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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Expectations are growing that racing in traditional spring and summer venues might be able to resume in the next month or two.

The Stronach Group has been pleading with California regulators for permission to reopen Santa Anita and Golden Gate, using the experiences in Florida and Arkansas to argue that racing can be successfully staged without adverse health consequences.

NYRA has targeted May 22 for the reopening of Belmont. Churchill Downs is pushing hard to be allowed to get back into action as soon as mid-May. New Jersey still has a July 2 opening of Monmouth planned.

It can’t be stressed strongly enough that these are merely the hopes of race track operators. NY governor Andrew Cuomo, no friend of racing, is still keeping  a tight rein on his state and doesn’t appear on the verge of a widescale reopening.

New Jersey’s coronavirus situation might be more dire than New York. In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear has the same relationship with Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, who is advocating strongly for the resumption of racing, that Donald Trump has with Nancy Pelosi.

If Thayer is for something, Beshear is against it, and vice versa.

If and when racing returns to any of these states, there is a potential poison pill. No spectators. This is OK in the short term but I haven’t heard much talk about the short term. When it comes to racing, out of sight, out of mind is more apropos than absence makes the heart grow fonder.

No other sport is bleeding customers more or faster than racing. This was true long before the pandemic. The putdown that some sports lose fans to other interests but racing loses fans to death might be macabre but it’s unfortunately true. 

You can’t develop new fans when they aren’t allowed to experience the exhilaration of racing. You don’t get this on TV. The prediction that being the only game in town would help racing make new fans was wishful thinking.

Sports talk radio is starving for things to talk about but racing never comes up. Video games generate more conversation. A lot more.  

This said, TVG can never be sufficiently thanked for what it has done during the past month or so. I still feel the optics of racing during the pandemic are terrible but mine is a minority opinion.

Without TVG maintaining racing’s presence and allowing its limited fan base to stay active, the game would be dead, perhaps beyond resurrection. This is not a debatable point. 

It’s not just the loss of fans that racing need be concerned about. Not even owners are allowed into tracks. This is potentially lethal.

How long do you think non-millionaires–the majority of owners–are going to keep shelling out $100 per diems when they can’t even visit their horse in the barn, can’t bring their fans to see their horses in action and ideally invite them to join a winner’s circle picture.

They won’t hang in indefinitely. As owners drop away, the entire infrastructure, from breeding sheds to auctions to the track, will begin to crumble.

Racing as a television show might serve the interests of ADW sites but it will be a slow death for the sport.

Oaklawn missing an opportunity

Circumstances have done for Oaklawn Park what lavish purses didn’t. Coronavirus lockdowns have elevated the Hot Springs track to the status of capital of racing in America.

The only other significant tracks still in operation are Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs and both have run all their traditional stakes. Oaklawn stretched its key events–the Apple Blossom, Count Fleet, Fantasy–Carousel-into April with the biggest day, next Saturday’s Arkansas Derby and Oaklawn Handicap, still to come on what is normally Kentucky Derby Day.

Alas, it appears Oaklawn’s life at the top is going to be short-lived. May 2 is scheduled to be the final live racing day of 2020.

The question is, does it have to be? Tampa Bay Downs final scheduled race day is May 3 but management successfully petitioned the state of Florida to extend its meeting.

Florida, the  only state other than Arkansas to allow uninterrupted racing during the pandemic, traditionally has been racing friendly. Even previously little known Fonner Park in Nebraska is trying to extend its season to take advantage of the current situation. 

Oaklawn officials should be making the same plea to their state. As the classic Meatloaf song goes, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” (Gulfstream and Tampa Bay), but there shouldn’t be any reason racing fans shouldn’t have three out of three to choose from until other venues get the go-ahead from their states. 

Oaklawn management is saying the purse cupboard is bare. It’s hard to believe this is an insurmountable obstacle.

The enormous handle Oaklawn can expect on May 2 should help replenish purse account somewhat, although the bonanza from admissions and concessions won’t be there with no spectators allowed, even if ADW payments to tracks are mere pennies on the dollar.
Beyond that, Oaklawn should do what most Americans do–live for today and pay for it tomorrow. An opportunity like the one it is being presented might not never come again. Let’s pray it doesn’t.

The bulk of the enormous purses Oaklawn paid this season, an estimated $35 million, up from $28.7 million in 2019, were a product of the wildly popular Instant Racing machines, which in normal years are in operation around the calendar. They, too, have been shut down by the pandemic, so this source of additional purse funds is temporarily unavailable.

But the machines eventually will be back on line, so Oaklawn should borrow against anticipated revenue to fund another month or so of racing. If the payback means optional claiming races won’t open next season with $94,000 purses, so be it. 

The horsemen will still be there. So might new players, who have discovered Oaklawn when there aren’t many other options.

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8 Responses

  1. The saudis, who own many of the big farms in Kentucky, are claiming that the corona virus is actually a form of germ warfare created by the communists.

    The virus is however, greatly costing the thoroughbred industry, to the tune of at least 10 to 20% of its revenues for the year, perhaps more. What effect will this have on the profitability of the tracks?

    But it gets worse. The Catholic Churches are also closed. Experts in 2109 predicted that the Church would be bankrupt by 2023- BEFORE THE CORONA VIRUS. With this corona virus, I would play the under at the local sports book that the Catholic Church and its franchises will be closed, per the protocols, completely within the next year or two.

    1. Is this supposed to be a breath of fresh air? Certainly is a low in the off topic Olympics. Think you meant capital S Saudis, and probably 2019 for your Catholic Church doom purveyor prediction.

      Hey, sunshine, the way things are going now, our lives may be virtual by 2023. Church donations are continuing and probably will unless, of course, Mr Lysol shutters all the post offices.

  2. It seems to me that without Instant Racing, or associated ADW profits like Gulfstream’s ownership enjoys, Oaklawn would need a greater share of ADW revenue to pull this off, even at lower purse levels.

    I read a 2013 article that said Oaklawn doesn’t allow CRW players in their pools. I don’t know if that’s still true, but the same article said that Tampa Bay does allow them, but charges a premium for that access.

  3. TTT

    First, my opinion, Tampa Bay sucks. Second, good riddance to the largest pedophile cult in the world, the Catholic Church. Third, survival of the fittest has never been more apparent with respect to the racetracks that remain open, having not succumb to the communist takeover.

    1. T,
      I see the offense has taken the field in the Off-topic Olympics. LOL

      Like some animal rights activists (ARA) who see all horse trainers as abusers, there
      are apparently some who would deny the existence of priests with pure
      hearts who have aided and protected many who needed their help for centuries.

      There is no defense for pedophiles, or those who allowed them to continue to prey
      upon the innocent. But there is no excuse for impugning the motives of those who
      practice(d) their faith with the intention of service to others and not just themselves.

      If, as you suggest, the ARA and Public Health Agencies are “Leftists,” where
      do you position Catholic Church bashers?

  4. Once again, I work, think and re-think all week to come up with topical racing issues and the discussion goes off the tracks. It is really frustrating.

    I’ll concede there are far more pressing concerns than whether the Arkansas Derby will be split but as I have said many times, there are places other than a racing site for those debates.

    I’m in accord with you more often than some of the other commentators but I suggest you give another read to Indulto’s second-to-last paragraph. I lived across the street from a rectory and got to know many priests growing up. One, especially, who I believe died of AIDS, was especially great with me and my friends. He took us many places and never did anything untoward to any of us. I wrote a column about it for the Sun Sentinel way back when.

    That said, the church’s rule on celibacy, which was instituted in the Middle Ages for financial reasons, created the world’s biggest closet. I had several classmates, who we suspected to be gay and later turned out to be, who went into the seminary. Instead of being scorned in an era when there was no gay rights movement or acceptance, they were revered.

    I have known fairly well scores of priests and while I didn’t track what they did in their personal lives, they were dedicated to helping others. A gay priest is no more likely to abuse boys than a straight priest is to abuse girls. You would never brand all members of any group as evil because of the acts of a few. You shouldn’t do it here, either.

    The Church has survived barbarians, tyrants and disgraceful intramural scoundrels. It will get through this, too.

  5. Mr. Jicha: Your writing ‘the church’s rule on celibacy …………..created the world’s biggest closet’; this comment by you s/be delivered, carved in stone, to the Pope. Fortunately, or is it unfortunately, man/woman have biological desires that can become overwhelming, surpassing their understanding of what’s right and wrong.

  6. wmc,
    I guess if we’re discussing perverse passions, we’re on the right website even if not the right blog.

    I have to say I understand TJ’s frustration completely. It seemed like eons before the first comment in almost every piece I wrote WASN’T one of yours excoriating the fact that I was allowed to contribute anonymously. Indeed you seemed to be on a Crusade against anyone posting with a pseudonym in those days.

    You’ll be happy to know that I now consider that period the “good old days.” LOL

    Be safe, you old nemesis, you.

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