a race. Horseplayers generally bet more, the bigger the field size. They got hurt a bit on Tuesday, as 3 horses were vet scratched in the last race, reducing the field size to 5. Their last two races on weekdays, are their money makers, as they run up against the least competition at that time.
It wasn't a great move to move post times to 1:30, instead of 1:45 last year (if anything, it should be 2 PM post times on weekdays), especially if they are only running 8 races on Monday and Tuesday. They need every edge they can get. That is why they should run the first race on Saturday at around 12:20 so as to get the horseplayers first betting dollars from across North America.
Field size and handle numbers tend to increase considerably as the year goes on. Last year, field size average at Fort Erie wound up at 8.22 a race, while they averaged $85,439 in handle per race.
Lets Compare Fort Erie To Finger Lakes, Shall We?
There were three dates that apples to apples comparisons to Fort Erie can be made this year (Kentucky Derby Day and the past Mondays and Tuesdays). Unfortunately, Finger Lakes doesn't readily publish live handle so I can only compare total handle.
In the three comparison days, total handle at Finger Lakes was $3,887,701 this year compared to $3,488,672 last year (an increase of 11.1%). $143,989 has been bet per race compared to $129,210 for the corresponding days from last year. Finger Lakes appears to be benefiting as well from the shift in wagering being done by rebate players.
Field size has rose from 7.22 horses per race to 7.51 horses per race. For those three days, Fort Erie's field size dropped from 8.16 to 7.46 (still around Finger Lakes new number).
Last year, Finger Lakes averaged $113,308 a race in handle for the year with a 7.79 field size.
When comparing the per race handle, one has to ask what Finger Lakes does differently than Fort Erie.
As a handicapper who uses speed figures, if anything, Fort Erie has the same or even slightly higher quality on average than Finger Lakes does.
Finger Lakes runs a lot of State Bred races, including State Bred claiming races. These races do attract horses with lower speed figures most of the time. However, as a horseplayer, I find these races to be really good races to handicap, and I tend to bet more on them, especially if the field size is 7 or greater. Usually there are a couple of standouts, but there are usually fringe longshots, who lose by double digits in open races but have a chance against the lesser competition.
The median average purse at Fort Erie was $10,422 versus $9,500 at Finger Lakes, but average purses given out per day at Finger Lakes was $122,564 versus $105,103 at the Fort. Finger Lakes runs an extra race per day than Fort Erie, and it has more allowance and Stake races, though I have never seen any evidence that B Allowance and B Stake races attract any more handle than claiming races with good field size.
Finger Lakes is probably simulcast at more places than Fort Erie, including all the NY OTBs. This gives Finger Lakes a big edge if true.
Finger Lakes is not surrounded by gambling competition like Fort Erie is, but since I don't know the live handle figures, it is difficult to analyze the impact.
I find Fort Erie races in general to be more exciting, and less predictable most of the time. This can be a good thing, but also can be a bad thing when you start talking takeout.
Comparing track takeouts
Fort Erie WPS 16.95%, Triactors 28.2%, All other bets 26.2% (including exactors and doubles.....yes, including exactors and doubles.
Finger Lakes WPS 18%, Exactors and Doubles 20%, All other bets 25%.
Finger Lakes wins this comparison hands down. You can't take 26.2% on exactors and doubles especially, and expect people to come back so quickly, if at all.
In the old days (1960's and 70's) when there was no simulcasts, hardly any exotics, a live horseplayer could only play around 8 races, and mostly had to play WPS (at takeouts of less than 16% back then, I believe). Plenty left the building with money on them to go the next day. This kept the crowds in the game. There were even some winners around, and there was a buzz that the game could actually be beat.
What Fort Erie does, with their high takeouts is make it impossible to get gamblers enthused or motivated to come back the next day. It is almost like they've given up. They also underpay customers on simulcast wagers. This is not good, and it gives punters even less of a reason to come to the track.
They still assume that the focus is on a mindless crowd, and the key is to just bring them to the track. Great. Get them to the track, but you have to try to let them leave with something too, so that they might just come back.
Horseplayers are not typical gamblers. Horse racing attracts thinking gamblers. And when it becomes over apparent that one has no chance gambling, they move on to other types of gambling that have much lower vig.
Back to the comparison. Finger Lakes does not race on Sundays. Sundays are horrible handle days for Fort Erie, but they need to run at least one weekend day so as to allow the 9-5ers and their families a chance to make it to the track, including of course small owners. However, with the high takeout, and the hit and run mentality that is prevalent at most tracks these days, getting newbies or casual players to become more than that is futile. Might as well scrap Sundays for Wednesdays.
I really want Fort Erie to survive, but they have to do things differently in order to attract their bread and butter: THE HORSEPLAYER.
I don't see too many of the suggestions I wrote about in Fort Erie, The Future Is Now, being implemented as yet.
Rick Cowan Hired To Supervise and Manage Fort Erie
The biggest piece of the management puzzle has been filled at Fort Erie. Rick Cowan, who brings a vast amount of experience with him, will now be running the joint.
He ran Woodbine back in the early 80's, at a time when they didn't have slots, and were experiencing enhanced competition from the Blue Jays, lotteries, and finally charity casinos. The crowds were ample during Cowan's reign.
I think a really good choice was made.
Just a couple of things though. Fort Erie needs anyone who wants to bet to bet, including employees, and ties are not condoned by most Fort Erie residents:)
HANDICAPPING FORT ERIE
A certain racetrack analyst at Fort Erie likes to stress a certain angle: Give horses a race before you bet them at Fort Erie if they are coming from Woodbine. It just didn't seem right to me, so I had Pull The Pocket get me some data using Jcapper software.
Here are the key finds:
When a horse ships in from another track to Fort Erie, and they have the top rated speed figs, they win at a 25% clip. The win rate is good, but the return is horrible, as these horses are vastly over bet and return 55 cents for every dollar wagered.
If you bet all shippers making their first start at the Fort, you would lose over 26 cents on every dollar bet with a 14.5% win percentage. This is a strong loss considering takeout should only cause a 17 cent loss on the dollar.
If the shipper came from Woodbine, the first race at Fort Erie produces a 15% win rate, and if you bet them all, you would lose over 28 cents for every dollar wagered.
There is a slight increase when a horse makes its second start at Fort Erie. Win percentage goes up to 14.8%, while the return on investment (ROI) goes up to 75.6%. Still, losing 24 cents on the dollar is no way to beat the game.
What this tells me is that value is to be had by ignoring Woodbine horses who wound up becoming Fort Erie horses. First start, second start, hardly a difference.
They do OK on their fifth start (you only lose 10 cents for every dollar wagered), and you can actually show a profit if you bet them on their 11th start at the track after they shipped (a profit of 4%).