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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Finding the Right Formula

by Richard E. Glover, Jr., National HBPA Director of Communications

Equibase released its monthly "Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators" for June over the holiday weekend, and it was the same old familiar refrain. Wagering is down compared to the same month last year. So are purses. And race dates. And the year-to-date for the first half of the year shows a 7.99% decline in wagering compared to the first half of last year.

I can hardly remember a month in the last couple of years where declines did not happen in one or all of the categories tracked. Though the size of the declines does seem to be decreasing somewhat, there's no way to avoid the fact that we are still seeing declines compared to last year - a year full of dismal declines.

Many racing jurisdictions have been watching the current Monmouth Park meet as they try to plan a strategy to face the realities of racing in their own states. New Jersey's experiment with a short meet and very high purses may serve as a model other states emulate as hard decisions have to be made about purse levels and number of racing opportunities that will allow racetracks to stay financially solvent.

It's nothing new for racetracks to poor-mouth and say they are losing money and need to cut back on live racing days or purses. Sometimes they are telling the truth, and many times the honesty is more than a little questionable - especially now that many are owned by companies that have gaming as their primary focus and would like to minimize or eliminate the racing side of their operations. Sadly, though, more and more often racetracks saying they can't afford to continue live racing at its current levels are telling the truth.

In my home state, Texas, as in many other racing jurisdictions, a lively debate is going on as the state racing industry tries to plan a racing calendar for 2011. The racetracks, predictably, want to cut dramatically back on racing dates and have fewer and shorter race meets that have considerably increased purses that are at least competitive with surrounding states (all which have purses fueled by alternative forms of gaming - something Texas still does not have). Some horsemen agree. Some aren't sure what the best thing is, and some are quite vocally opposed to cutting racing opportunities and would rather run more days for lower purses. And, of course, rumors and innuendos are flying (is there a racetrack anywhere that this doesn't happen?).

So far, at least from the outside based on pure numbers, New Jersey's gamble at Monmouth appears to be paying off. Large quality fields are yielding the desired result for which the shortened meet with high purses was designed - a large increase in wagering on Monmouth's races.

While this is great news for Monmouth Park, it may not necessarily be great news for the horsemen that have filled the fields of Monmouth's racing for the last several years. Sure, the ones who had good enough stock to stay and compete with all the deep-pocketed new outfits that came to chase the high purses are getting a chance to run for big money. But how many of those can be competitive with the Pletchers and Asmussens and other giant stables on a daily basis?

It is hard, if not impossible, to say how much of Monmouth's purse money is going to stables that have not historically raced at the track and are there just because of the inflated purses. And it is equally hard to quantify exactly how this is impacting the horsemen and women who have traditionally raced at Monmouth over recent years.

So Monmouth's apparent success looks great on paper, but it may not be nearly so great for New Jersey horsemen. On the other hand, those same New Jersey horsemen might have nowhere to run in their state in another year or two if a radical change like this had not been tried.

Finding the right formula of number of race dates and purse levels has always been something akin to walking a tightrope for horsemen and racetracks, and that has never been more true than it is today. Every racetrack, market, and state breeding climate is different, and what arguably may be working in New Jersey will not work everywhere.

If your state is grappling with this issue - and it almost surely is, especially if other forms of alternative gaming are not legal and a source of purse money in your state - try to open your ears and your mind to hear every side of the debate. Try to look past all the emotion and bravado and really listen logically. Being too emotional tends to make people discount the validity of your opinion, and remaining calm and logical and gathering the facts are the best way to be part of a productive solution to finding that elusive right formula that is best for the racing industry in your area.

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