Jason Beem's Thursday Column for Nov. 30, 2023

November 30th, 2023

A good Thursday morning to you all! We head into December and in recent weeks, I’ve written here about the changing of seasons as we move to the winter tracks.

Today, with Turfway Park opening last night, I wanted to talk about tracks with momentum. Turfway feels right now like one of the tracks with the biggest momentum surges of the last year or two. Obviously, handle is down as a whole across the country, and we always hear a big deal made about handle when it goes up at a particular track and a litany of excuses when it goes down. 

Some of what I’m going to write about involves tracks that have grown handle, but to me momentum is the handle uptick in addition to a general buzz and excitement about a product. I feel like the last few years Turfway has had that. Certainly the larger purses have helped fuel a big part of that because the entry box has been full. But we’ve seen big slot-infused purses not lead to betting at a lot of tracks over the last couple of decades. 

I think all aspects of Turfway’s product seem to be better than they were a few years ago, but online there’s also an excitement for it. People see prices coming in and other people firing away, it draws in more interest. I’ve seen it happen a bunch over the years, and here are some times that come to mind.

Mountaineer Park in the early and mid-2000s was one of the first ones I saw kind of have a big momentum gain as I started really paying attention to other signals beyond my hometown track around 2002 and 2003. They were beginning to see the increased purses because of slots pretty early on compared to many of their rivals in that geographic region. There was a period of time when it seemed like every race at The Mountain featured 10 entrants and a few also-eligible runners. It was just a nightly bounty of full fields, and $2 million handles became the norm it seemed for a track that in the late '90s was running $6,000 purses and handling a couple hundred thousand bucks on a good night. I think their unique TV broadcast and just the growth of the field size and buzz really helped get that track some serious momentum during that 2000s time period.

The Los Alamitos Quarter Horse Early Pick 4 is another one that saw huge gains in popularity and handle, and I think a massive part of that reason was their TV exposure on The Quarters show. I personally knew nothing about Los Al or Quarter Horse racing, but in the 2000s that show was just fun to watch. And they centered so much of the broadcast around the Early Pick 4. It seemed like an event every night and you better believe I started firing along with everyone else. The pools each week seemed to set records and to this day, people still focus on that bet because of how much it was marketed and talked about.

I’d be remiss not to mention Pompano Park and their ascension in the harness ranks in the mid- and late-2010s. Now, granted, they’re shut down, so that puts a damper on things. But it’s impossible to deny the momentum that was built there for the last several years they were running. 

Gabe Prewitt and his merry band of soldiers made racing from the Pomp almost a cool club that anyone could join on Twitter. Everyone played along, compared tickets, complained about bad drives, it really became a community. People even made the pilgrimage to the Pomp to enjoy it live, even though the grandstand was mostly shuttered. It was really fun to watch that growth happen and see how many people enjoyed it even though the owners obviously always wanted to get rid of racing and make room for more one-arm bandits.

There are other examples, of course, but right now Turfway feels like it’s in the middle of a big momentum surge. I think it takes a good set of circumstances to really catch a wave like that amongst horseplayers, but I don’t think it’s really that tricky of a formula. Put out a product that people enjoy and can make some money on. Make it fun, make it an event. Get people excited about it and treat them as well as you can as often as you can.