Racing is facing an existential crisis. But as distressing and intolerable as the number of equine deaths is, the abolition of racing is, at least for the foreseeable future, a one-state campaign.
A bigger, albeit less immediate threat is the relentless decline in the number of thoroughbreds being bred each year. You can’t have horse racing without horses.
According to Jockey Club statistics, 44,143 thoroughbreds were registered in 1990. By 2000, the number declined to 37,755. Ten years later, the drop off was even more pronounced, 28,419. The Jockey Club projection for 2020 is about 20,500.
In less than 40 years, the crop has plunged by more than 50 percent. If this trend continues, it will be impossible to maintain anything near the number of races currently offered. This could force the industry to take a step it should be planning toward.
The future of racing is as a weekend sport. The days of five-day racing are over, except at boutique meetings such as Saratoga and Del Mar and possibly the prime winter sessions, which operate for only three or four months.
Even Del Mar, Southern California’s summer jewel, had concerns this year that it would be able to maintain a five-day week. Its relatively new fall meet started with a four-day game plan.
This is the new normal. With rare exceptions, all tracks have become four-day operations. Some cut back to three for at least part of the year. The trend appears irreversible.
During racing’s heyday, before lotteries and ubiquitous casinos, the quest for opportunities to gamble was so strong I remember players racing from the ninth race at Aqueduct or Belmont (nine was as many as was run) to make nine more at Roosevelt or Yonkers harness track.
In Southern California, quarterhorse racing was the evening lure for fans leaving Santa Anita or Hollywood. Weekday crowds then at the major tracks exceeded Saturdays now.
This was back when you couldn’t walk into a grocery store or bar and binge on lottery tickets. Indian casinos within an hour or two’s drive from anywhere were unheard of. Sports betting was limited to Las Vegas.
These now compete with racing for gambling dollars and the attention of horse players. And they are winning.
Racing is in a state of denial. In order to maintain the status quo when it comes to racing days, it continues to force feed fans with four, five- and six-horse fields. This makes a day at the races even less attractive.
Except for the special meetings I noted, tracks should begin to wean themselves to no more than three days a week. Major tracks in New York, Kentucky, Florida and California should race only on Saturday, Sunday and one other day, distinct to each of them.
For example, Monday in New York; Wednesday in Kentucky; Thursday in Florida and Friday in California. This would provide a simulcast monopoly on the day when they would do the least business.
This also would support simulcasting at lesser tracks, which should cut back to weekends only with all deliberate speed.
This would not be far removed from football, where Saturdays are for colleges and Sundays for the NFL. There is a limited weekday agenda, primarily to fill TV time, a revenue source unavailable to racing. Also, the games are played at night, when the audience is at its peak.
The number of weekly races would not have to substantially decrease. Some reduction is going to happen one way or the other.
Instead of small field seven- or eight-race cards on weekdays, with nine or ten on Saturday and Sunday, weekend cards could be extended to a dozen races a day. With nine on each track’s isolated weekday, more than 30 races could be carded each week.
With the foal crop in a free fall, it’s soon going to be difficult to schedule even that many in any case. What’s more, the ones scheduled would be more likely to have field sizes attractive to bettors.
A potential side benefit would be a major expense of a day at the races could be cut in half by Brisnet and/or the Racing Form publishing a weekend edition with the past performances for both days included.
When I lived in New York, a publication called SportsEye used to have three nights of harness PPs in each edition.
Shorter racing weeks are inevitable. The live crowds already are down to an embarrassing and unsustainable level. Now is the time for racing to become proactive rather than reactive.
Run them when they are good
A once serious horse named Instagrand is back in training and getting close to a return to the races for the first time in seven months, according to the Racing Form. There was a time when this would be big news. Now it’s just another note.
The reason should be a teachable moment for owners and trainers. A year and a half ago, Instagrand was all the rage in Southern California, with his exploits beginning to spread nationwide. He had broken maiden by 10 then came back to destroy the Best Pal Stakes, again by 10.
The Del Mar Derby, American Pharoah and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile appeared at his mercy. His Derby future odds were dropping faster than Bill DeBlasio’s poll numbers.
Alas, his owner, Larry Best, had other ideas. Against the wishes of his then trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, Best ordered the perfectly healthy Instagrand to the sidelines for the rest of the season.
Best had a plan. Instagrand would be pointed toward a couple of early Derby preps. If he did well, he would go to Kentucky. Even if he wore the roses, he probably would not run in the Preakness or Belmont, according to the man who races as OXO Equine.
“I don’t believe in the Triple Crown,” he said, thumbing his nose at the biggest thing racing has going for it.
Best said he wanted Instagrand to have a strong late 3YO season—the Travers was a goal–and perhaps a 4YO campaign. He didn’t get the former and time will tell if he achieves the latter.
Instagrand has raced only three times as a 3YO. After a pair of thirds in the Gotham and a six-horse Santa Anita Derby, he was a non-factor in the Derby picture. Instagrand did race in Louisville on the first Saturday in May. He finished eighth in the Pat Day Mile. He hasn’t been seen since.
Woody Stephens, who won the Met Mile and Belmont Stakes within six days with Conquistador Cielo, used to say you run them when they are good. Unsaid but implied was because you never know when they will go bad. There’s no better example than Instagrand.