The pandemic has forced businesses to adjust their normal patterns in order to survive. With so many states not allowing spectators, racetracks have relied on off-track handle more than ever to stay afloat.
Some have filled the betting void by racing when their competitors and even other sports have been idle. Remington Park shifted its schedule last week to race Monday and Tuesday, and it enjoyed a modest increase in business.
The $1.7 million handle that it took in last Monday was about $95,000 higher than the preceding Thursday and nearly $700,000 more than it had exactly one year earlier on a Saturday.
One track executive said the increase could be attributed to rising awareness of the new schedule, less competition from other tracks and the quality of races.
"Remington Park racing normally has a strong and competitive product, with large field sizes thanks in large part to the great support from our horsemen," said Matt Vance, the track's vice president of racing operations.
The Oklahoma City track has been a leading innovator in shifting its schedule for better results, becoming one of the first to embrace nighttime racing.
"Remington Park has become the late show for Thoroughbred racing for several years now with our 7 p.m. start time," Vance said. "Most nights, our last 3-5 races are the final Thoroughbred races being contested in North America."
The move to nighttime racing began when lights were installed at Remington Park in 2001.
"We’ve become well known as the late-night track, and it has proven very successful in building our export pari-mutuel handle over the years since we moved to our current first post time," Vance said. "We are on a record pace this season, with 17 race dates still scheduled."
When the pandemic left sports bettors with a lack of options, tracks that scheduled races early in the week began to attract attention.
Fonner Park is a small venue in Nebraska that even some in the racing industry had not heard of before the pandemic. Before March, it ran a Friday-Sunday schedule and had an average daily handle of about $260,000. Even as sports leagues began to shut down, Fonner still had fierce weekend competition from Santa Anita Park, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park and Aqueduct, among others, when those tracks were permitted to run.
Executives at Fonner Park quickly realized that shifting the schedule to Monday through Wednesday would avoid most of the competition. Then Parx Racing, which had run at the beginning of each week since long before the pandemic, was shut down March 14. That is when Fonner really picked up steam.
With a revised schedule, Fonner's handle increased dramatically to an average of about $3.5 million per day. On April 7, its handle peaked at $7.2 million thanks to a Pick 5 carryover.
Will Rogers Downs, also in Oklahoma, less than two hours away from Remington Park, became Fonner's competition when its meet began March 16 with a Monday-Wednesday schedule.
Like Fonner, the lack of competition led to huge numbers for Will Rogers as it handled more than $131 million, a seven-fold increase from the $16.8 million it handled in the same meet in 2019.
After starting its meet in August with a more conventional schedule, Remington shifted its racing away from Wednesday and Thursday last week, moving to Monday and Tuesday. It will run Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday for most of the rest of the meet that ends Dec. 20.
"A few Monday and Tuesday programs have been scheduled in recent years," Vance said. "This year, working with local horsemen, we decided to add a few more than just the holiday week of Thanksgiving, trying something different to see if it works for all of us."
Remington will race at noon CST on Mondays and Tuesdays and will keep its 7 p.m. post time for the rest of the meet, with the exception of Thanksgiving and closing Friday.
Although racing on a Monday still provides far less competition than racing on a Thursday, Vance and the much of the rest of the industry will watch with interest to see how Remington Park fares in a landscape that is not quite as barren as it was in March and April.
Indiana Grand runs Mondays and Tuesdays, but its meet ended last week. Zia Park in New Mexico has been running Monday through Wednesday, but it was recently shut down through November because of COVID-19. Parx, which faces its own outbreak of the coronavirus in its jockey colony, and Mountaineer Park have been scheduled to maintain Monday-Tuesday schedules and provide Remington its main competition for betting dollars.
Although the return of football could limit bettors who are not traditionally racing fans, Parx has shown that those who are new to the sport might be here to stay. The Pennsylvania track handled $2.6 million last Monday, a 53 percent increase from the third Monday of last November. The addition of Remington Park to the Monday schedule did little to impact Parx's handle.
Remington Park might be the latest track to drift away from traditional race days and times, but as many have found out in 2020, adjusting from what is normal is often what is necessary to grow.