Why horse racing expert Pascrell says sport must diversify, modernize to survive

A race in progress at Monmouth Park.

There’s perhaps no one better to ask about trends at horse racing tracks in New Jersey than Bill Pascrell III of Princeton Public Affairs Group. He’s an expert.

He’s also frequently left scratching his head when it comes to the sport.

“It might surprise people to learn that a lot of trainers, jockeys and stewards are Hispanic, and, yet, no one has made any attempt to capture and market to those individuals (as bettors and spectators),” he said.

Bill Pascrell III.

In fact, all of the Top 10 jockeys in horse racing were Hispanic in the mid-2010s, according to horse racing data firm Equibase. Commentators have put the makeup of Latino individuals competing on race tracks at more than 80%.

How that doesn’t translate to a sizable market to tap into for a sport that has been losing speed for years — that’s one of those head-scratchers for him.

The fact is: Horse racing has been unable to bring in fresh faces. And it’s paying for it.

“You have this industry that, for a significant period, thrived and grew to nearly $20 billion a year nationally,” he said. “That has fallen to less than half, and the racetracks nationally are closing at an exponential rate.”

There’s just a trio of horse racing tracks left in New Jersey after two 21st-century closures. It’s hard to come up with enough eyeballs for any given venue to post attendance growth figures.

Nationally, Pascrell said, many are hanging on only in hopes of adding casino gambling to their premises.

New Jersey became the first state in the country to make fixed-odds horse betting legal in 2022.  Pascrell, a big part of that legislative push and the first person to officially make a wager in the state, sees the move away from “antiquated” betting systems as an opportunity to welcome in new crowds.

“And, if you look at what’s happening in sports betting, which had a record number of bets placed on the Super Bowl,” he said, “there’s a chance for horse racing to play off of the growth of sports betting, but there would need to be more women, more Black and brown folks and younger folks there, too.

“Right now, what you find is older white men. It hasn’t diversified or targeted new audiences.”

Internationally, that hasn’t been as much of an issue, Pascrell said. In Europe, Australia and Japan, it’s a pastime associated with broader segments of their respective populations.

Pascrell expects progress to be made in the sport’s media over time and more diversity in those seen as representatives of horse racing.

“Someone I’ve had the pleasure of meeting is (Australian horse trainer and businesswoman) Gai Waterhouse, and she’s someone with an infectious, regal personality,” he said. “She and I have been discussing utilizing her in America to try to get women more familiar with opportunities and the legacy of women in horse racing.”

Turning the industry’s perception around is going to be less of a race, and more of a marathon.

But, Pascrell remains optimistic. From his perspective, the sport itself isn’t a hard sell.

“It’s based on these animals that are interesting, friendly and beautiful specimens,” Pascrell said. “What’s not to like?”

Meshing esports, gambling … and success

Bill Pascrell III and Anthony Gaud have a friendship (and business relationship) they owe to a chance meeting at a gambling conference and shared frustrations about the sputtering efforts of esports gaming companies that promised big things but never delivered in New Jersey.

They’re now working alongside Eric Weiss, who spent three decades within the New Jersey Division of Gaming, to create an association that can pave the way for a more successful and above-board pairing of video games and the gambling market.

Gaud, founder and CEO of Atlantic City-based Gaud-Hammer Gaming Group, said their goal is to advocate for, and formalize, the establishment of a real-money video game market.

“It’s exactly what it sounds like: Adapting video games to something you can gamble on,” he said. “(It’s a platform) that’s already getting ready to go already. It’s in testing right now in New Jersey and elsewhere. And we believe it could be the biggest expansion of online gaming yet.”

Although Gaud said Jerseyans could have an introduction to the concept as soon as this summer, there’s still a lot he can’t reveal about the endeavor. He did say game publishers are very interested in the space. As are casinos (and in Gaud’s words: not a small amount of them).

There are already some companies (Skillz, Avia Games and Papaya Gaming) doing this in a “gray market space,” Gaud said, outside of a regulatory framework. Some of them are being scrutinized by the federal government for alleged illegal gambling.

“So, it’s really not so unprecedented,” he said. “Video games are already paying out (large sums) and they’re bringing in revenue in the hundreds of millions. And there’s, in Europe, a similarly less-regulated space that’s emerging called ‘crash games,’ which started with people betting on games with an airplane, trying to determine when it would crash or not.”

When real-money video games are brought to the U.S., and fit into existing gaming regulatory standards, Gaud expects the industry will find a sweet spot with a millennial demographic that has dodged traditional gambling establishments.

“And it’s not a matter of ‘if’’ this happens, it is more of ‘how’ it does,” he said.