Can racing attract the female horseplayer? Story by Melissa Keith
TELEVISED HORSE RACES usually dedicate disproportionate screen-time to young women in sundresses and fancy hats. But are those girls wagering? In all likelihood, the answer is no. Statistics Canada reports that net pari-mutuel revenue from all forms of horse racing declined from $532 million to $378 million between 1992-2008; women gamblers seem to be falling through that “net.”
Joseph J. Pulli released “A Study of Harness Racing’s Demographics and Sponsorship Potential” in spring, 2005. The then-University of Arizona student’s independent study looked at data from North American harness tracks and added statistical confirmation to what most race-goers already knew: “The core fan base is skewed heavily towards the male gender.” Pulli found, based on 1993 data, that women comprised 46 per cent of the harness racing fan base. Within three years, that number declined to just 34 per cent. In 2005, Pulli’s study found nearly three-quarters of racetrack patrons and 86 per cent of OTB bettors were male.
Any woman who ventures into OTB parlours will frequently find herself the only female who isn’t selling tickets or beer. Ditto for the most wagering-oriented sections of racetracks. With the overall trend toward declining handle an ongoing concern, surely it’s worth investigating what women gamblers like. The numbers reveal that this demographic isn’t exactly flocking to harness racing.
A 1986 study of women gamblers in Alberta — one of the few such studies ever undertaken in Canada — looked at how female problem gamblers spend their betting dollars. Bingo proved the game of choice. A 2010 McGill University investigation confirmed the earlier study’s finding; in Jean-Claude Moubarac, N. Will Shead and Jeffrey L. Derevensky’s “Bingo Playing and Problem Gambling” report, they note that every gambling survey they looked at revealed the same fact: “women are at least twice as likely to be involved in bingo playing as men”. They note that even though bingo can and does have its share of problem gamblers, it’s widely considered “a social game without labels of deviance.”
A little empirical research in the summertime informally confirmed the findings of the McGill team. Trot photographer Kyle Burton and I decided to check out the Charlottetown bingo scene on a Friday night. The Merchison Centre’s charity bingo was going head-to-head with the Gold Cup and Saucer Consolation card at Charlottetown Driving Park. And it was very busy.
Manager Patti Bowtle came outside to answer a few questions about bingo’s popularity, something she knows about as a lifelong player. “We have many jackpots—they build up every night like a lottery. The jackpots bring people here,” she explained. (An $8,800 jackpot had been featured the previous evening.) Patti told us about satellite bingo, simulcast out of Alberta, and how she had been playing since her mother drove her there at age ten. Patti said more men had been coming recently, but added that traditionally more women play because, “they just want to get rid of their men and leave ‘em at home!”
A large man helped an elderly but nimble lady out of a taxi and into the Merchison Centre. Robert G. said his nearly 83-year-old mother was “sharp as a tack” and “rarely misses a game.” Beyond the social appeal of bingo, Robert said the low cost of play made the game popular. “Over here on the Island, it’s cheap prizes. In the 70’s and 80s, they had about five $1,000 prizes a night and it only cost $2 to get in! Thirty years ago, you could play every game for $6.”
Robert is not a bingo player. He isn’t a harness racing bettor either. “I just stick to the lotto,” he shrugged, “I’d rather spend my time drinking beer and waitin’ for the lotto to come in.”
Gold Cup and Saucer Day at Charlottetown Driving Park, Kyle and I tried to find out whether women gamblers would still choose casino games over the track’s best live cards of the year. A security manager was not keen on the idea, vigorously defending “the confidentiality of the player” as his reason for not allowing media access to casino patrons. We moved a little farther away, hoping to ask a woman exiting the casino about her experience. “George” moved a little closer to us, suggesting we move outside.
Nearby, horseplayers queued up at tellers, seemingly not needing such “confidentiality” to place their bets. Perhaps the casino was filled with very security-conscious women.
A Nova Scotian off-track betting teller shared her thoughts on why women gravitate toward VLTs and slots. “Sally”, who has worked at racetracks and OTB lounges for 30 years, says she suspects ease of play and large jackpots influence female gamblers. “A lot of people will come in and just check it out, you know, to see how [race betting] works,” she notes of the simulcast lounge where she works. “You tell them and they’re like, ‘Too complicated!’ And I’m just telling them about win tickets.”
On any given day or night of simulcasting, nearly 100 per cent of the tables at “Sally’s” OTB location are occupied by male horseplayers. Women are outside, playing VLTs in another section of the bar. “I think the way the guys talk is a turn-off to some of them,” adds the teller. Shouting, swearing and table-pounding don’t bother her, because she says she’s accustomed to tuning it out. But even male patrons have occasionally complained about particularly obnoxious language.
“Sally’s” not into bingo, and does not bet the races because it was not allowed for employees to bet at the track where she first worked. Neither that track nor her present place of work have offered “ladies’ night“ or similar female-oriented promotions. Not that “Sally” thinks such events would prove useful: “I don’t know how they could get women involved in [horseplaying].”
Income is a real factor affecting who takes part in leisure activities. Statistics Canada reported that in 2008, Canadian women’s annual income was still significantly lower than men of the same age. A 35 to 44 year old female worker’s earnings averaged $36,300—her male counterpart earned $59,900. So whether she loves the racetrack or not, the average Canadian woman’s earnings make horseplaying a less-affordable form of leisure for her.
On the evening of the Gold Cup and Saucer, two of the race’s Ambassadors shared their thoughts on wagering. In the first year of her Bachelor of Arts degree at UPEI, Jill MacDonald was still dedicating time to racing. “I work at the track selling tickets, and on my nights off, I bet. Usually the live races, but also the simulcasts for anything big, like the [Kentucky] Derby or Hambletonian.” While Jill does have a family connection to the racing game, it’s not all that attracts her to the track. “The excitement of the horses,” she smiled, “It draws me to the betting — it’s more exciting than just sitting at a slot machine.”
MacDonald shared cautious optimism about growing the female horseplayer demographic. “There’s other women there [betting at CDP], mostly betting $2 show tickets, but more women definitely coming around.”
Emily MacPhee comes from four generations of harness racing tradition. “When I was little, up at the old ‘Top of the Park’, me and my friends used to pick horses and cheer them on.” She, her friends and cousins are still picking them out and cheering them on; only now, they can place real-life bets on them too.
“I’m a student, so it’s about money-management sometimes,” said MacPhee at the time. “If I was earning more than I am now, it would make me want to bet more.” Aside from income, she speculated that lack of exposure and role models made women avoid racing. “It can seem male-dominated. Women may not be as educated on harness racing, even on the track. There’s Casie Coleman but very few others.”
A decade ago, Ted McClelland set out to know the dedicated bettors at a pair of Illinois thoroughbred tracks. The author of “Horseplayers: Life at the Track” (2005: Chicago Review Press) says his book represents “a year I spent trying to beat the races and all the odd characters I met along the way.” While conducting his research, McClelland saw wagering demographics up close and personal. Already a racetrack regular, he set out to profile serious players only. “There were very few women who gambled regularly. I remember there was one, her name is Janine Starykowicz. She actually had her own horse racing website. There was another one who was the girlfriend of one of the characters I spent time with. She would come out every few weeks. You don’t find many women playing the horses.”
McClelland says there seem to be psychological differences between the sexes that come to the fore in the context of pari-mutuel betting. Women aren’t keen on the aggressive banter and rivalry that he sees as major parts of horseplayer subculture. “It’s a competitive form of gambling — you’re competing against other gamblers,” he argues. Gambling researchers often explain gender-based gambling differences in vivid terms: women are typically “escape” gamblers who favour games of luck (slots, bingo); men are usually considered “action” gamblers preferring skill-based games (horseplaying, poker).
As the Chicago journalist explains it, “Women like the Cinderella effect; men like feeling like they’ve constructed a situation themselves and that they’ve made it happen themselves.” McClelland admits he’s keenly aware his observations could come across as sexist, but he’s watched women betting and they are generally “risk-averse.” He took his girlfriend to the track — “she didn’t like losing money” the few times she went.
But attracting female bettors is far from a lost cause, if racetracks capitalize on their strong suits. They can be classy, comfortable settings for horse-loving female patrons to watch equine athletes while enjoying good food and service. In his fieldwork for “Horseplayers: Life at the Track”, McClelland says he witnessed the negative impact that dingy surroundings have on female track-goers. “The track is dirty, there’s trash on the floor, there used to be lots of smoke,” he recounts of Hawthorne Racecourse circa 2003. It’s not imagery suited to the “escape” gambler’s night out.
At Arlington Park, the other track McClelland studied, the grandstand and grounds were reportedly much cleaner. “You will see more women there at Arlington,” he notes, “If it’s a social outing, they are into it. But there’s a difference between that and, you know, being a really serious horseplayer.”
Visit online racing forums. There are plenty of female racing fans (usually thoroughbred-oriented) who admit, when questioned, that they have no idea how to place a bet. Some go further, openly insulting handicappers for being uncaring toward animals or obsessed with money. There’s a tacit assumption that racing will survive forever on nobility alone. What’s puzzling is that these fans believe someone should be supporting racing at the financial level, but to them, being a bona fide horseplayer seems incongruous with being a bona fide horse-lover. The persistent stereotype of the cockroach-playing, degenerate male gambler obscures the aspects of racing that might win the horse-loving women over to wagering.
With traditional blue-collar forms of male employment getting walloped in the Canadian economy, it would be wise for tracks to tune into what female horse-lovers have to say about betting. Occasionally, one voices what the horsey (but non-wagering) women are seeking. A June 2010 comment from a concerned “Rachel” on the Bloodhorse blogs is alarmingly candid: “This will sound VERY ‘girly’ and ‘naive’ but racing doesn’t seem to be able to hold the kind of fan I try to bring to the table... fellow horse owners who spend thousands on their horses but who won’t cough up a lousy $2 bet for a race because they think the jocks use too much whip, the horses aren’t loved and too many go to slaughter. I’ve tried and tried... I’m down to NO ONE who will go with me... Create a world for the Horse Lover and they will bet.”
Old Home Week is a world for the horse lover. Women of all ages were, as “Rachel” predicted, betting at Charlottetown Driving Park when Kyle and I checked it out for this article. Encouraging female bettors year-round depends on more than the admittedly-good Mildred Williams drivers’ series, racing under saddle, or the many women who own, race and love their Standardbreds. The “escape” gambling demographic needs cultivation. These people value low investment, high potential returns, and ease of play. “Tom”, who works at a West Coast Canadian racetrack, confirms that while this demographic usually heads for the slots, a few promotions have helped woo them to betting live cards.
“A lot of new groups — retirements, birthdays, Christmas parties” bring women to “Tom’s” track, “but it’s only a handful betting on the live product,” he observes. Those women tend to be with horseplaying male partners. “Rarely women on their own when there’s no live racing,” he adds.
Ambassadors offer betting information and a free booklet deciphering racetrack lingo, but the most successful promotion has been a $5 betting voucher that appeared in the local newspaper. “More of a mix” of bettors came out when that offer ran. While “Tom” calls winning over new horseplayers “a tough challenge”, he suspects female “escape” gamblers might enjoy something like insta-pick 10-cent superfecta boxes or other low-investment wagers allowing for frequent play in one sitting. If they knew such options were available, that is.
The majority of women gamblers appear drawn to glamourous casino imagery or the wholesome feeling of bingo. Neither glamour nor wholesomeness is found in the gritty underworld or hardscrabble “dump” racetrack imagery that male “action” gamblers tolerate.
The critical thing is maintaining a balance: satisfying the hardcore horseplayers, while making sure “ladies’ night” at the track involves the education and environment conducive to promoting wagering. Because as Canada’s top female driver Clare MacDonald told a “Women and Racing” panel discussion audience last fall at CDP, it’s imperative that women re-learn the art of wagering, something her mother once enjoyed with female friends in the Sackville Downs clubhouse. “Three generations have now missed out on learning how to place bets.”