This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jennie Rees of The Courier-Journal…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Odds against bettors at Churchill meet
How to put this politely? Despite the usual great and profitable Kentucky Derby and Oaks cards and pockets of top-flight racing, this spring meet was the worst overall betting product I’ve seen in years at a place billing itself as the world’s most legendary racetrack.
The average field size declined from 7.78 horses for the 2013 spring meet to 7.29, and that’s with 24 fewer races in 2014, as Churchill wisely often ran only nine races instead of 10.
Even the highly publicized fisticuffs between Indian Charlie newsletter publisher Eddie Musselman and trainer Dale Romans could distract attention from the racing’s struggles for only a few days.
It wasn’t just bad numbers but too often short fields of bad horses. Late scratches were killers.
Certainly other tracks in the region face similar woes (see Ellis Park’s four-horse field that kicked off its meet Thursday). But Churchill Downs, by its own motto, is held to a higher standard.
The competition for horses is ferocious with Indiana Grand (formerly Indiana Downs) offering slots-enhanced purses and Belterra (formerly River Downs) running after a year hiatus during construction.
As Churchill track president Kevin Flanery said in an interview, competition in the simulcast market also became tougher, with Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita — offering a stronger brand than Calder and the defunct Hollywood Park — overlapping Churchill’s spring meet for the first time.
But some of the damage was self-inflicted and years in the making.
Much of the middle class, those with the small and medium-sized claiming stables, has been run off as Churchill catered to the big outfits that brought in quality but also a lot of 2-year-olds who might not run until the fall meet. More and more stalls are concentrated into fewer hands, and those hands don’t all have the kinds of horses needed to fill out a card today.
Some blue-collar outfits that do have those horses moved out of state or to training centers, where they are free agents with no obligation to race at Churchill.
What happened to all the claiming horses in the $10,000-$40,000 range? Your best shot at running at Churchill was to have a horse on the bottom or toward the top from a class perspective. The middle is shattered — albeit not just at Churchill.
Churchill cites a declining foal crop as a factor in field size. How about a lack of owners? Get owners wanting to race, and the breeders will come up with the horses.
It didn’t help that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s new medication rules went into effect June 6. Among other things, they changed the timing between giving Clenbuterol (a helpful medication to prevent or reduce respiratory ailments) and racing from three days to two weeks.
Some of the state-employed veterinarians were unusually strict in prerace soundness exams, something that a track can hardly protest. No stabling at Turfway and limited training at Keeneland surely cost Churchill horses.
Whatever the reasons, the bettors spoke with their wallets, with all-source wagering on the meet down 11.5 percent from a year ago. Total wagering dropped from $416.8 million to $368.8 million, according to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Factoring out Derby and Oaks days, it was down 25 percent.
The Horseplayers Association of North America says the No. 1 reason, more so than field size, was that Churchill increased the takeout (the money skimmed off the top of each dollar bet that goes to purses, the track and taxes) from 16 to 17½ percent for win, place and show bets and from 19 to 22 percent for multi-horse bets. In protest, HANA spearheaded a betting boycott.
HANA president Jeff Platt says the research shows that takeout — the cost of betting — has a far larger impact than field size on a regular racing day because of its effect on serious players.
“Forget that we’re boycotting,” Platt said. “It’s the market speaking about what players think about higher takeout.”
Flanery said he’s comfortable that Churchill remains in the middle range of takeout, higher than some in straight wagers and exactas but lower in trifectas and superfectas.
“We’re not the cheapest and we’re not the most expensive,” he said.
He sees field size, driven by horse population, as the major culprit and contends there would have been a purse decrease, including a significant cutback in stakes, without the price hike for betting.
Platt said that if the takeout increase had been in play only for Derby Day and possibly Oaks Day, “I wouldn’t have liked it … but there wouldn’t have been a boycott.” He said that’s because, with their much larger fields, high quality and massive betting pools, wagering on those cards still makes sense for the serious player.
• Daily purses averaged $532,903 for 38 days, down about $2,000 per day.
• A total of 181 horses were claimed for $3.771 million, accounting for $226,260 in state sales taxes.
• New announcer Larry Collmus made entertaining even the two-horse race that occurred after a $5,000 claiming race had four scratches.
• Thankfully, Churchill learned to modulate its new sound system. Sadly, the impetus appeared to be the mare who died after flipping and hitting her head in apparent reaction to a loud video of a starting gate springing open.
• As said before, the new Grandstand Terrace and Big Board are welcome additions. As always, there certainly were things to like at the meet. But racing fans in Louisville want to once again love going to their hometown track (and I’m not talking about night racing.) That’s Churchill management’s challenge.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Crawford of WDRB.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
If Chrome wins Triple Crown, can racing capitalize?
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — In four days, we’ll know. We’ll wake up next Sunday morning and have our first Triple Crown winner in 36 years, or we’ll feel that old familiar frustration.
Let’s do a little positive visualization. Imagine California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes. Imagine the chestnut colt rounds the sweeping turn for home, gathers himself through that heartbreaking stretch and gives horse racing the moment it has lusted after since the newness wore off of Affirmed’s Triple Crown in 1978.
We’ve heard about how the sport needs a Triple Crown winner. Fans want it. Even the media want to see it. They’re so eager to see it happen in New York that Belmont Park officials have scrapped Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” in favor of the old “Sidewalks of New York” number that was played before the race for decades. Anything to shake the bad luck.
But for all of its luster and historic difficulty, what would a Triple Crown do for the sport? Or, more to the point, is horse racing in any position to take advantage of the marketing potential of a Triple Crown winner?
It’s fair to say that thoroughbred racing as an enterprise has never been in greater need of the kind of positive news that California Chrome could offer with a win. The debate over performance enhancing drugs and treatment of the animals has grown louder in recent years. Just this spring, trainer Steve Asmussen was implicated in a video obtained by an undercover worker in his barn who turned out to be an operative for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The sport has steadily slid from the American sports consciousness after holding a central place there through the middle of the last century. These days, it’s just as likely to move the needle for bad news as for good. Barbaro was a bigger story even than Big Brown’s Triple Crown quest.
In California Chrome, racing could well have its super horse. They’re going to say he beat a bad Preakness field. They’re right. He also, if he wins on Saturday, will have beaten more rivals over the three-race Triple Crown series than any other colt to accomplish the feat. Saturday’s field is stocked with fresh horses. It’s a quality field.
Horse racing, as a sport, generally finds a way to muck up these moments. One problem is that the sport has no central authority. There’s no commissioner of the sport to set policy nationally and look out for the sport’s well-being.
Nor does horse racing have any central authority for marketing or promotion. If California Chrome wins Saturday, his connections will do whatever TV appearances are able to prevail upon them. They will try to do as many as they can. Owner, trainer, jockey will fan out over as many national shows as they can get to.
In some ways, it’s a refreshing departure from the way sports — and marketing — are done these days. But in another, it depicts a problem for the industry.
Everybody is a free agent. The Triple Crown is run in three states, all of whom have their own racing commissions, which even worse than being independent of each other, are largely governmental bodies, which ups the dysfunction exponentially.
California Chrome’s owners, though they seem to be making a good-faith effort to do everything the right way for the sport, also are going to be doing their own thing. They signed a deal with Sketchers shoes this week to wear the brand’s logos on their hats and in other places, while having it represented somewhere on the horse.
If California Chrome wins, everybody will want a piece of him. And how will that be handled? And what is the best way to handle it?
When an NBA or NFL, even NCAA team, wins a big national competition, the T-shirts and hats go online before the telecast is off the air, and players are already wearing the merchandise on national TV. Crass? Maybe. But people want to be a part of the event. And buying something like that is part of how they do it. It’s a powerful marketing tool.
If California Chrome wins the Belmont, how will casual sports fans at home get a piece of it? Sports Illustrated may have a commemorative issue ready to go. Maybe fans will buy and keep newspapers. But by and large, there’s no large scale mechanism to put a part of California Chrome and his story — a T-shirt, a hat, anything — into peoples’ hands.
And then there’s the question of the horse himself. If he wins a Triple Crown, does he become too valuable to race? The best thing for racing would be for him to finish out this racing season — culminating in a run in the Breeders Cup Classic, and then perhaps to run a full season as a 4-year-old.
But few think that will happen. He’ll bring $30 million or more as a stallion if he wins, and it’s likely we’ll have seen him run his last race — even as a great many Americans are meeting him for the first time.
Maybe the marketing of it doesn’t matter. I’d like to think it doesn’t. I’d like to believe that the absence of such blatant commercialism is one of the charms of horse racing. But I can’t. Racing doesn’t just need a Triple Crown, it needs to find a way to take advantage of the series. Otherwise, California Chrome wins, is a big story for a few days, then fades away, and the Triple Crown series is even less of a novelty.
Racing’s magic moment could be coming. But will anyone be surprised if the sport can’t capitalize?
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Steve Davidowitz of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Can it happen to California Chrome?
Not many people would argue that California Chrome is a deserving odds-on favorite to win the Belmont Stakes and complete the rare sweep of the American Triple Crown.
Yet the same was true for many of the 12 winners of the Derby and Preakness since 1978 who failed to win the 1½-mile Belmont.
In his latest column for ESPN, Bill Finley described what happened to those 12 horses in sufficient detail to underscore how difficult it is to win the Belmont after winning the first two jewels in the crown.
In these next paragraphs, I’d like to focus on three of those failed bids from a slightly different perspective. Specifically, the race that Alysheba lost in 1987; the one that Real Quiet literally blew in ’98 as well as Smarty Jones’ failed bid in 2004.
Two of the “upsets” are worth close inspection to appreciate the extreme pressure California Chrome’s veteran trainer Art Sherman is under. The other illustrates a lesson that California Chrome’s jockey should heed.
First, let us acknowledge that any horse that sweeps this difficult three-race series at three different distances on three different racing surfaces in three different states during a compressed five-week period automatically deserves to be considered among the great horses in American racing history. That does not mean we have to rank any Triple Crown winner as the equal of Secretariat or Citation. But we should give more than a passing nod to the high level of talent it took to win the three classics when so many others have failed.
Forget speed figures, pace numbers, competition rankings and/or other measuring sticks. If California Chrome can complete a sweep of the 2014 Triple Crown, he will be an automatic Horse of the Year winner as well as a bona fide first-ballot Hall of Fame member when he becomes eligible down the road.
Beyond that, here are the stories behind three Derby and Preakness winners who did not complete the sweep.
In 1987, I was clocking horses privately for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, at his request. Going into the Belmont Stakes, Alysheba had defeated Bet Twice in the Derby and Preakness. He certainly was bred to handle any distance and had not reached his physical potential. Alysheba’s 1988 Horse of the Year campaign would confirm that.
But I gasped when I saw Alysheba work a mile a week after the Preakness, then officially work again, a week before the Belmont, a work that was posted by the New York Racing Association clockers as a mile in 1:44. The simple fact, however, was that Alysheba did not work a second consecutive mile; he worked the full 1½-mile Belmont Stakes distance that day, stopping my watch in 2:35.
I asked Jack if he went too far or too fast, and he said: “No, the horse is a bull. He needs to work hard to keep him in top shape.”
In the Belmont Stakes, racing without Lasix, Alysheba finished a tired fourth, caught at the wire for third by Gulch, one of the best sprinter-milers of the past 50 years, but a horse who was not built for nor trained to go 12 furlongs.
Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron took a lot of blame for Alysheba’s defeat — for taking him under restraint heading into the first turn. With considerable grace, McCarron accepted the blame. But as I witnessed it, Alysheba was somewhat overtrained for the grueling climax to the Triple Crown, and the evidence was on my stopwatch and in his final furlong on race day.
In 2004, the opposite occurred with Smarty Jones. While I was not clocking for trainer John Service, I was fascinated by the enormous public support the horse was gaining day by day as he approached his Belmont Stakes.
I was in Philadelphia when several thousand people showed up at Philadelphia Park for his key final workout for the Belmont, clocked officially in 1:29 ⅕ for seven furlongs.
I got him going five furlongs in a leisurely 1:02 flat, galloping out seven furlongs in 1:29 ⅖, while hardly acting as if he had worked at all.
“No matter,” I thought, “he lays over the Belmont field.”
Well, not quite. As the race was run, Smarty Jones was unusually rank, hard to control, hard for jockey Stewart Elliot to keep him out of a surprising speed duel with Purge and Rock Hard Ten, who went six furlongs in 1:11.76 and a mile in a blistering 1:35.44. The fast pace for the 12-furlong distance took its toll on Smarty Jones as long shot Birdstone began to close ground coming out of the final turn and nailed the exhausted 3-10 shot approaching the wire.
Upon further examination, two things stood out:
Smarty Jones was “too fresh” for the Belmont, and Birdstone was a vastly underrated colt who had shown signs of class as a 2-year-old in 2003. He not only won the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes the previous fall, but two months after the Belmont, he won the prestigious Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
When I wrote this all up after the Belmont for a monthly magazine, I received an intriguing letter in the mail from the great trainer Michael Dickinson, who said: “You were 100 percent right about the lack of serious training that horse had for the Belmont. I thought the same exact thing.”
Dickinson’s letter did not prove me correct, but forgive me for taking it as an endorsement for my line or reasoning.
Using just these two examples, there is this much to conclude and keep in mind regarding California Chrome:
As good as he has been, trainer Art Sherman must train his horse perfectly to keep him in top shape for the task at hand. So far, Art and his son Alan have made no mistakes. Yet, I cannot remember any horse going into the Belmont who has been trained more sparingly than California Chrome.
Since the Santa Anita Derby on April 5, “CC” has had only four workouts, each at the relatively short four-furlong distance, all at Chrome’s home track of Los Alamitos. This Saturday he is scheduled to have his only workout since the Kentucky Derby four weeks ago — a four- or five-furlong drill at Belmont Park. The Shermans both say he won’t be asked to show much speed.
Speed is not the issue, and his daily gallops might be all he needs. But we should pay attention to what he does and how he does it. We should check out his daily moves on the NYRA website and via YouTube. If he goes into the Belmont with too much energy, even the usually calm California Chrome could get caught in a speed trap, just like Smarty Jones.
Going back to 1998, jockey Victor Espinoza might also learn an important lesson.
In that Triple Crown season, Real Quiet defeated Victory Gallop in the Derby and Preakness. But in the Belmont, as Finley pointed out in his column, jockey Kent Desormeaux moved sooner than needed to open up at least four lengths approaching the final furlong. Fact is, Real Quiet had hit the wall.
He was game but staggered to the finish line and was caught right on the wire by his chief rival, Victory Gallop, a talented colt who won the Stephen Foster and Whitney Handicaps the following season.
The lesson here for jockey Espinoza is straightforward: Remember that the Belmont main track is 1½ miles. While most victory moves begin entering the far turn on one mile and 1⅛-mile tracks, that spot on the oversized Belmont racetrack is nearly five furlongs from home. Too many jockeys have moved too soon at Belmont Park regardless of distance. In the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes, that can be a costly error.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Bill Finley of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Don’t ever count Monmouth Park out
They put on their game faces at the the annual press conference they held Tuesday to kick off the 2014 meet at Monmouth Park. Ask any track executive and they will tell you they are optimistic about the meet that begins Saturday, about the future and that these are exciting times for the classy racetrack on the Jersey Shore. It’s not that they’re lying; it’s that they’re conveniently skipping over the messy parts.
These are in fact difficult times for one of the sport’s crown jewels. To be in one of the few states up and down the east coast without revenues from alternative gaming has put Monmouth at a huge disadvantage. Bettors want to bet on full fields and classy horses. The way you get big fields and good horses is to offer fat purses. For slots tracks, that’s easy. For Monmouth, it’s a huge challenge, and one they haven’t always overcome.
The track loses money and the only way it can put out a decent racing product is to limit its season to 57 days at Monmouth plus 14 days of turf racing at the Meadowlands. It’s far from a perfect situation, but it allows Monmouth to survive and hope for better days.
“We’ll do what we have to do to survive,” said Dennis Drazin, an advisor to the management group that runs the track, a group that includes the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “Monmouth Park will never close under my watch.”
Don’t doubt him for a minute. Drazin is among the more driven and creative executives in the industry and he absolutely loves Monmouth Park. Teaming up with long-time track general manager Bob Kulina, they realized there were plenty of areas of the track that sat empty and could be put to use. Starting slowly, they put in a mini-golf course. Next year, they will add a concert amphitheater that holds 7,500 fans, an upscale restaurant and a boardwalk. These ancillary businesses will create revenue that will go toward operating costs and purses.
“These other businesses benefit racing to the extent that, first of all, you have to make a profit and cover your expenses,” Drazin said. “The money will first and foremost help with our operational costs because we need to have money for operations to survive, but a sliver also goes to purses. There is a formula that basically takes 20 percent out of these extra things that we’re doing and sliding it over to the purse structure. “
So if you blow $20 on the ring toss on the Monmouth boardwalk a small part of that will go toward purses.
Drazin and his right-hand man Bob Kulina project that the revenue from the new on-track businesses can make operating the track a break-even proposition. But they are hoping for much better than that.
Like everyone else that doesn’t have slot machines they want slot machines. New Jersey racing doesn’t have them because political forces friendly to the Atlantic City casino industry won’t allow in-state competition. But the conventional wisdom is that with business so bad in Atlantic City sooner or later the state government will have no choice but to expand gaming.
Drazin has also been fighting hard to have sports betting legalized at the state’s racetracks and casinos. If that ever happened, it might be a gold mine for the sport. The first few rounds in court have been lost and the case has now been presented to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to decide before the end of June whether or not it will take the case.
They may or may not get sports betting. They may or may not get slots. But what is certain is they won’t give up when many others would have long ago.
Monmouth is different. It is run by people who love horse racing and can’t bear to see a racetrack with so much history and charm be bulldozed over, replaced by a condo development.
“For those of us at Monmouth it’s all about the love of the game,” Drazin said.
Too many racing managements are driven by nothing more than the bottom line and/or their devotion to their beloved casinos, and that’s not good for the sport.
You can’t root hard enough for these guys.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Crawford of WDRB.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
In The Derby, Royalty and Regulars Race on Even Playing Field
I know that horse racing has problems. They will run the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, and most sports fans in America won’t pay much more attention to the sport until this time next year, unless the Triple Crown becomes a possibility, or there’s an unfortunate tragedy.
This week we’ve heard renewed concerns about the well-being of racehorses. They’re legitimate. We’ve heard complaints about the way Churchill Downs is treating horsemen and other longtime racing fixtures. Those too, completely legitimate.
One walk through the Kentucky Derby Museum (which you should absolutely make, by the way) is enough to remind you that the sport isn’t what it used to be. I’ll go one better. The horses aren’t what they used to be. The breed is not as stable, the horses not as durable or, really, even as fast, despite all the breeding for speed. It’s a sport and a breed in decline.
I know all the problems. But this is why you should care about the Kentucky Derby. This is what this one horse race has over every other major sporting event in the nation, and perhaps the world.
There is no more democratic event in sports. They used to call it the sport of kings. These days, you also could call it the sport of kings for a day.
Consider the millions of dollars Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum has spent trying to win this race. (And, by the way, I’m grateful for his presence in the sport, and hope one day he is successful.) But he isn’t here in the Derby this year, and has need won it.
Daniel and Lori Dougherty are here. The Louisville residents who used to own a furniture store paid the bargain basement price of $25,000 for the son of Curlin, and got the deal on him because he had a turned-in foot. His trainer, “Bronco” Billy Gowan was down to one horse not too long ago, because of injuries. That one horse was this one, who Calvin Borel will ride in the Derby.
It’s not the only story. Each year brings new ones.
You can watch the Super Bowl, where billionaire owners whose teams play in publicly financed stadiums clash in battles of blue-bloods.
In the Kentucky Derby, the blue bloods are trying to get in. The Doughertys have been offered more than a million for their colt. No way.
The owners of California Chrome have been offered six times that. Steve Coburn and Perry Martin call their operation “Dumb-Ass Partners,” and some would say it’s exactly that to turn down a $6 million offer. Coburn didn’t like the idea of some big-shot coming in and buying the Kentucky Derby. “The offer came from somebody who never put on a pair of boots to go to work in the morning,” he said.
I’m not saying horse racing isn’t a rich person’s game. It is. It always has been. But you can spend a ton of money and never make it to the Kentucky Derby. You can breed and wheel and deal and never feel the excitement of your horse on the track when “My Old Kentucky Home” is played.
The most expensive colt ever bought at auction — for $16 million — raced three times, never won, and was retired. A colt that was bred for a $2,500 stud fee is the favorite for this year’s Derby.
Name me another sport in which people with regular jobs walk onto a level playing field with royalty.
In this year’s Derby, there are syndicates and causes, Wounded Warrior project benefactors and wine distributors. Wildcat Red is owned by Salvatore Delfino and his wife Josie Martino Delfino, wine importer/exporters from Venezuela.
Art Sherman, trainer of California Chrome, has been trying to train a Kentucky Derby starter his whole life. Others get here quickly.
Wicked Strong runs in memory of the Boston Marathon bombing victims. Samraat is owned by the the chairman of Barnes & Noble, Leonard Riggio, who built the bookstore giant out of one college bookstore he opened in 1965.
The Dale Romans-trained Medal Count is owned by historic Spendthrift Farm. Commanding Curve is owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, a syndicate founded by Terry Finley, a former artillery officer.
They come from all over. The super wealthy, the moderately well-to-do, and the ones who have poured everything into this opportunity hoping it will lead to more.
The special thing about the first Saturday in May is that no matter how many resources they have, when the horses go into the paddock, it’s saddle, and rider, and talent and luck that will determine who fades, and who goes down in history. And there’s not a bank account on the track that can change that.
Sure, you can buy the Kentucky Derby. But you can also spend hundreds of millions and not buy it. Of the 49 most expensive yearlings purchased at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale in 2012, none will start in the Kentucky Derby. You have to get to Intense Holiday, the 50th most expensive, to find a starter.
In a world where, increasingly, money rules all, the Derby has a way of breaking wealthy hearts as easily as anyone else’s.
Horse racing has problems, yes. I’m not even suggesting that anyone forget about them.
But for two minutes on the first Saturday in May, it doesn’t matter how much money you have. It matters how much horse you have. It doesn’t matter if you got to Churchill Downs in a private jet flown halfway around the world or a horse trailer from New Mexico. For two minutes in May, money doesn’t matter.
It’s not often in sports you can say that anymore.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Dick Powell of Brisnet.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
The Blue Grass Stakes (G1) was run for the eighth and final time on Polytrack Saturday and California shipper Dance With Fate (Two Step Salsa) will go into the history books as the last winner over the synthetic track.
Whether or not Dance With Fate goes on to greatness three weeks later in the Kentucky Derby is a moot point. He beat 13 rivals in a terrific betting race and joins the likes of Bandini, Sinister Minister and Millennium Wind that won the Blue Grass and little else.
I picked those three as they won the Blue Grass back when it was run on dirt. Since switching to Polytrack, the Bluegrass has had a spotty record producing classic types but that was the case in the most recent years when it was run on dirt. Not much changed but at least the Blue Grass renewals that were run on Polytrack had big fields.
A couple of years ago, the Jockey Club spent millions of dollars to have McKinsey & Co. do extensive market research on our industry. One common theme that they, and every other forum, has come up with is that field size is a critical component of business success. Bigger fields create more exotic wagering opportunities and more betting.
Despite its universal acceptance, racing still pays lip service to field size. It brags when it is up marginally but despite fewer foals produced, still runs too many races. A slight increase in field size barely results in marginal results. When we say we want bigger field sizes, I have to quote a panel at a Thoroughbred Racing Association seminar that stated, “We want seven 10s and not 10 sevens.”
In other words, seven races a day with 10 horses in each instead of 10 races a day with seven horses in each. But each day, despite McKinsey’s research that reinforced what we already knew, racing still gives us 10 sevens each day.
No further proof is needed when you look at the recent decisions of Keeneland and Del Mar to pull out their Polytrack and go back to dirt. It’s not like dirt is the new surface and they were taking a big gamble to install it. They have years of experience on dirt, eight and seven years experience with Poly, and they ignored the proven advice that bettors want big fields.
In the years between 1999 and 2006, the Blue Grass was run on dirt at Keeneland. The average field size for the eight runnings was 8.86 starters per race. When Polytrack was installed for the 2007 meeting, the last eight runnings of the Bluegrass Stakes had an average field size of 13.14, an increase of 48 percent. If you were told that field size for your premier three-year-old race would increase by 48 percent, you would agree to a synthetic track of plastic bottle caps.
I went back and looked at the Pacific Classic (G1) at Del Mar to see what the results were when they switched to Polytrack in 2007. In the years between 2000 and 2006, the Pacific Classic was run on dirt and the average field size for the seven runnings was 8.28 starters per race. When Polytrack was installed for the 2007 meeting, the average field size for the seven runnings increased to 10.71, an increase of 29 percent.
As far as betting was concerned, it was hard to gauge the results since over the past 14 years, betting menus have changed dramatically and more wagering options fractionalize existing pools.
Was the Blue Grass a better Kentucky Derby prep when it was run on dirt? I would say yes, but not by much. Was the Blue Grass run on Polytrack a better race? I would say yes, by far.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Mitchell of BloodHorse.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
American Thoroughbred racing took a full-speed, unprotected body blow last week when undercover work done by an animal-rights activist group was published by the New York Times.
Recapping the story seems unnecessary as widely distributed as it was through social media, but here we go. A young woman representing People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) got a job in trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn. Over four months she reportedly recorded seven hours of video with a hidden camera (smart phone?), and PETA condensed the content into a damning 91⁄2-minute documentary. The highlights of the video include: callous and profane comments from Asmussen’s now former assistant trainer Scott Blasi about the horses under his care; a farrier discussing the apparently horrible condition of the feet of Nehro—Ahmed Zayat’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) runner-up while he was in training; and, a dinner conversation during which Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas joke about the use of “buzzers,” battery-powered devices created to shock horses into action.
The dramatic, sensational descriptions and characterizations in the PETA documentary were not surprising considering the video was created by an organization that is outspoken about its goal to end horse racing. The video and the comments spliced together, however, lack context while the overlaid narration makes nefarious connections to what is being shown though none may exist. You see a lot of footage of veterinarians with needles and comments about horses getting daily regimens of painkillers and performance-enhancing drugs.
Everything is poured into one bucket: all medications are bad and all horses are abused. The PETA investigator recorded seven hours of video but all we get to see is just over nine minutes of it, some of which is not related to Asmussen at all. Included is footage shot at an Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co.’s under tack show a couple of years ago where a 2-year-old sale candidate unfortunately broke down. Sad and disturbing, but completely unrelated. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what’s in the other six hours and 51 minutes? What are the full conversations from which these inflammatory statements were lifted?
Embracing the story as the full truth about horse racing is wrong, but dismissing the story solely as the fabrication of radicals also would be wrong.
The industry needs to pay attention.
An over-reliance on medication is damaging the sport’s reputation. Owners complain about escalating vet bills, the use of furosemide exploded from an as-needed medication to one that is now given to 95% of starters, and the public hears increasingly about products like thyroxine, a hormone that accelerates metabolism and increases cardiovascular output by enhancing heart contractions. Veterinarians reportedly give thyroxine to overweight horses but the product was reportedly given as a regular dietary supplement by both Asmussen and, until recently, Bob Baffert.
Anti-inflammatory drugs for sore joints and muscles are legal therapeutic medications and have their place, but they cannot be used as short-cuts in conditioning. If a horse is not holding up to the stress of training, maybe it needs time off instead of treatment.
Owners have a responsibility here, too. Don’t just pay the bill. Ask questions about what is being given to your horses and why.
And for the owners and trainers who simply know no other way than to continually try to game the system, the industry must accelerate its efforts to cull these bad apples. The proposed uniform medication rules and penalties created by the Racing Medication & Testing Consortium and the Association of Racing Commissioners International include tougher sanctions—up to a five-year suspension and $50,000 fine for trainers caught with a third Class A offense; and for owners, a disqualification, loss of purse, $50,000 fine, and the horse suspended from running for 180 days following a third offense.
To state racing commissioners: You cannot implement these penalties fast enough.
It also cannot be stressed enough that the racing industry must find a way to promote the people who truly care. Put their faces in front of the public and tell the stories of how much their horses are part of their lives and their families. Show the sacrifices they make to keep their horses healthy and happy.
Luckily for racing, these stories are not marketing spin. Honorable owners, breeders, and trainers are out there, doing right by their horses every day.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?