Are racinos beneficial to horse racecourses?

“Casino and Raceway”, aka “racino”, is a formula that has been used increasingly in several US race courses in recent years when casino, hotels and other additional entertainment began to be added to traditional racecourses. Has it helped or damaged the industry? The debate is open on this question and quite hot too. Betting has been the natural companion of horse races for centuries, and it originally happened on site. Off-track betting (OBT) was illegal. In the UK it was legalized in the early 1960s, while New York had to wait for 1970.

Online betting too became accessible in the UK much earlier and it is legal there from age 18 up. In comparison, not all states in the USA have legalized it yet. This is why, for example, Grand national betting offers  are available online, for the joy of the fans of the most famous UK horse race.

What about racinos?

They are something different, and larger, than a simple addition of an online option to horse race betting. Racinos imply VLTs – video lottery terminals, aka slot machines, that offer all sort of games. Usually this goes along wiht major upgrades of the venues and the building of new hotels and restaurants to accomodate guests for longer stays. Sometimes a traditional, full-fledged casino is added. Racinos are conceveid as business boosters. For example, the numbers of Dover Downs, Delaware, bear witness to the advantages of a racino upgrade. The last year before the slot machines was 1997 and earned a revenue of 39 million dollars. Next year the figure jumped to 140 million dollars. Dover Downs International Speedways is a relatively new track, inaugurated in 1969 and specialized for both car and horse races. The gaming part of Dover Downs was separated in 2002. Harness racing stayed with the Hotel & Casino, while the International Speedway sarted a “monster makeover” in 2006 that has been expanding the facility ever since.

Another famous example is the Saratoga Casino Hotel, formerly Saratoga Casino and Raceway, in Saratoga Springs, New York. Not to be confused with the historic Saratoga race Course thoroughbred race track (located across the street on Nelson Avenue). The track of today’s racino was opened in 1941 while the thouroghbred course had been in operation since 1863. Saratoga Raceway was originally a facility for American harness racing. Interesting, it was the third racetrack to have pari-mutuel wagering. The big change happened in 2001, when New York State legalized the installation of video lottery terminals in racecourse venues, pending the approval of local governments. In 2004 VLT operations began and caused a dramatic increase in purse money. More than a decade later, the construction of a brand new hotel began. The new Saratoga Casino Hotel was opened in July 2016.  In February of 2019, an $8 Million upgrade was started to add an outdoor gaming terrace, a sports bar, and a VIP lounge.

The racino formula seems to have ben effective in supporting the declining horse race industry in the US: there are more than 70 such  venues today in the country. What about the UK? So far only one such project, by UK bookmaker Betfred, has been authorized, in Chelmsford, Essex, in 2017.