With yesterday's Preakness win by I'll Have Another, the thoroughbred industry is salivating over the possibility of the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed back in 1978. Why? The powers-to-be are thinking it will be good for racing and attract more fans. Good luck with that. Sure, NYRA will be pleased; a potential Triple Crown winner will increase interest in the Belmont Stakes as well as increase attendance on June 9 (in the old days, I would have said 'packed the place'). A victory in the Belmont will keep interest in whatever races I'll Have Another shows up for, but after that, it will be back to normal. While attendance and handle will increase on those days, most newbies attracted will be quickly eaten up and spit out as a result of high takeout rates. That assumes they don't witness a breakdown or read the latest story about the ugly side of the racing business. If the racing industry really wants to see a reversal of their fortunes, they need to address the issues of concern to the gambler. As the expression goes, "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig'.
But if you think the thoroughbred industry has problems, things could be worse for them; it could be the standardbred industry. Over in Harness Racing Update, the question was asked "Where Are the Fans?" the article going on lamenting about the lack of conversation regarding harness racing on racing forums and in the social media.
To be perfectly honest, unless you are directly involved in the industry, or a baby boomer or older who remembers the 'good ol' days', there is a real good chance you are not reading this blog, or for that fact, anything related to harness racing. The reason why? For the fan, modern day harness racing is a grossly inferior product. I am not even talking about takeouts, admission, lousy facilities, etc. I am talking primarily about the product on the track itself. How can I say this? Let me count the ways.
Too Much Racing = Dilution of the Product - I am not talking about the diluting of mutuel pools (which is a real problem), we are talking about the dilution of the horse population. We have mentioned numerous times about the sheer idiocy of having so many tracks racing at any one time. If you ignore Freehold Raceway as it clearly is a minor league track, you had the Meadowlands, Harrah's Philadelphia, Pocono Downs, and Yonkers Raceway racing this past Saturday with Philadelphia racing on Sunday as well. That makes a total of 69 races over the two days in the same market necessitating 622 horses if each race had full fields. Now when you add in tracks like Freehold, Harrington, Saratoga, Tioga, and Vernon which while typically don't draw from the same horse population, will draw some horses seeking easier spots, clearly showing how the horse population is not sufficient for the amount of racing going on. While this is good for horsemen as it means their horses will get in the box more frequently and having to beat fewer horses to earn a check, what you end up with is classes being combined to fill a race and pseudo horses (horses classified as Invitational, or Preferred just to fill a race). The result is you get races which are not as competitive as they should be, resulting in poor paying races. You know those boring half mile races? If more competitive fields were available, they wouldn't be as predictable as they are now.
The logical answer would be for these tracks to race fewer days and coordinating dates which would mean there would be less demand on the horse population, meaning no more pseudo horses and more competitive races. However, despite the higher purses which would be generated due to less days of racing, see how quick this idea would go over with horsemen in New York and Pennsylvania.
Too Much Slot Money Thrown in Overnights - Let's face it, horsemen are rolling in the dough where they have slots and horses are racing for a lot of money; too much money to be precise. Does anyone deep down really think $15,000 claimers should be racing for $12,000 in purse money (Yonkers)? Why not take more of this money and throw it at stakes races? Not just existing stakes races, but create new stakes races (more about that later). Maybe then a horse would not have to pay $12,600 to start in an elimination and another $10,000 for the final of the upcoming $300,000 Art Rooney Memorial. Yonkers' contribution to the final pool of the Rooney is a minimum of 20% of all the fees paid. No wonder the best horses typically avoid the race. Wouldn't you like to spend $22,600 to draw post seven or eight on the half mile oval? Maybe if the total buy-in was $6,000, some other owners would be willing to take a chance. While your at it, instead of having parity in your bottom classes on the conditioned and claiming sides, add some more money to your maiden, non-winners of 2, 3, or 4 races to encourage people to buy yearlings as they would have a better chance of earning their investment back.
Too Many Cheap Late Closing Events - How many flavors of non-winners of two races lifetime late closing events can the Meadowlands and other tracks put on in a season? Apparently, plenty. Yes, it keeps horses racing at your track, but what also happens is you usually get a standout in these races, making the races boring for fans. You want to give green horses a chance at earning some good money? Why not make these late closing events include a condition indicating the number of starts a horse has made as of a certain date; something like NW2 or $10,000 races lifetime that have made less than ten starts as of January 1, 2012? This way, these late closing events don't draw horses that can't cut the mustard and instead of the cheaper horses racing against a horse that sweeps the series, they can race in overnights against different horses each week.
Are There Any Stakes Trainers Out there Not Named, Burke, Schnittker, or Takter? - This is not meant as a slam against these trainers and is certainly rhetorical. People use these trainers because their stables are successful, but there has to be a way to spread the wealth of good horses to other trainers who are more than capable. How many people get excited when you see two or three horses from the same two to four stables in a race, regardless if they are coupled or uncoupled (which presents its own problems)? As an example, this year's final of the Molson Pace has five of the eight horses coming from the Burke and McNair stables. It gets a little boring when these stakes races seem to become ATMs for these 'name' trainers.
Elimination Races - Why do we have these elimination races? We have horses going for $300,000 next week racing for $40,000 in an elimination this week. Ever notice how certain horses put on less than stellar performances in these eliminations and all of a sudden they become world beaters the following week, repeatedly? What about those elimination races where eight of the nine horses in a race advance? The public is not stupid. Then we have byes for certain horses with eliminations for others. Maybe if a horse wins a specific race or is coming over from Europe you save them a spot, but if you have elimination races, everyone should have to qualify the same way. Better yet, instead of elimination races, seed horses based on earnings into the main even, and consolation races, adjusting the starting fee accordingly. How about dividing stakes races instead if not a major stakes?
Handing the Trophy Over Before the Race (AKA 'Earning' Post Positions) - Isn't it real exciting for elimination winners to chose their post positions or get assigned the inside posts for the final? I understand the concept; basically we are trying to ensure a horse does their best in an elimination by giving them an 'incentive' to win the relatively paltry pursed elimination race. The rationale given is why should a horse that wins an elimination draw the outside post position in a final? For the same reason a horse draws the outside post in an elimination, it's called luck. Post positions in stakes races should always be an open draw. Owners will claim why should they lose the race at the draw? I ask, why should the race be won (low priced at that) at the draw?
Need More Stakes Races - Remember when I said there was too much money being thrown in overnight events? I said there should be more money thrown in stakes races; not only the existing ones, but newly created stakes races. Not every stakes races should be for the best horses racing in the nation either. Stakes races should be for horses with various levels of ability. What we need are graded stakes races (Grade 1, 2, and 3), ranked by the industry based on the level of competition which race in these events. This way more people get a chance to see the better horses.
Coordinate Stakes Races - Have different grades of races contested on the same day. This way, instead of having the big trainers drop all their horses in the same stakes race, having different grade races will permit a trainer to send horses to different tracks to compete for lucrative purses. If next week there was a $300,000 (Gr. 1), $200,000 (Gr. 2) and $100,000 (Gr. 3) race, do you think a trainer would have three horses in one race? No, it would allow the trainer to split their starters up among the different stakes according to ability.
You've Seen One Race, You've Seen a Hundred of Them - I know this is the way it has been for years, but each race is a mile with eight, nine, or ten across the starting gate. As far as trainers and owners are concerrned, the top two commandments are: "The distance of a race shall be a mile, nothing more, nothing less. Thou shalt not have trailers in a race". You get the idea, the beauty of consistency has dragged payoffs down, especially with the diluted fields. If we had different distance races with more horses in longer races, their form becomes less predictable, permitting the potential of higher payoffs, and the racing is less stale for the fans. For those who argue the horse is called a standardbred for a reason, namely being able to pace or trot a mile in a certain time, may I remind you the definition doesn't say exclusively?
Clearly this is not the only problems racing has, but how can the industry expect excitement about harness racing from the general public with the quality of product we put on. I realize with slots, horsemen don't really care about the quality; they just want to be paid. But if you don't improve the product, woe comes the day when racing needs to earn its purse levels.