HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, September 7, 2021 – Given the events of the 2021 summer racing season leading inexorably into the Fall prep season, how and where does one begin to assess the state of the current game?
Rather than bury the lede, let’s begin that by noting that, on balance, this has been quite the season given the performances we’ve witnessed in both human and equine terms.
The coronavirus is a scourge that has come and should have been gone had Americans used their smarts and hearts instead of willful ignorance and misguided allegiances, nevertheless, has put horse racing back on the sports map.
Hall of Famer Leroy Jolley once said “they don’t play this game in short pants.” Indeed. But so was the great John Nerud correct when he stated that “racing is the greatest game played outdoors.”
With humility, allow me to be the first to say that without the role played by the Covid-19 virus, racing’s renaissance would have been all but impossible given today’s definition of correctness and the burgeoning availability of sports betting.
Early last year, when the larger sports world suspended operations in the best health interests of their athletes and fans, hunkered-down Americans learned that horse not only was a welcome distraction but could also be a universal participatory exercise.
It didn’t have the allure it once did during the Depression when Seabiscuit match-raced War Admiral, but racing was the only game in town emanating from two tracks in Florida, now best known for its Covid hospitalizations and death figures, not speed figures.
When other tracks slowly reopened, without fans at first, the sport’s brightest stars were back in the news, many raising their game and their sport to levels never before seen in the modern era, just as America went back in time and rediscovered racing.
There was something happening here and, before long, it became exactly clear: The sights, sounds, storylines, majestic steeds and wagering was lifting a widely critiqued “dying sport” from the ash heap of latter day irrelevancy and gave it new life.
Horse racing neophytes and older fans who had lost touch, discovered and rediscovered the excitement that synchronicity between man and best at 40 mph provides. Those with little or no interest suddenly were becoming engaged. Betting pools rose. Imagine that?
By 2020’s end, new standards had been set at Gulfstream and Tampa, a trend that would continue into this year, not only in Florida but virtually every state in which horse racing is conducted.
Even the most casual look around the country shows that business is booming at places like Ellis Park, Canterbury, Indiana Downs, and at major venues, too.
After a three-year hiatus, Colonial Downs returned and produced record numbers. Of course, the popularity of destination tracks Saratoga and Del Mar not only continued to grow as sets new goals and standards. And the sport was the biggest winner.
Flavien Prat has been a riding revelation out West. Luis Saez is suddenly more than the jockey responsible for the first Kentucky Derby demotion in history via riding infraction. Along with the Ortiz brothers, new standards of excellence are being set.
And Joel Rosario is everywhere. Winning. His domination of the recently concluded Kentucky Downs set records for lots of things, including Rosario who had two five-win days. There were 17 firsts in all, won at a 32% clip. His mounts earned nearly $3 million. Crazy good numbers!
What has happened on the owner and trainer side of the racing spectrum has been lamentable not only in that it pits the haves vs. the have-nots because it has been the have-it-all vs. the barely existing. But on every level, notable accomplishments exist.
Take Saratoga, for example. Chad Brown had more bullets to fire, started very slowly but still went on to win the Spa meet by a short pole. Christophe Clement outdid his 2020 career meet. Mike Maker became a multi-category New York presence for the first time.
Steve Asmussen solidified his legacy with career victory 9,445 and counting. And all those Saratoga Grade 1 victories on dirt? Has any North American trainer ever accomplished so much at one of America’s foremost race meets?
Not least are the horses. Essential Quality got his Derby, albeit in midsummer; Knicks Go has become this incredible speed machine that finishes off his races, whatever the pace; Gamine, despite her issues, remains too fast and too classy for her sprint rivals.
There were so many promising babies to sort through, it was dizzying. There will be plenty of time for sorting all that out when all converge at Del Mar after the prestige events hosted by Belmont Park, Keeneland and Santa Anita.
The racing crowd is much smarter and sophisticated these days and they demand more. Information, in terms of databanks and video access to races and workouts have many horseplayers looking for new challenges.
They’ve gotten them and are about to get even more. The modern popularity of grass racing with its larger fields and closer finishes has thrust American racing into a worldwide racing mainstream. That, and the promise of more uniform rules and sanctions.
Nowhere has this been more evident than at the recently concluded all-turf, high quality, six-day race meet on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Conjure Hardboot Ascot.
Hyperbole? We think not. Maiden races for $135,000, “1 other-thans” for $145,000. Half-million and million-dollar purses virtually every day. What would you call these numbers other than, well, obscene?
And extremely popular.
A total of $74,088,532 was wagered in 2021, up 32% year-over-year, or more than double the amount wagered in 2018. And what drew an average of 10.24 starters to each race? Total purses worth $15,974,800, 63 races for an average purse of $253,568.
Now only is good racing good business but so is atmospherics. Saratoga has charm and history. Oceanside Del Mar has turf and surf.
But only Kentucky Downs has a country fair atmosphere capable of printing real money, thanks to its oddly configured course and challenging, undulating ground that demands the utmost in athleticism from both horse and rider.
Racing’s renaissance continues at Gulfstream Park later this month with the opening of a newly installed Tapeta surface, making it the first and only North American track to offer racing on three surfaces: dirt, turf, and synthetics.
These will be good dominoes that fall. Doing what’s best for the horses does what’s best for the track which does the best it can for the player by making its product more attractive with the added benefit of helping to keep fields intact.
Like the US in the Covid era, racing had its soul sucked right out. Between a never-ending battle to make, then keep, the game clean, then find a way to distribute racing’s wealth more equitably by cherishing racing’s diversity.
Do that, create a few new wagering options, and anything’s possible.
This then is a good time to consider that less may be more: Fewer races produce larger fields; a more varied betting grid, lower cost via reduced takeout is the best way to return more money to more winning bettors.
It might take a minute to reach the revenue stream desired but like a good meal, a long term winning strategy doesn’t happen overnight.
Racing needs to believe in its product and sell it as an intellectual challenge that’s is not for the timid or lazy minded. Fans best enjoy the game by trying to figure things out then proving themselves but the strong willed dedicated to doing the work. Embrace challenge, manage up intellectually and economically.
Racing offers a game that’s affordable but still provides a chance of making a life-altering score. And it’s the same story internationally. Millions of people love to bet an race horses the world over. More international racing is welcome now and provides meaningful growth later.
Since early 2020, racing’s been on a mini-roll. No reason that trend cannot continue. Introduce neophytes to live racing once. If they love it, great, a lifetime fan. But play the long game: think cooperation, not competition.