This past weekend, Harness Racing Update dedicated an issue to the declining yearling numbers facing the standardbred industry and how it will impact the supply of racehorses which will mean (most) tracks would have to close. Here is my take on the issue in how we can help improve things:
Too many tracks racing at the same time (Too many race dates) - You see it now with Harrah's, the Meadowlands, Pocono Downs, and Yonkers currently racing. How many horses are needed to keep these four tracks racing at the same time? You can look at other geographical areas and notice similar problems. In the above example, the Meadowlands is the loser due to the lack of slots but one day that may change. Irregardless, there is no reason with the vast majority of wagering coming from off-track and the return of wagering at the track seemingly out of reach in the foreseeable future to have four tracks in the same area (and that excludes Freehold and Monticello) racing against each other; there is not much demand for the product we are producing. By making changes to the schedules, the existing racing stock will be conserved.
There needs to be a coordination of racing schedules, Quite honestly, the Meadowlands should be racing most of their dates in the winter with a three or four week Red Mile-type meet in the summer to run their major stakes races. Harrah's should race in the spring and early summer. Pocono should race the later part of spring into fall. Yonkers, will unlikely change their schedule but there is no reason for any track to race year round; at a minimum, it should give up the months of December and January. With four comparable tracks racing in the same area, there should be no more than two tracks racing at the same time.
Encourage the breeding of 'mediocre' horses - The commercial breeders will tell you to deliberatly breed mediocre horses and reward them with special races is rewarding mediocrity; that may be.. Of course the goal is to improve the breed, but let's face it, the breeders' job is to supply racehorses for the industry; without racing there would be few, if any, breeders remaining and breeding standardbreds. With the majority of races for overnight horses, you don't need Grand Circuit types to fill those races you need horses of ability, even if they may never be able to race against open company; they just need to be able to race against like-bred horses. We'll get back to this in a moment.
The commercial breeders will continue to breed Grand Circuit caliber horses, while smaller breeders can focus on these second tier stallions. Instead of selling for $25,000+, these tier two yearlings would likely sell for $10,000 or less. This would allow individuals to buy yearlings on their own without partners and encourage new owners. Let's face it, when was the last time you saw a trainer buy a yearling on their own? Certainly there are exceptions, but for the most part they buy yearlings and immediately look for partners; usually the same cast of characters. Some trainers may breed homebreds, but few trainers will venture to a yearling sale for thir own benefit. With cheaper yearlings, trainers and others can afford to buy the whole yearling.
At ages two and three, there can be races restricted to those horses bred from stallions who had a stud fee less than $2,000 (or other arbitrary amount). These horses can race in these restricted races which will race for 25% less (in this example) than unrestricted races, or if the owners get lucky, they could race in non-restricted races. With the horses having a smaller up front cost, owners can make do with smaller purses.
Which brings us to the purses. I have been against huge stake races for two year olds with the money going instead to stake races for three year old and up, but the fact is unlike in countries such as France which values racing older horses, North Americans want to 'see the money' in the two year old seasons. Purses should be increased for all overnight races which two year olds race in. Others have brought up their belief we should adopt a the maiden special weight structure the runners use. Using the Meadowlands as an example, the non-winners of 1 parimutuel race currently goes for $9,000. What if nw1 was raised to $15,000 with the previously discussed second-tier horses racing for $11,250 and instead of going only to non-winners of 4 races, classes were written up to non-winners of 8 for two year olds with purses appropriately increased? Where possible, sires stakes programs should have at least two tiers of racing so the second tier bred horses had a place to race. With potential yearling owners at the first and second tier levels seeing a reasonable chance to actually make money, or at least cover their costs, you may find former yearling buyers stepping back in and potentially attract new owners now that an economic case may be made for buying yearlings..
Yes, a sires stakes program for second-tier bred horses is rewarding mediocrity, but you can stay true to your values and find you have no business, or you can compromise a bit and have an industry to service.
Others have mentioned having two year old claiming races. I oppose this because we currently see at racino tracks how claimers are in and out of barns as people are in effect 'renting' horses. I hate to see two year olds subjected to this.
Of course, there is one problem. Breeders can agree to the two-tiers of yearlings, but unless horsemen racing agree to to alter the purse distributions, this plan is DOA. Either horsemen must be convinced it is in their long term interest to increase pure allocations for two year old overnight races, or when horsemen contracts are about to lapse, track operators may need to play hardball even if it means there is an interruption to the racing season.
Slow Them Up (Somehow): As one trainer told me, "If we keep having our babies going in :55, there won't be any claimers in the future". In our quest to improve the breed, we have made the standardbred a virtual pacing/trotting thoroughbred, going speeds they were never intended to go, especially as two year olds..
Import Horses: And finally, while we still see foreign horses from Australia and New Zealand, the number of horses imported has shrunk considerably from prior years. Why are we not importing standardbreds from France? In the old days, horsemen from Quebec used to import horses from there. Seeing how the French trotters campaign against our stars over there, I don't know why we fail to import them into the rest of North America. In fact, why not from other countries in Europe and increase the importation from Autralasia?
We wonb't import our way out of the shortage of race horses, but it will help somewhat. Besides, if some of these horses turn out to be successful, they may join the North American breeding ranks, allowing for some new blood to be introduced.