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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Yet Another Lament

Alexander Pope once said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Hence, though I’m no economist, allow me to offer the opinion that there is just too damn much horse racing in this country.

Obviously, it’s a view I and others have stated before, and certainly it’s more complicated than I’m willing to concede. However, my rudimentary understanding of supply and demand is that, in order to make their product economically feasible, the producers (racetracks and horse owners) need to generate a product that meets—not exceeds—the demand of consumers (horseplayers and fans). Currently, that’s simply not the case.

Of course, owners and all of those whose livelihood depends on horses racing have a vested interest in how much racing is conducted, but if no one is watching or wagering how long can the sport survive? Check out the nearly deserted stands at Churchill for Saturday's “Stars of Tomorrow” card; it's an image that strikingly portends of a bleak future, despite the thrilling equine performances that continue to permeate the sport.

For far too long of late, horse racing has been controlled by owners and breeders who can’t (or simply don’t want to) see the bigger picture, and thus managed to oversaturate the market on so many levels. As businesses, tracks obviously want to wring out as much profit as possible, while those owned by gaming interests whose licenses mandate they conduct horse racing don’t give a damn about the sport, as it is simply a dying bastard cousin of where the real money lies (table games and slots). Additionally, despite slots-rich purses, tracks in states like Pennsylvania have yet to step up the quality of racing and build up fan interest, relying far too heavily on gaming revenue that the legislature is very likely to increasingly cut into as the budget crisis deepens. In other words, horsemen are living on borrowed time unless significant changes are made now to reshape the sport.

We—as fans, horseplayers, tracks, owners and caretakers—need to have a serious conversation about making the industry more unified and visionary—and less freelance and self-governing. The issues are diverse and complicated, so the task won’t be easy, but it must happen—and sooner rather than later.

Overhauling the number of graded stakes would be a beginning, as would the coordination (not to mention consolidation) of major race dates. Instead of thinking we need to spread out stakes races over several days during the week (such as Friday, Saturday and Sunday) in order to somehow draw more people to the track (not really happening), why not focus people’s attention with top-quality racing offered on one or two big days at multiple tracks (like Wednesday and Saturday)? In today’s busy world, fans simply don’t have time to dedicate themselves to horse racing day after day after day. If the spotlight shown on the sport once or twice a month, though, more people would likely make time to watch and wager. In the finest sense, less is more.

My bitter cold experience at Churchill for the Breeders’ Cup inspired a self-examination and respite for me, as I realized just how very burnt out I feel about racing this year. Unlike other sports, it’s 365 days a year, practically non-stop. Yes, certain tracks like Del Mar, Saratoga and Keeneland conduct shorter meets, but how much interest can watching bottom-level claimers run in below-freezing temperatures at places like Penn National (or even Aqueduct) hold?

Still, I feel like I’m missing something if I don’t check results regularly—a potential winner or underlay, not to mention the next superstar. Yet, the current number of races is just overwhelming. Did I mention it’s day after day, after day, after day, get the picture? It’s almost enough to make me chuck the sport all-together, but I won’t—unlike the vast majority of folks who already have or never will engage a sport that is just too time-consuming.


Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more with you. And the fact that we are sending great horses to stud way too early (Blame, Quality Road, and especially Lookin' at Lucky) creates less interest in the sport. Zenyatta and her connections had it right, now if only everyone else would jump on that train. As long as everyone thinks of this industry as a business and not a sport, horse racing will continue to disappear into distant memory.

Anonymous said...

Nice article. I feel the same way. I went to the Breeder's Cup at Churchill earlier this month. I left feeling kind of sad and burned out myself. Horse racing just doesn't seem to be as fun and rewarding as it used to be. I know Bob Evans always talks about horse racing having too much product but he never does anything about it. I don't see Churchill cutting race dates anytime soon.n

The_Knight_Sky said...

Churchill's place on the calendar in the spring and autumn is fine as it is. When the switch with Turfway Park for the autumn dates takes place, both tracks figure to reap benefits.

As for the typical racing calendar Sunday through Saturday. There is a notable imbalance with several B and C level tracks racing on the weekends. They should be trying to fill a void on Mondays-Tuesdays-Wednesdays and carving a niche audience.

Instead they choose to compete (and get bloodied) in the process. Not much business savvy being shown recently.

Anonymous said...

Beulah Park probably fits into your bottom claimer category. As a racing fan what do you really know about it?
Today's menu has 74 horses from 53 trainers entered in 9 races with 23 jockeys slated to ride. Largest purse $4400. Only 3 distance races today.
Today's entries have recently run in Ky,WV,Il,Ind,Mass,NY,Mi,Neb,Cal and Ohio.
A little profile of one of the entries.
7th race #9 Perfect Saturday...Empire Maker($50,000)/Lady Of Choice/Storm Bird.
Purchased in 2007 as a 2yo in training for(drum roll)..$500,000. Did not run until the age of 5 and has piled up $12,572 in earnings this year.
Beulah's handle on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays hits around a million. Fridays and Saturdays less than a million. As the meet continues the handle will grow on certain days approaching $2 million. They originated the Fortune 6 which last year climaxed on Derby Day with a handle of $704,691.

So is Beulah a part of to much racing or do they help keep people working and horses alive.


Valerie Grash said...

RG, unfortunately, historic old Beulah Park does fall into that category, and, yes, it is very much part of too much racing. It is Wednesday, December 1—the middle of the workweek and start of the holiday season (Hanukkah begins this evening)—and according to Equibase, it is 28 degrees with a 20 mph wind and cloudy, with a 60% chance of flurries. Not exactly conditions to either draw a crowd or be comfortable for anyone or anything on track. From the typical horse racing fan’s point of view, exactly how much interest to you think there is in watching or wagering on horses at Beulah today? With Aqueduct now closed due to stormy weather, I’m sure there will be some handle—but is it enough to make the track self-sustaining and making a profit year-around? I don’t for a moment believe that Penn National Gaming’s recent purchase bodes well for the racing there, either, as their “singular” interest is in the casino they are developing in Columbus (as published in various business reports). Ask the horsemen at the Penn National track how good PNG is to them—only the allotted slots money is keeping racing afloat there. PNG will only do what they are mandated by law to do in terms of track improvements—and continue to allow the racing product to lose money.

Looking back in the DRF archives, when Beulah first opened in 1923, the spring meeting ran from April 21 to May 3, with 11 days of racing—8 races on Saturdays, 7 races on week days. Horses arrived from New Orleans, Mobile and Havana, Cuba—nice warm climates for winter racing. I’m not sure when exactly they changed to the current October to early May schedule, but it doubtlessly emerged from a position of weakness, not strength since they now racing during the crappiest time of year weather-wise. Exactly how is racing in the wintry conditions of Central Ohio attractive? Oh, as long as horsemen scream for it, cards will be filled and racing conducted, but honestly, all racing mid-November to mid-March in any Northern state (including New York) should stop—immediately—and all racing nationwide during the month of December.

I am extremely sympathetic to the fact that this kind of racing keeps people working and horses racing (although I’m not sure the latter is necessarily a good thing). However, this is exactly the mentality of self-interest that is destroying this sport as a whole. Each entity is only concerned about themselves, not about what would be better for everyone. I stand by my position that there is just too much racing being conducted. Besides burning out consumers, it sustains an economic model that isn’t viable.

John said...

Yadda, yadda, yadda but thanks as always for articulating the pain and disillusionment the average fan feels about the state of the game.