There was a time when every Saturday felt like a holiday walking into the racetrack. There was that buzz and electricity in the air that today is reserved for only our biggest days and the openings of certain meets. The evolution of the game along with technology and a load of other factors have changed all that and I feel bad for the younger fans who never got a chance to experience it. It was a glorious time and one I would love to see return for more than the select few days we experience it now. Racing was covered daily in newspapers and the Saturday featured stake often made the back page headline.
Our stakes featured rivalries of horses who tested each other’s limits year after year and preferred racing to staying in the barn or breeding. The horses became known and star like with regularity. Fields were full and competitive and parking or getting a seat could be an issue if you didn’t arrive early. Often you did. Whether you fancied the grandstand, clubhouse, apron or one of the restaurants, you likely saw the same faces there year after year, eventually leading to an atmosphere of familiarity. You knew who rooted and who stayed silent, who bet longshots and who played chalk. It was crowded and felt like an event, like the place to be, each and every Saturday.
What the Future of Horse Racing Holds
That is not likely to happen anytime soon. Today we can watch and wager from our homes, offices, cars, even pool or beach side. Anywhere you have an internet or cellular connection can become your private clubhouse. There is even talk of the next wifi connections where you will simply have to speak in close proximity of your phone, which will recognize your voice and allow you to verbally log into your ADW and place your wagers. This does not provide a lot of incentive to go to the races for the average or casual fan where they will likely be met with an oversaturation of races with small fields, and not a lot of exciting wagering opportunities.
It would take some understanding, work, and cooperation to change this but it can be done at least to a greater extent than we currently have. First you have to look at what are the models that work, and what are the draws. More often than not, racetrack management misses on one if not both of these points. The most successful meets today, and by successful I mean in field size, quality of racing, attendance, handle, wagering opportunities and popularity, are what I like to call the boutique meets. These are the shorter meets that try and emphasis quality over quantity, although some try and stretch the envelope, often diluting their own product. Meets like Saratoga, Keeneland Spring and Fall, Del Mar Summer and now Bing Crosby, Oak Tree at Santa Anita, Gulfstream winter, Santa Anita winter, Kentucky Downs, and combination days like Oaks and Derby, Breeders’ Cup weekend, and super days like Belmont Day and Super Saturday Breeders’ Cup preview Day, Preakness Day, Arlington Million Day, are the models that work. Oaklawn’s meet is a bit too long to be called Boutique but they manage to capture the buzz on Saturdays and during their Festival of the South closing week. The long drawn out meets that over saturate us don’t work and help drive the game into the ground. I’ll be the first to point out we have to find ways to get all those horsemen and employees into the new models and of course find a way to help all those horses but there are answers to those questions too.
Before we get to the draws, let us talk more about the models and just acknowledge walking into the races on any of the aforementioned days is a different experience than walking in on just another Thursday. It’s a lot harder to stay home Belmont Day than it is a routine weekday in a four or five month meet struggling to fill races. So with that we see less is more. The less saturated we are with racing going on all over the country simultaneously, the more likely we are to attend a boutique meet or at least focus our wagering efforts and dollars there. Tracks have to be careful not to abandon the boutique status for greed and an attempt to reap it for more than it can give. Saratoga has for many people and for a long time been “the premier boutique meet.” NYRA, in all its wisdom under multiple management teams, has tried in vain to change that by continuing to expand it. Fortunately, Saratoga is just too strong but even this historic meet is feeling the pain. The weekdays are no longer on a par with the weekends as they were when this was “the August place to be.” The field sizes are down, we get inundated with maiden claiming and maiden State bred races which, back in the day, had no place at this venue. Who would have ever thought allowance races at the Spa would have trouble filling? This is the product of NYRA milking the meet for all they can by lengthening it. Less is more.
It’s refreshing that this year we will see the top three year olds return to race at four. This creates rivalries and interest and a stronger handicap division next year. These are good things. Commercial breeding with its emphasis on early retirement, speed, two year old racing and sales preparation is not without complicity in the problem. Look at the following and excitement Zenyatta was able to create when kept racing a few years. It was that buzz I described earlier. These are the draws, the horses and riders, the stars. We need to give them competitive and exciting venues in which to perform, and emphasize, through cooperation on a national level, focus on that event, including the wagering dollars. Less is more. If we have less to bet on we bet more on the good racing and wagers and into the strong pools.
Racing, at times, seems to disconnect from who its fans and supporters truly are. They stereotype the cigar smoking, racing form carrying gambler with negativity instead of turning him into the Damon Runyon character he can be. They try to make their fans out of people who aren’t but not by a proper introduction to the game but with concerts and things that don’t generate new blood. I remember when Gulfstream had those blaring concerts that annoyed horsemen and players alike and even upset horses in the paddock. It’s alright they told us, we are generating new fans. When they realized they weren’t, they took it a step further. They gave the free concert goers a free betting voucher worth $2.00. It didn’t take but a week for the hard core race trackers to be scouring the concert area after the show and picking up the discarded vouchers. They didn’t even bet for free. Discouraging, yes, but it gives us a window into how the public perception of racing is. Many of these people felt you just couldn’t win betting horses and racing needs to correct that perception and it starts with uniform rules, a minimization or elimination of race day medications, transparency and consistency, and a good product. Did I mention back in those glory days we used no Lasix and hardly if any race day medications. Hay and oats as it were. Horseman were horseman and Vets were called to treat injuries and ailments only.
The future of horse racing needs fewer meets but more boutique meets. It needs fewer days but more big days and big races and events. Less is more in the long run and I think this is the best model for the continued strong survival of the sport we love. This type of model requires multi state and venue cooperation as well as a revenue sharing program and can only have a chance if we are all under the same umbrella. A central governing body with uniformity in rules and enforcement and a Commissioner who knows and understands his/her job. We need our star horses to stay in training and race as opposed to breed. We need to get the farms and breeding programs in line with the venues and operate in a cooperative model that works and not the free for all we currently have.
The whole philosophy extends to professional betting as well. As a professional for years, one would attend the races daily, fighting the good fight and scouring for solid value plays. The game has changed; however, and with more sharks in the water, more information readily available, and lower denomination bets lowering payoffs, it can be harder to make a profit in a daily battle. Slowly and more surely, I find myself gravitating to the big days and boutique meets. You find a more level playing field, more value and bigger pools.
It’s hard not to feel a drop off following The Breeders’ Cup but Del Mar with their first Bing Crosby meet, a meet designed with their hosting of the Breeders’ Cup, is doing their best to bridge the gap. Opening numbers are good and although the crowds are not like in the summer, it is not exactly a ghost town either. This should turn into another of our boutique meets we look forward to. The more the better, especially if we can keep them from running simultaneously.
It was great to see Luis Saez back in the saddle Saturday at Gulfstream West and winning stakes. There is little question it has been a rough go for this young man and rising star of the sport. It did not take long for him to get back to the winners’ circle and we wish him continued success.
Everyone was well behaved this week. Good job.
Horse to Watch
Blacktype ran good in his US debut encountering traffic down on the inside and finishing strong once he swung outside, and did it into an extremely slow pace. He looked poised to improve in his second start here and he did big time, he dropped back again off a slow pace, he tried to get out when they turned for home but wound up behind a wall of horses and had nowhere to go while full of run. When he finally gave up on getting out he went back inside and between horses and finished strong.