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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


An existential threat to racing, more ominous than a distressing spate of horse deaths, reared its head again this week.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, in his annual budget message, asked his state’s lawmakers to redirect more than $200 million of casino proceeds, which currently goes to his state’s horse racing and breeding program, to a new college scholarship fund. If the governor gets his way, purses at the state’s horse tracks would decrease by 90%.

Pennsylvania HBPA executive director Todd Mostoller was succinct in what this would mean. “We would be out of business.”  

So would the thousands of people who work in racing and its satellite businesses–farmers who grow hay and feed; purveyors who provide food and drink at the tracks; the concession workers who serve them; truck drivers, who transport horses; trainers; jockeys; grooms and hot walkers. The list goes on and on.

Fortunately, Mostoller said, “I don’t think it has much chance (to be approved).” He predicted racing has sufficient friends among lawmakers to head it off. Racing can only hope his optimism is well founded.

Even if it is, this is not an idea that is going to go away. No matter how many friends racing has in the legislature, the governor is playing a strong hand likely to be enthusiastically received by the masses.

His argument is casino profits that now go to purses, which he contends primarily rewards the wealthy, could be used to fund college scholarships for 25,000 young Pennsylvanians. Crippling student debt is a hot issue. It is largely responsible for the decline in marriages and births, the backbone of society. Young people crushed by student debt can’t afford to settle down and start a family.

 Universal free college is admirable in concept but not financially viable in reality. However, greatly less inexpensive college because of casino subsidies is a sure winner. There aren’t many politicians who wouldn’t want to go to their electorate on a platform that if we take away money from horse racing purses, which they get from casinos, we can underwrite the higher education of 25,000 of our children.

Wolf’s idea is not a new one. Neighboring West Virginia has been drip-dripping dollars set aside for horse purses gleaned from casino profits almost every time a need in the budget arises. Other states have been doing likewise or considering it almost every year.

If a state as large and influential as Pennsylvania makes the debilitating cuts Gov. Wolf is championing, the idea could spread as fast as Coronavirus.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s disdain for racing is well known. So is the multi-billion dollar pension shortfall the Empire State faces. How hard is it to envision Cuomo going to voters with the question of whether they prefer to continue subsidizing horse purses or ensuring that their pension checks arrive intact every month? I don’t think racing would like to take that to the ballot box.

To be honest, I’m not sure there is an effective argument against the case Gov. Wolf is making.  

As distressing as horse deaths are, the withdrawal of casino doles represents a far greater and probably more imminent threat to the sport as we know it.

Fans cheated again

Racing doesn’t hate its fans. It doesn’t think about them enough to work up that strong an emotion.

The latest example of how race tracks, all of them, have a take-it-or-leave it attitude toward their customers came last Saturday at Gulfstream. The final race of the day—the conclusion of all the big money multiple-race bets—had an original field of 16 lower level claimers (4 also eligible) set to run a mile on the turf.

Heavy overnight rain resulted in all but the two stakes scheduled being moved to the main track. Because the original field for the finale was so large and all 16 horses had to be accounted for in the program printed in advance, Gulfstream condensed the past performances so as to contain it to two facing pages.

Condensed isn’t the right term. Eviscerated is more fitting. Claimers at the $14K-$16K level are difficult to handicap under any circumstances. The track program made it all but impossible. Appealing Briefs had 24 lifetime starts. Doctor D.J. started 15 times. Kingsville had 17. But each had only one PP line in the program. Rather than go through the entire field, suffice it to say the nine who remained in the race had 150 starts among them. Each had only one PP line.

Let me repeat that: nine starters, who made a collective 150 career starts, had a total of nine PP lines in the official program.

This is inexcusable and unacceptable. It can’t be written off as an isolated case. The fifth race for higher level claimers also had an over-subscribed original field, 12 plus 2 AE’s. Maybe because it was a higher quality field, it was afforded a bit more respect. The five horses, who remained after scratches, averaged more than 15 starts apiece. Each got two PPs.

I don’t think this was intentional because the more information bettors have, the more they will play. It was just neglect and indifference to the job assigned. Someone had to proof read the pages and sign off on them. Whoever had this task should be told the next time will be the last time.

Here’s the really galling part. Gulfstream customarily simulcasts races from Latin America after its regular card. Three races from Chile followed Saturday’s 12th at Gulfstream. The PPs for each of them spilled over onto three pages. Each horse, who had run at least that many times, had no fewer than 8 PPs listed.

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35 Responses

  1. I’m inclined to believe that the Pennsylvania HBPA brought the governor’s proposal upon themselves. From a by-stander’s view, providing purses two or three times the value of the plug entered in a race is outright absurd. And, having seven figure purses is also ridiculous. Isn’t the impression conveyed that the tracks are being given to much dole?

    The real question is why does Parx and the other racetracks receive any casino dole; why should they be kept in business from a subsidy that seems to only enrich owners, trainers, and jockeys – a very small distribution of the casino dole.

    The racing at Parx won’t change whether the purse is $10,000 or $28,000. Seems to me that a reduction is casino dole is the right call. If a track can’t operate profitably without financial assistance, they should go out of business.

  2. Wendell,
    Surprisingly, I agree more than disagree with your points.

    As an example, NYRA has inflated purses to insane levels. It throws around money like an NFL player in a Las Vegas strip club.

    Why does the Met Mile have to be $1.25 million? They would get the same field for $500K, maybe even less. Same goes for $700,000 purses for four- or five-horse stakes fields. Other than stakes recognized as championship events, no purse should be more than $250,000. The only thing the bloated purses serve are the breeders, who have no regard for the overall good of the sport.

    What justification is there for maidens to be running for close to $100,000? I could cite more examples but I think I’ve made my point.

    I ask these questions now. Some day soon, legislators will be asking them. I don’t know how tracks will respond. I wouldn’t want to be on the team formulating the responses.

    On the other hand, casino doles are compensation for allowing slots in their buildings to cannibalize horse race betting. Slots probably would have been introduced at some point if there weren’t race tracks, singularly approved for gambling, to host them. But it wouldn’t have been for a long, long time.

  3. It’s funny how people opposed to Socialism embrace the racetracks taking money from the people to exist.

  4. Love your one-liners (NFL player).

    Racetracks got slots ’cause politicians didn’t want to offend their constituency by appearing to approve of gambling. Thus, slots found a home where gambling already existed. I guess we should thank the politicians for keeping Thoroughbred racing alive to date and racetrack executives should be contributing heavily to the politicians who made them rich without having to do a damn thing.

  5. I’m critical of government subsidies for an Industry that can’t support itself.
    If horse racing can’t support itself, it should cease to exist.

  6. TTT

    In order for the industry to stay strong, purses must stay elevated. Agree with you gentlemen only to the extent that exorbitant purses for Stakes races should be reduced and is better spent for the good of the industry at the lower levels. There is a direct correlation between purse money offered and field size and handle, and in the long run, if purses are reduced, as opined above, breeders stop breeding, owners stop owning, trainers stop training. Thou shall not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn.

      1. Won 2010 Preakness for The Coach and Stephens. Slow fractions by Gary on the front end and it was bye, bye, Charlie. 17-1 for the Lukas faithful.

  7. There are no heroes here. Racing does a terrible job with basically everything even when it’s something that can actually help them in terms of public opinion. My understanding is PA keeps between 1.5 and 2.5 percent of every wager- depending on which pool. Of each wager. Not profit. They always defend subsidies in terms of jobs but they never ever bring up what they are contributing to the state coffers- well really is us contributing it. The states basically do nothing and collect this money from us. Yet all you hear about is how they are the ones subsidizing racing when really it’s the other way around. The subsidies is just a money shift from slot player to owners/ many who live out of state. Has anyone asked for details on how this college education scheme would really work in practice? Do people really believe this would be handled legitimately by same state that has usurious horse racing and sports betting takeout and cost to play? Again no heroes here. I beat up o racing as much as anyone but this one is more complicated than politicians want to let on.

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