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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How the Horse Racing Industry Lost Its Way - A Standardbred Addendum

On the Bleacher Report website, contributor Kevin O'Brien wrote a column called How the Horse Racing Industry Lost Its Way.  I urge you to read the column as many of the points raised by O'Brien are right on the mark and as much as we like to think thoroughbred, quarterhorse, and standardbred racing are different industries, they really are more similar than we would like to think.  That being said, let me provide an addendum to O'Brien's column.

We need to deal better with our drug cheats.  Again, I am not talking about those who messed up on withdrawal times or are using drugs with minimal impact on race horses; I am talking the hardcore medication violations.  I am not even saying boot them out on the first offense, but it seems we keep giving, third, fourth, and fifth chances.  Our licensing system may allow us to boot someone out of one state if they cheat too often, but without a national license, all they do is pick up and move on to the next state or province and continue on.  Speaking of licensing, how can we have a person who drives and trains in one state, be licensed only as a groom in another state. We need once license nationally. If a person is a trainer, they need to be licensed as such; everywhere.

While we are dealing with regulators, if you look at the Fines and Suspensions list, how many times do you see someone getting fined for failure to disclose a criminal record and they still return to racing?  Look, I am not suggesting people with criminal records should be automatically excluded from participating in horse racing; society should allow people a second chance, with only certain crimes such as bookmaking being disqualifying.  Not everyone is a saint.  However, if a person is lying on their license application, what else are they going to be willing to do once they get on the backstretch?

Speaking of violators, what is this nonsense of slapping $25 or $50 fines on people?  Granted at some hick tracks where you have low earning drivers or trainers a fine of $50 may hurt.  However, when you have drivers earning millions of dollars a year, what is a $50 fine going to do?  We need to index fines to what a driver or trainer earns.  Fines should never be a cost of doing business; they should hurt.

O'Brien talks about how can gate crashers are allowed to race.  While they may not be gate crashers, how can a horse who is closer to the paddock than the starting line when a race  goes off be considered an actual starter?  We need a universal fair start rule.  Gamblers should never be out of a race before it begins.

Contrary to what some people think, we need to get customers to the track.  No, they may not be your heavy hitters, but we need to get people exposed to the sport, get them to fall in love with horse and the sport.  If you don't get people excited about horse racing, they may as well play the lottery or the slots.  After all, playing horses takes hard work.  If you don't get people excited and invested in the sport, they may as well play something which requires no thinking.

All that talk about a rebound in the yearling sales, may sadly be premature.  The first evening of the Lexington Sales had an increase in the average price of 1.7%, as predicted far less than the 10.7% increase at the Morrisville Sale.  When you consider last night you had a world record price for a yearling $450,000 spent on Hitting The Cycle (Somebeachsomewhere-Artistic Vision), that 1.7% increase would have likely been a loss as with the exception of pacing colt yearlings aided by the sale of Hitting the Cycle, pacing filly, trotting colt, trotting filly yearling prices were down when compared to 2010 prices for the first session.  Of course, one night does not make a sale so there is time for a rebound.  Just don't be surprised if when all is said and done, yearling sellers may be disappointed.

You have to wonder why yearling prices are that low.  If you get a horse that races in a slot state, you have a better chance than ever to make money racing.  For sure there is a risk of loosing money with a horse, but there is plenty of money be thrown around in slot states.  Could it be with all the partnerships with certain owners bidding together, that small to mid-sized buyers feel it is a waste of time to bid at these major sails?  Maybe that is why Morrisville had a significant increase; the big time spenders don't show up there giving the smaller yearling buyers a chance when they bid?  Maybe what we need are smaller sales at Lexington and Harrisburg and have more regional yearling sales.

It seems like the Meadowlands has seen it last NBC broadcast.  Jeff Gural has indicated he is unwilling to spend $200,000 (matched by the Hambletonian Society) to broadcast the Hambletonian on NBC next year.  It is not just the cost which is an issue, it is the fact NBC is only willing to  give the 3-4pm time frame which makes the Hambletonian contested early in the race program.  As we all know, those who have come to the Hambletonian often leave once the race is over and presumably the same happens with the ADWs.  This condition doesn't apply to thoroughbred racing who are given broadcast time later in the day so their feature races are near the end of the racing program.

Personally, I think the decision is the right one.  First of all, when you consider the ratings the Hambletonian draws on NBC, the money can be spent more better.  This is not to say the Hambletonian has seens its last broadcast.  Cable is a possibility.  Versus, NBC's new sports channel, is a possibility as would be MAV TV which has shown other harness racing events.  The costs would be less and the Hambletonian could be pushed back to later in the racing program.  Yes, it is important to get harness racing out there and publicized, but the money must be spent wisely; just throwing money around makes no sense.

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