Saturday, April 23, 2011

What is REALLY wrong with horse racing.

Economic Indicators: Purses Up, Wagering Down

This was the headline in recently in the Bloodhorse. Naturally the chicken littles were out in force declaring racing "dead" and calling for all kind of changes and reforms to "save" the game. Racinos are bad, a commissioner is needed, too many drugs, too many races, etc. Interestingly hardly anyone ever addressed the real issue that plagues horse racing which is readily apparent if one has a decent overall grasp of the game. 

The product that we are producing stinks.

The day to day racing that is offered for people to gamble on just isn't very compelling. I am not talking about Thistledowns or Will Rogers Downs either. The cards at Aqueduct and Hawthorne were disgraceful on Friday and not much better most other days.  Santa Anita's races have been less than ideal. The weekday product at Gulfstream is pretty weak.

Why is this happening now? Why has this finally tipped the scales against people betting on our races? These are questions with a multitude of answers. The economy has surely played a role in the decline of handle but that is certainly beyond our control. If this singular issue were completely to blame we could simply "batten down the hatches" and ride it out. However there is a ton of evidence that the economic malaise simply exposed the cracks in our hull and we are now taking water at a frightening pace. Drugs are blamed by some but that issue has been batted around long before the current downturn. To think that suddenly a large number players grew a conscience and quit betting on horses seems unlikely. Of course the entire drug issue is skewed when the "Lasix is evil" agenda crew unveils their secret bomb that they have been working on behind the scenes for years. Lasix is an established handicapping factor and has been part of the game for 25 plus years. I really dont think that serious money is staying way from the game because horses use Lasix. In fact that is probably the smoothest part of a level playing field since virtually every horse runs on it. The argument that horses who dont bleed get it too rings hollow to me as I take an aspirin each day and I have never had a heart attack. For years the naysayers said we need scientific evidence. Low and behold when the South African study proved what we had been saying for years, that Lasix works, they ignored it. Anyway the drug issue in this sport really has nothing to do with Lasix or Bute despite what Joe Drape and Bill Finley tell you. The real problem is when guys are winning at unreal percentages and doing unbelievable things with horses and yet they never get any significant positives. Of course the esteemed racing press has no idea why this is happening hence the crusade against the things like Lasix.

Then there are the serial offenders. The guys who are always in trouble, who are always getting bad tests and seemingly always picking up new owners and horses. You know the names, I don't have to say them. Why racing hasn't instituted a system whereby a violation of any sort "earns" you points like a driving violation, I don't know. Lesser incidences earn you fewer points. More serious infractions earn you lots of points. As soon as you get to set level you are suspended for a period of time. Maybe 30 or 45 days. You don't lose your ability to come and train your horses as transferring horses for a short period of time harms the help and horses more than the trainer who just takes a vacation. You just don't get to run. Next level? Take 3 months off. Owners don't like this? Too bad, you know when you hire a guy how many points he has. Tracks don't like this? Too bad, you knew how many points the trainer had when he applied for stalls. Trainers don't like it? Tighten up your ship and stop taking shots. As with everything in life, there is a risk associated with every reward.

As Andy Beyer pointed out in a recent piece, field size is vital in turning the tide of handle decline. He pointed to several factors as to why field size has dropped and how the tracks with large fields have done well. I agree but there are other factors as to why field size has become an issue.
One is obvious but rarely mentioned outside of a racing secretary's office. That is that a trainers winning percentage is often the only tool that an owner will reference when they hire a new trainer. Trainers understand this and the smart ones manipulate the system to their advantage by waiting for a "perfect" spot to come up and then scratch if that spot looks a bit salty. Or they will run the horse below what it is worth in order to keep his percentage high even if that is to the detriment of the owner who may lose a good horse to  claim or win  minor race instead of trying top competition. This is actually good business strategy for the trainer but a real drain on the sport as those are the trainer who wind up with all the talented horses.

When I was growing up in Saratoga following racing as a kid I didn't need a number to tell me who the best trainers were. We like to blame lots of things on the demise of the modern thoroughbred. Drugs, breeding practices, leg surgery to straighten crooked foals, bad horseman, 2 year old sales, etc. All of these things may have played a small part but I believe as much as anything that trainers pointing horses to peak race after peak race with plenty of time in between never allows the horses to develop properly. A lot of this is attributed to the "sheets" philosophy but a trainer who needs his win percentage to stay high doesn't want to mess with too many "prep" races or potential losses.

The sad thing for me is that so many people really dont want to try to understand the deeper issues that the game faces. The takeout IS too high especially at racinos where the ability to lower the take and not too harshly effect the short term bottom line is available. The ability of trainers to cheat without recourse must stop. The drug issue is completely misguided and political. The fact that virtually all the most promising young horses are in the barns of a handful of trainers kills the competition at the top end of the sport and this is seen at places like NYRA where allowance races past entry level are sparse. The presentation of our product on TV is sub-par for the most part. The Federal withholding tax is still an example of the gov't basically stealing money from our pockets.

I have only touched the tip of the iceberg here. Maybe a better writer could convey my thoughts a little more concisely. Perhaps I will go into more detail in the future but honestly it seems very few people care enough for me to bother.