Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Make Lesser Races, and Their Coverage, Super

I do not know European racing writer Daniel Ross. But I’m in his debt, and that of online publication Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, for making me aware that the “super trainer” is not just an American phenomenon.

I won’t get into the weeds on this. Find his recent three-part series to understand the conclusions he draws, based on statistics provided by the British Horseracing Authority and anecdotal evidence gleaned from interviews with horsemen.

The majority seems to agree that the phenomenon is attributable to two factors—realities of life that are prevalent today in these United States; inequitable distribution of wealth and the cumulative effects of fake racing news. Consider:

In an effort to market the sport and business of thoroughbred racing, tracks have listened to the public by looking at the bottom lines and concluding what should be glaringly obvious to all stakeholders: Big events produce big handle.

The other reality is that the same handful of super trainers and the wealthy syndicates they train for attract the most coverage because they are too big to ignore and too big to fail so that the future also becomes prologue.

It’s easier to maintain a 25% winning average with a pool of 200 horses to draw from than it is for the capable trainer at the other end of the barn to win at 15% because he and his owners need to run more often to survive racing’s economies of scale.

One of the BHA charts shows the dichotomy that has existed in the past decade with respect to purse inequities. Resultantly, the number of U.S. super outfits has stayed the same or have grown slightly while the number of smaller outfits has decreased significantly.

What’s more, American super trainers have been earning larger percentages of overall prize monies with fewer starters than before while trainers at the low end saw their share of prize money shrink to unsustainably low levels.

Super trainers in the U.S. have been accruing larger percentages of prize money. It follows that trainers at the other end of the scale saw their share of overall prize money shrink.

In the UK over the past decade, the number of super trainers has remained relatively flat as the number of smaller stables have met the same fate as their U.S. brethren, dropping off precipitously.

The percentage of all starters and prize money won by UK’s top 60 trainers has grown by an average 10% in both categories, from roughly 40% to 50% in purses overall.

The problem for the remaining trainers is that the top 60 are taking down nearly 80% of available purses, a growth rate of nearly 30%. If that trend holds there and here, the future is unsustainable at that rate.

The top two classes of horses are earning 40% of the purse money, up approximately 35% over the same 10-year period. Meanwhile, purse money available in the lower classes has decreased from 8% to 6%, a 25% drop.

Can a limbo stick going any lower?

On balance, horsemen in the UK and US, as well as engaged American horseplayers, agree the problem indeed is twofold: inequitable purse distribution in the face of slightly rising handle and skewed media coverage.

HRI regulars can attest that this a recurring theme here, where we effort to be fair and objective in our coverage, trying to maintain an often difficult balance of sports event vs. gambling enterprise.

We justify blanket coverage of the Bafferts, Browns and Pletchers by recognizing that on America’s biggest days, super trainers garner and deserve the biggest headlines. Handle figures support that notion.

These races generate great fan interest and the reason why gamblers target these days. Big pools warrant big-money action: These are the races trainers desperately want to win, the public trusting they will get an honest run.

Tier 2 and Tier 3 tracks get their 15 minutes in the national spotlight and we effort to support those days. It would serve racing well if they promoted more of those and the Pick Whatever, and distribute purse money more equitably.

Not to pick on Oaklawn Park, no different than any track looking to boost its bottom line and attract the best horses. But does the Rebel, a prep for the more significant Arkansas Derby, have to carry a million dollar purse?

Preps have their place, of course, but it just seems like that money could have been better spent on some of the lesser classes. And the sport takes it on the chin from the super outfits in other ways.

But this shouldn’t mean that a handful of trainers with the best horses can target the Breeders’ Cup and fashion scant campaigns, arriving at the big dance with the freshest horses earning a fortune along the way winning a handful of grotesquely inflated purses.

Prestigious races used to stand on their own and still can, but tracks will continue throwing big money at their big races to attract the best horses as is their right. We will endeavor to spread our coverage out a little better. It doesn’t count unless you walk the talk.

Written by John Pricci

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