Sunday, July 28, 2013
On Staggering the Stakes Schedule
LOS ANGELES, July 19, 2013—Horseplayer advocates were amused when the http://pullthepocket.blogspot.com/2013/07/upside-down.html" target="_new">Pull The Pocket Blogger asked who his readers thought said the following: "… I want to discuss … your future and what it depends on. It is more than about the money, it is about the customer. Your future depends on how many people are coming to the track and how many people are coming to the track and betting. … Everyone, collectively, has to think about how you attract bettors and customers to the track and regain interest in the industry."
My question to HRI readers is "What is most likely to bring you out to the track?" In my case, it’s the appearance of racing’s equine and riding stars facing one another in large, competitive fields and the opportunity to get together with friends.
This new focus on customer satisfaction comes on the heels of another failed opportunity for crowd-pleasing competition on the last Hollywood Gold Cup ever when many customers, on-track and off, bemoaned the five-horse fields that "headline" Saturday’s cards virtually everywhere.
Traditional divisional scheduling conflict has always cannibalized the best races, the handicap division usually hit the hardest. Recently, smaller foal crops have exacerbated the problem, especially considering commercial breeding prefers brilliance to stamina and soundness.
For years, turf writers and horseplayers have called for industry cooperation in coordinating divisional events that would create more competitive contests with larger fields – the time-tested tonic for anemic attendance and handle. The latest to do so was Bill Finley, who stated the problem as follows:
"There aren't nearly enough good horses around to be able to have so many major stakes at so many different racetracks and hope to attract the type of fields with quantity and quality that customers demand."
Then the writer offered this possible solution:
"Once a month, and once a month only from January through October, racing will have a mini-Breeders' Cup Day.
… There will be one championship race per month for every division … The races will all be Grade 1's and no one will be allowed to schedule any other major races with big purses to compete with the championship events.
… The championship events will be held on the same day but at two racetracks."
He further proposed that "By getting rid of [races such as] the Suburban and so many other stakes races across the year, the NYRA could afford to make all of its races on championship days with huge pots."
I’m not convinced that staggering stakes races by itself is sufficient to attract increased trainer participation. I believe the current mindset of extended rest between starts and large barns avoiding competition between stablemates needs to be countered not only with fewer black-type opportunities but also with incentives that reward horses capable of high-level performances across multiple events rather than one-hit-wonders.
In essence that would involve 1) reducing the purses of all graded stakes to specified minimums for grade level adjusted by field size, and 2) allocating the remainder to bonuses that reward top-four-finishes in specific multiple-stakes sequences on a sliding scale.
An additional grade level -- Grade Zero (G0), perhaps -- would reflect the top level of open competition, e.g., the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Turf, Mile, Sprint, and eventually perhaps the Dirt Mile and Turf Sprint. The remaining Breeders’ Cup races would remain G1 or below, as would prep races for the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup.
It seems to me that Finley’s multiple mini-Breeders’ Cup days at more than one venue would dilute enthusiasm for the concept as surely as expanding the original single-day’s card into two days with overlapping divisions diluting the competition. What would the attraction be for the remaining weekends and holidays each month? The handicapping puzzle can be enhanced by an undercard of varying levels of races with competitive if not full fields, but only a hard core player would stick to a non-stakes diet day after day.
Single-venue stakes buffets like Haskell Day or Jockey Gold Cup Day are already served prior to Breeders’ Cup Fridays. It could be argued that Travers Day and Pacific Classic Day already function like back-to-back mini-Breeders’ Cup days.
In lieu of monthly mini-Cup days, Grade 1s for each non-juvenile division could be organized into one or more bonus-incentivized three-race series with one culminating in a Cup event. Each divisional series should then be scheduled independently within a ninety-day window to ensure top-quality racing on a weekly basis throughout the year.
Consider the following non-overlapping possibilities for the Classic division with some creative rescheduling:
1) Clark H.(Nov)--Awesome Again S.(Jan)--Donn H.(Feb)
2) Santa Anita H.(Mar)--Cigar Mile(Apr)--Metropolitan H.(May)
3) Stephen Foster H.(Jun)—Whitney(Aug)
4) Woodward(Sep)--Jockey Club Gold Cup(Oct)--BC Classic(Nov)
A series for the Turf division might include:
5) Gulfstream Park Turf H.--Woodford Reserve Turf Classic--Manhattan H.
6) Arlington Million--Joe Hirsch Turf Classic--BC Turf
The following are viable candidates for the Mile division:
7) Frank Kilroe Mile--Maker’s Mark Mile--Shoemaker Mile.
8) Woodbine Mile--Shadwell Turf Mile--BC Mile
The Sprint Division could be represented by the following:
9) Santa Anita Sprint Champ.--Triple Bend H.--Bing Crosby S.
10) Vanderbilt H.--Vosburgh Inv.--BC Sprint
The reader is encouraged to check out this sortable spreadsheet and come up with examples of their own for other divisions.
My other question to HRI readers is "What would induce you to watch and wager on thoroughbred races almost every Saturday?" For me it would be the opportunity for a relatively large payoff on races I enjoy analyzing without having to risk amounts that would take me out of the game too early if I got off to a slow start.
How about a multi-venue, all-graded-stakes, non-carryover Pick Six every weekend televised as a one-hour broadcast?
Imagine the popularity of such a product nationwide with low-takeout and a 25-Cent minimum wager--a dime minimum could be made available at tracks with live racing starting 30 minutes prior to the first leg. No need for life-changing scores, just inspirational reward for inspired handicapping.
Expanding the visibility of the best racing while creating additional opportunities for enrichment should expand the number of promotable winners. Free on-line Past Performance for these raves, together with early bird betting available at least two days in advance, would stimulate participation. The increased positive exposure should lead to greater awareness, interest, and enthusiasm for the game. No one track or state can do this on its own.
Racing needs a new perspective. Somewhat ironically, the Blood-Horse stakes calendar now reflects the rescheduling of the G2 Hawthorne Gold Cup from an unproductive Classic prep to Thanksgiving weekend in conflict with the G1 Cigar Mile--a race that already competes for runners with the G1 Clark. I assume they expect to attract a few Classic also-rans, but the possibility of a Grade 1 win elsewhere might prove irresistible.