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?