Monmouth Park this year is introducing a controversial incentive program to get trainers and owners to race at Monmouth. Under this proposal, trainers will get paid $300 for each starter that races in non-state bred races. Owners will be paid $700 for each starter over the dirt track which finishes fifth or worse with turf specialists earnings owners $500 for each start where they finish fifth or less.
While the horsemen association like this program (why wouldn't they?), there are dissenters. They fear a situation like what happened at Aqueduct when slots came there; a slew of breakdowns with horses unsound being thrown into races like cannon fodder or be placed in races where they would be hopelessly outclassed. Clearly this is not something anyone wants to see.
That being said, despite the downside noted above, could such a program work in harness racing, specifically at the Meadowlands where there is a perennial shortage of horses once Harrah's and Pocono Downs opens up?
The first problem is the hit to the purse account. These fees have to come from somewhere, and the purse account is where the funds would come from. So lets say hypothetically each starter running sixth or worse earns a $200 bonus, that is a $1,000 a race which needs to come out of the existing race purse or from the general purse account meaning purses across the board may need to be cut.
If you eliminate the purse account question, there are safeguards which could be taken in place. First of all, with classified racing, the race secretary can restrict which races a horse can be placed in, so a C-2 horse couldn't be entered in a B-1 race as filler just to pick up the bonus. The race secretary can also refuse to accept an entry of a horse they feel doesn't belong at the Meadowlands. With regards to an owner/trainer stuffing the entry box by dropping a horse in to race too often, the bonus could be offered only three times a month per horse. Lastly, any incentive bonus could be constructed so the horse must finish the race to be paid out.
That being said, the bottom line is paying to race good policy? No. If one track offers such an incentive, what is to keep a competitor track from offering even a better incentive? You could start a bidding war looking for horses and start offering mediocre races. It also further exasperates the problem of people not investing in yearlings as it makes ready made race horses more valuable as you can be assured of some earnings in each start.
As much as the temptation may be to emulate a program like Monmouth Park's, in the long run it harms racing. Paying to race? No thank you.