Racing should heed Amaitis’s words

You may have read Suzanne Craig’s long recent New York Times feature headlined “Taking Risks, Making Odds” on Lee Amaitis, now a power in Las Vegas with his Cantor Fitzgerald gaming subsidiary.

The paper thought enough of the story to start it with a three-column color shot on its main business section page and jump it to another half-page inside.

It told of Amaitis’s persistence and success in getting Cantor Fitzgerald’s mobile betting device operating at the M resort, the Vegas Hard Rock, Tropicana Las Vegas, and, perhaps most importantly, the shiny new Cosmopolitan. If all goes well, Amaitis and Cantor – which the Times called “one of the biggest brokers of United States government securities, considered among the safest places to put one’s money” – will move to what he calls “the next frontier in gambling,” sports betting on Cantor’s mobile devices anywhere in Nevada for anyone with a casino account.

As it is, Cantor Gaming now offers in-running betting, where you can bet through their portable devices on games – and races – in progress as the action unfolds.

Amaitis differs from most Vegas gaming moguls. He is a former horseplayer from Brooklyn, who learned the smell of the backstretch as a 16-year-old groom at Aqueduct. He became a bond trader at 29, when Cantor Fitzgerald CEO and chairman Howard Lutnick recognized Amaitis’s smarts and gave him a chance.

A year later, Lutnick sent Amaitis to London as head of European operations. While there, Amaitis decided Cantor Fitzgerald should be in the bookmaking business. Now, it handles more than $400 million in bets – 20 percent of all of the money bet on sports in Nevada – and Amaitis says that number will jump to $1 billion, or 40 percent of the market, this year.

All of this is preface to an Amaitis presentation you did not read, at the 2009 joint Racing Congress of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and Harness Tracks of America.

It was called “Where Racing is Going in the Next Five Years.”

Amaitis opened by telling the assembled track operators, “To me, it’s time racing stopped trying to emphasize the pageantry and glamour of horse racing to players. Most, if not all of you in this room, likely fell in love with the sport on one of your first visits to a racetrack. The majesty of the horses as they are led out of the paddock, the anticipation of the race as they head to the gate, and then getting caught up in the roar of the crowd as the field charges through the stretch toward the finish line.

“Unfortunately, racing no longer is having that same kind of effect, and perhaps instead of trying to dwell on the pageantry and glamour of racing, it is time to market it as a bet, rather than a sport. I understand that’s not going to sit well in this room, but think about it – the scoreboard at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa this past Sunday (he said in that speech two years ago) read ‘Pittsburgh 27-Arizona 23.’ Our scoreboard is known as a tote board, and if horse racing is not a bet, why do we keep track of them on our scoreboard?”

How else, he asked, can purses be funded if not with more betting? He said that racinos and instant racing were here to stay – whether we like them or not – and have increased purses in every jurisdiction that has passed either of them.

“There simply isn’t any other proven way of growing purses without generating more wagering,” he said.

And then he told the track operators, “It’s way past time the parimutuel industry changed the way they present horse racing, and did so to a new audience.”

He suggested racing consider simple-to-understand bets, giving as an example creation of its own virtual roulette wheel, modified in such a way that it can provide users with fast and easy-to-understand action, with horses rather than a rolling ball deciding the winners. He argued that the quality of the race, the weight a horse carried, or track conditions are irrelevant. It can be a stakes race or nonwinners of $5,000 last six starts. Lee thinks the bettors don’t care.

Using a blended takeout rate of 15 percent, Amaitis said in that 2009 speech that subtracting 2008 handle from the previous year, the parimutuel industry lost a staggering $154 million in revenue, money that could have been used for promotion as well as purses.

The man who is rewriting the book in Las Vegas urged the track operators to innovate. He cited baseball now having wildcard teams in the playoffs; the NHL introducing the shootout to avoid ties; the NHL and college football now having instant replay. He predicted – woefully correct – “There won’t be a parimutuel bailout coming from the government anytime soon. It’s up to you to come up with a bailout; no one outside our industry is going to help.”

And parimutuel racing? The daily double became the pick three and then the pick four. Synthetic tracks were introduced, which may or may not help the horse, but not the players. Account wagering has made betting more convenient but done little to bring more people to the game or recapture those who have gotten away.

Amatis concluded that speech with a challenge: “Changing post time from 1 to 2 doesn’t cut it; half-price programs won’t solve the problem. Be open to new ideas; whether its technology or new bets, just listen. Don’t recycle old ideas; create new ones.”

Amaitis predicted, “In five years, our simulcast centers and racebooks will have many more open chairs. The super high five will be the super sensational seven. And we will continue to write the obituary for the game we all love.”

Two years later, he has made Las Vegas change. His racing audience still yawns. His prediction still stands.

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