Meadowlands, Belmont Prove Alluring For Horse Bettors Even Without Live Crowds

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There were two notable questions regarding the horse betting heading into last weekend’s Meadowlands Racetrack cards and the Belmont Stakes:

  1. Would the addition of five more Meadowlands races on Friday and Saturday at the iconic New Jersey track mean a bigger handle, or would the same money just get spread out across 18 races instead of 13?
  2. The Belmont’s handle inevitably would decline from 2019 — but by how much?

Keeping pace with the Pace

In the first instance, the average per race handle result of $211,000 across the two nights would mean a $2.7 million handle with the usual 13 races — pretty much in line with a typical 2020 evening.

But with the added races, the handle on Saturday became $4.1 million — the highest tally outside of Hambletonian Day or Meadowlands Pace night since the $4.11 million wagered on March 1, 2014.

In fact, last year’s Meadowlands Pace was about $56,000 short of Saturday’s beefed-up card. The Hambo, meanwhile, produced $6.5 million in wagers last year.

Both race days were aided by the presence of thousands of casual fans who wagered at the windows but don’t have TVG online betting accounts. Spectators are not yet allowed at the Meadowlands, which now has two weekends of races in the books since a mid-March shutdown due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

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Saturday’s betting was not focused on any particular race, either, with the $300,000 barrier cleared only once along with two at just over $290,000. The Friday results were similar, with a handle of $3.5 million.

Given the absence of spectators and that “stray casual dollar,” the figures left track officials smiling.

Racing From the Meadowlands show co-host Dave Little tweeted, “What happened Saturday night at the Meadowlands? What DIDN’T happen!!??”

The supersized cards will be a one-week wonder, alas. Pennsylvania tracks are now reopening, so horses that are regulars at those tracks won’t be visiting the Meadowlands very often now.

Belmont’s heavy favorite came through for his backers

There’s nothing terribly romantic about betting a 4-5 favorite, but Tiz The Law must have seemed like easy money for those who went that way.

The relative handle for the first Triple Crown thoroughbred race of the year naturally was guaranteed to dwarf a relatively routine harness racing night at the Meadowlands. And it did, at $67.8 million.

That hardly compares to last year’s record $102.2 million wagered at the Belmont, but it could have been worse.

That’s because beyond the obvious lack of spectators and all that casual money, and the presence of a heavy favorite, a host of dropouts for various reasons led to a weak field that also likely cut into the enthusiasm of the more advanced bettors.

The Belmont handle doesn’t really tell us anything about the potential fate of the Kentucky Derby, which has been rescheduled for September, or the Preakness Stakes, now running in October.

Not only is the question of whether there will be spectators — and at the moment it’s difficult to imagine the carnival-esque traditional infield scene at Churchill Downs — weighing heavily on any calculus, but there’s also the issue of how much competition there will be for a Labor Day weekend race. Will we have MLB, college football, NBA, NHL, MLS, and so on? Some of the above? None of the above?

Like everyone else these days, analysts of the U.S. horse racing sector will just have to take it one week — if not one day — at a time.

Photo by Brad Penner / USA Today Sports

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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