Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Major League

(SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – June 11, 2011) Horse races were held at 26 different North American racecourses Saturday, but only races at three or four of the racecourses were significant. That, of course, is from the point of view of horse racing fans. If you owned or trained a horse in a race at any of the other racecourses, you wouldn’t think that. Sunday, by the way, wasn’t different.

The Irish invader Cape Blanco confirmed the superiority of European-trained horses on US turf by beating Gio Ponti in the Man O’ War at Belmont Park. First Dude and Game on Dude finished one-two in the Hollywood Gold Cup at Hollywood Park. Take your pick from here on in as to which of Saturday’s races you’d add to the list. But don’t put the American Classic at Arlington Park, won by Willcox Inn, on a par with the features at Calder or Delaware. For that matter, don’t believe that Arlington Million preview day was a preview of Arlington Million day.

Tajaaweed took the Arlington Handicap. Fantasia grabbed a victory in the Modesty Handicap. But few of the horses they beat will be factors in August when Cape Blanco and a few other middling foreign invaders come a calling. At Calder’s Summit of Speed, Sassy Image snagged the Princess Rooney, Calder’s only Grade 1; Indiano took the Carry Back and Giant Ryan the Smile Sprint Handicap. At Delaware Park, St. John’s River won the Delaware Oaks. Am I missing anything? If so, that’s my point.

The point is that horse racing can be enjoyed thoroughly even if only a few tracks would be in business. Technology has created a situation that enables you to watch and bet on races from anywhere. A couple dozen racecourses could go out of business and few people, other than the people whose jobs depend on these venues or the people who’d bet on anything, would notice. In fact, a consolidation into a dozen main racing centers might be good for the sport. It would help the horse shortage, for example, and funnel betting dollars to raise purses at and provide advertising budgets for the surviving tracks.

A dozen racecourses serving the country was the prevailing prediction when simulcasting and off-track betting came to the fore in the mid-1980s. There wasn’t going to be near the number of tracks in operation as there are today. Survival of the fittest was supposed to weed out the weakest. The racing centers left to operate once the cleansing occurred were supposed to be flourishing pinnacles of the sport, offering top-notch competition of incomparable comparison. What took place that it didn’t happen?

Only one or two operators – Churchill Downs Incorporated and MI Developments – seem possessed of the instinct to run sub-standard businesses to the ground. CDI has expressed the intention to close its racetracks that don’t have slot machines. MID has put Oak Tree at Santa Anita out of business and has pressured Calder, a CDI property, to surrender some dates so it could operate longer. In America, it’s the natural inclination of business operators to beat the competition to a pulp, grabbing market share en route to market dominance. Yet, horse racing, with these two exceptions, hasn’t shown that it’s so inclined.

With 90 percent of handle generated off-track, there is little commercial need for local product. Many tracks stay open, running nondescript races for slow horses in front of empty grandstands, just to qualify by law as off-track betting operators. Sure, they serve as employers, providing jobs, supporting farmers and giving people and horses on the fringe a broken-down place to eke out a living. But many of these tracks are marginally successful, relying heavily on subsidies, giving the game a bad name and, as such, they’d be swept away as perfunctorily as a Border’s or Kmart location that was underperforming if they belonged to a single entity or answered to a central authority that governed the sport.

Competition is what propels capitalism and, according to some, it was capitalism that made this nation the world’s most powerful economic engine. It is difficult to conclude that horse racing, acting in the manner of a social club, can be successful at defining itself in a way that its customers would prefer. Time and again, the sport proves that, when conducted to meet the highest standards, it becomes viable as appealing entertainment for the masses.

No prosperous business is able to offer two kinds of products within the context of one brand – one performing at a peak and the other in the valley. There aren’t McDonalds with substandard Big Macs or Sony televisions that produce fuzzy pictures. If you lump Saratoga in with Ellis Park like the NTRA and TRA do, you confuse the end user to think they’re the same. Even sports have their big leagues and minor leagues.

If the sport formed a compact that permitted it to organize properly, there might be a “major league” of horse racing that existed above the fray of mediocrity. To a certain extent, isn’t that we have conceptually? Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Gulfstream Park, Woodbine, the Southern California tracks and NYRA, for the most part, own a monopoly on the leading owners, horses, trainers and jockeys. They’re where the preponderance of graded stakes is run. These tracks present horse racing on a level that makes it seem major league. If there’s a renaissance to take place, it would be at these venues where the renaissance would surface.

People can have a fine time at a minor league ballpark. But they won’t see a Derek Jeter play, let alone see him slam a home run for his 3000th hit. Products made from cheap ingredients will prove less desirable than a product made of fine ingredients. Distribution and packaging help people to evaluate offerings. Pricing that’s set too low won’t boost sales but will hinder them. Horse racing’s about marketing, isn’t it? Or am I again missing something?

Vic Zast begins Vic Zast's Saratoga Diary on starting July 22. Follow him there and on Facebook and Twitter.

Written by Vic Zast

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