The case for small tracks: A Top Ten

Small tracks are not the reason for horse racing's current situation. Shutting them down would only further damage the sport.

To help combat sagging business in the horse racing industry, a growing population of industry members have begun calling for a contraction of racetracks in North America.

In his keynote speech at the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program Symposium, Churchill Downs CEO Robert Evans presented a plan that would potentially halve the number of racetracks in North America. Evans said this plan would create “a business that is economically viable” that focuses on a “quality product” . That sentiment was echoed by superstar freelancer Claire Novak in a recent debate about whether fans or bettors drive the racing industry.

Allow me to respectfully disagree.

I make no bones about being a small track guy. My home course is a four furlong mixed breed oval in what one pessimistic message board poster called “no man’s land”. My state’s Thoroughbred industry has been in decline for decades, expedited by the addition of expanded gaming in other nearby states. If contraction were to happen tomorrow, there is little doubt Pinnacle Race Course and Mount Pleasant Meadows would be among the first to go.

But does it really have to come to that? Putting my bias aside, there are plenty of reasons why slashing the number of racing venues, especially those on the sport’s lowest levels, would only further damage the sport we love.

To help prove my point in an easy-to-digest manner, I have created a ten-point list, a “Top Ten” if you will, of reasons why contraction would eventually cripple horse racing in North America and why our small venues are worth standing up for against the will of the powers that be.

Please note, this is not a call for subsidization of failing tracks. If a track shows it is not viable and the ownership has no interest in keeping it afloat, then so be it. However, if the will to live among ownership and horsemen remains strong, then no one has the right to strong-arm them into shutting down.

From the top…

10. The Almighty Dollar
Governments typically don’t like to openly admit that they like horse racing. In fact, most are content to watch it rot on the vine as long as they don’t have to spend any money. However, it is no secret that they sure enjoy the tax revenue that racetracks bring in through wagering and other avenues. Threaten that cash flow with a “sweeping industry contraction initiative” and see how those governments, especially on the local level, respond to their track being on the chopping block. Nothing mobilizes an elected official like telling him he can’t make money.

But let’s keep it on the racetrack for now. Many small tracks run their meet for the sole purpose of keeping simulcast wagering in their plant. Not every state has off-track betting parlors or advanced deposit wagering as a source to bet on racing, and if their local bullring closes down, so does their chance to bet on the races. Mr. Evans has made himself the face of the contraction movement with his keynote speech. However, nothing will suffer more from people being unable to place bets than his all-sources Kentucky Derby handle. The Derby is the one day that casual fans brave the smoky simulcast rooms to bet on the horse they read about in the paper. These people probably aren’t going to sign up for TwinSpires or drive another hour and a half or more to go to the next nearest simulcast outlet. That money will vanish into the ether and likely never return.

The remainder of the countdown can be found behind the jump.

9. Consolidation is Useless Without Exposure
Growing up, basketball was my favorite sport. There was nothing I liked more than following my favorite team, the Utah Jazz, by reading about them in my local newspaper’s national sports section, playing as the team in NBA JAM and watching their games on television. At the time, there were 27 teams in the National Basketball Association, and the Jazz were one of the league’s smallest market teams. If not for those national headlines, video games and televised games, the names “John Stockton” and “Jeff Hornacek” would mean very little to me.

National headlines. Video games. Nationally televised events. Racing only gets the first when a horse breaks a leg in the third, and the second is all but nonexistent. The big four sports can get away with a limited number of franchises because it has the national exposure to make a kid in Edmore, Mich. care about a basketball team in Salt Lake City, Utah. Outside of the Kentucky Derby and a particularly hyped Breeders’ Cup, racing has none of this. Until that changes, making Gulfstream Park the only game in town won’t make the kid in South Dakota care more about Gulfstream Park. It will make the kid at Thistledown care less about Gulfstream Park.

8. Regional Appeal
Over the summer, I took a trip out west and found myself at Yellowstone Downs in Billings, Mont.. Upon browsing the track’s entries, I expected a quiet day at a tiny bullring. What I found was a vibrant scene with an enthusiasm for the sport I had rarely seen outside of Kentucky. On paper, Montana’s low-rent circuit would be an easy one to sweep into the dustbin of future parking lots, but doing so would destroy what appears to be a significant part of the area’s culture. Just because a track does not feature graded stakes competitors does not mean it isn’t important to the community.

7. Consolidating Racing Will Not Create “New Fans”
Any discussion about the direction of horse racing in North America will ultimately include “New Fans” and how to attract them. “New Fans” are to horse racing industry types what “Jobs” are to a campaigning politician. Everyone knows they are dwindling, and talking about how to get them back will undoubtedly win support from the constituents.

With that in mind, one does not create new jobs by making them harder to find, just as one does not attract new fans by making racing harder to find. One creates interest and demand by exposing new customers to his or her product. Watching the Kentucky Derby on television is nice, but nobody becomes a lifer from it. Racing fans become racing fans from their experiences at live races, be it at Churchill Downs or the Podunk County Fair. They sit in the stands and learn the nuances of the game from friends and family. That experience is amplified to the heavens if said friends or family actually have a horse in the race. Cutting back the places to have that experience will only make that experience more and more rare, thus making new fans harder to come by.

When it comes to people unfamiliar with the sport, it matters not the class of the animal, but that it captures their imagination. A pair of spires and a big grandstand can only go so far in achieving this goal.

6. Keeping People in the Business
While we are on the subject of “Jobs”, every track that closes puts that many more people on unemployment and makes the remaining jobs that much more competitive. Making a quick sweep through the “Employment” pages of racetracks big and small across the country, it is already slim pickings for someone who wants to work at a racetrack doing something other than dealing blackjack. Subsequently, it will get harder for young people, and people new to the industry, to break into horse racing. Want to get an upstairs job at your local oval? Don’t hold your breath. Want to get into ownership? Good luck finding the right spot for your horse without getting caught in Alternate Entry Hell.

On the other side of the coin, each closed track closes up a few stables with it, along with the connections’ dreams and perhaps their love for the sport that kicked them to the curb. Word of mouth is a powerful thing, and if a run-down horseman sits in his local diner telling anyone who will listen about how horse racing chewed him up and spit him out, instead of showing off the win picture his plug earned in a cheap claimer, that is not going to reflect well on the sport.

5. Times Change
America’s racing landscape is constantly changing. The mighty have fallen and tracks once considered the dregs of the racing world have clawed their way to respectability. There was a time when Detroit Race Course hosted one of the better meets in the country. Now it is a parking lot. Not too long ago, Charles Town Races was the last stop for cheap claimers. This year their marquee race, the $1 million Charles Town Classic will be contested as a graded event, the first in the track’s 78-year history. Fifteen years ago, Charles Town would have been one of the first tracks in any contraction discussion. Today, it has a strong case for survival.

Like them or not, the advent of racinos and similar expanded gaming products have given tracks in less distinguished jurisdictions the opportunity to put up competitive purses and draw people and horses from more established territories. Putting all of one’s eggs in a smaller basket runs the risk of tossing one out that could hatch a golden goose while the keepers spoil.

4. Horse Slaughter
One of the hot-button topics consistently surrounding horse racing is the issue of horse slaughter. Opponents are more than giddy to point an accusing finger at smaller tracks as a last destination for horses before they end up as a meat product. Regardless of where one stands on the issue, it does happen. However, one must also consider the population of horses in the barns right now. Smaller tracks at least allow less talented horses a chance to stay off that truck for a little while longer, and perhaps earn themselves a spot in the breeding program of a smaller-market farm. To close down America’s small tracks would be to sign the death certificates of thousands of horses

Let’s say Small Track Downs runs three times per week, with eight races per day of seven-horse fields. That comes out to 168 horses per week. Since we are at or near the bottom of racing’s food chain, let us assume that 60% of those horses (101.8), an optimistic figure, are not good enough to be competitive at other tracks. Sales, breeding, horse rescue and other means can take care of a small percentage of those have-nots, but that still leaves several trailers full of horses en route to Canada and Mexico because racing needs to get smaller. And this example only pertains to one week at one track with conservative estimates. The number of horses around the country that would have nowhere else to go but the feed lot is considerable, even if it was a slow phasing out process.

The issue of over-breeding in the Thoroughbred industry would likely amend itself in time, but there is an awful lot of blood to spill before we get there.

4A. Will It Really Improve The On-Track Product?
This is a small addendum to number four. As we established in the fourth point, horses are often at small tracks because they cannot compete at bigger venues. Even then, the remaining horses would likely be scraping the bottom rungs of the bigger track’s totem pole.

Let’s say the powers that be shut down Los Alamitos because the platoon of Thoroughbreds that run there could be pumping up the five and six-horse fields at Santa Anita. How many of those horses would be legitimate threats to win races in their new surroundings? How many would even be threats to hit the board? Throwing an additional soup can into each race to fill out the also-rans does not make the sport better. Eventually, the bettors will get wise to this and avoid those horses all together, negating any potential spike in handle from bigger fields. Adding to field sizes only makes betting more enticing if those horses have a chance to win.

3. Saturation is a Myth
One of the rallying cries of the pro-contraction argument is that there is too much racing. If anything, there may not be enough racing. Consider football, for example. At its highest level, the National Football League, there are 32 teams in most of America’s biggest cities. Those teams each play 16 games once a week, plus preseason and playoffs. The NFL is praised for keeping a rein on overexpansion. However, there is a bevy of other options for football fans to watch their favorite sport – five divisions of college, high school football in every town, the Arena League, the United Football League and all sorts of other semipro and rec league teams – and nobody complains that there is too much football.

No sport worth its salt exists with solely a major league. Not everyone can play in the NFL as much as every horse cannot race in graded stakes. For those who can not crack the top tier, there are other places for them to make a living or develop their skills. Meanwhile, fans get a chance to learn and enjoy their favorite sport close to home.

While a $5,000 claimer at River Downs might never find itself in graded stakes competition, the same way the third string quarterback at your local college probably won’t make the big show, that does not mean his coaches are not capable of greater things. One would be hard-pressed to make a respectable list of big-name horsemen who started at the top and went from there. The minor circuits give horsemen the chance to build their barns, bankrolls and reputations on their own merit if the limited number of assistant jobs with the big operations does not shine on them.

WinStar Farm, the 2010 Eclipse Award winner for best owner, whose colors have found the winner’s circle in the biggest races in the world from the Derby to Dubai, was co-founded by Bill Casner. Casner did not one day come in off the street into Millionaire’s Row at Churchill Downs and start racing horses. He started as a member of the gate crew at Ak-Sar-Ben in Nebraska and worked his way up the ladder. The same can be said for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s beginnings on the Quarter Horse circuit and countless jockeys who rode out their bugs at smaller tracks.

Football would suck if the NFL was the sport’s only outlet. Horse racing would probably suck in the same scenario, as well.

2. Death Panels
If a broad-reaching retraction were implicated, that means someone would have to decide who gets the axe. Perhaps the term “Death Panel” is a little harsh, but it is doubtful that every have-not racetrack is going to go quietly into that good night. Do the Churchill Downs Incs. and NYRAs of the world bully their smaller counterparts into submission? Would there be buyouts? Would the powers that be blacklist the undesirable tracks and anyone foolish enough to compete there?

Unless someone is ready to write some serious checks, the notion that the industry’s elite want to see small tracks close up shop is at best un-competitive and at worst probably illegal, especially when dealing with tracks in different cities or states. Imagine how ridiculous it would be for McDonalds to send a stern letter and a hired goon to the front door of every diner that opened for business. The movement toward contraction looks like a molotov cocktail through the front window.

1. Me
Simply put, if not for the small racetracks, this site does not exist. I would probably be interviewing an apathetic high school running back right now for a local paper and hating every minute of my existence. Small tracks allow people interested in the racing industry hands-on access to a broad range of subjects that may not be available to the average person on the apron at a bigger venue.

I am grateful to so many in Michigan’s racing industry who have let me into their world despite my lack of having any actual business being anywhere behind the curtain. I do not own, breed, train or otherwise work with racehorses of any kind and I just barely qualify as media. Really, I’m just a guy with a hat, a camera, a stupid little blog and a lot of interest.

In spite of all that, I have been allowed to contribute to Michigan’s horsemen’s groups at sales, in meetings, at the capitol, on the farms and elsewhere. Would I have just as easily been welcomed into the world of Kentucky’s elite breeders? I have my reservations. I was asked to work with Mount Pleasant Meadows in building up and maintaining its Facebook page. In bigger jurisdictions, that honor has to be asked for with a resume and a job application (one of which I did not get a callback). This deal was done with a handshake over the bar. Only at a small track or a small jurisdiction like Michigan could a guy with a hat, camera and stupid little blog get a chance like that, and it’s chances like that that made me the journalist, and the person, I am today.

Had I grown up in a post-contraction racing industry, Mount Pleasant Meadows and whatever track the Thoroughbred folks have called home over the past 20 years probably wouldn’t have been there, and my life would have been worse off for it.

People who call for contraction often have somewhere else to go. Kentucky has five tracks. Chicago has a pair of them. New York has plenty. Los Angeles has more within driving distance than most states have put together. If a weak link goes down, it just means a little longer drive to go to the other. As a Michigan resident, I do not have that luxury. Contraction would not be an inconvenience, it would be a game-ender; just as it would for most in the state’s industry. For anyone with a shred of compassion, it’s not quite the clean sweep one would imagine.

Proponents of contraction claim it is what’s best for the sport of horse racing, but cutting out the sport’s lower levels will only cause it to rot from the inside like a sick tree and collapse in on itself. No one who truly cares about how the sport grows itself could sign off on something like that. Hopefully, the powers that be realize this before they start making some serious mistakes.

In an interview with the Daily Racing Form, the Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Executive Vice President Chris Scherf said “No one wants to be the one to fall on their sword for the collective good of the industry.”

On behalf of small tracks everywhere, I say, “You first.”


Filed under Commentary

40 responses to “The case for small tracks: A Top Ten

  1. To me it’s not so much a contraction of TRACKS but of race dates.

    Major markets can support horse racing, but most can’t support it six months a year, let alone year-round.

    Ohio and Michigan are struggling against neighboring jurisdictions with either expanded gaming (IN, PA, NY, Ontario) or a legacy (KY). Neither offers off-track betting on any sort of scale, and MI doesn’t even have ADW.

    In terms of the fans-bettors debate you mentioned, a variety of tracks spread across the country geographically is absolutely necessary to breed more fans, but the number of tracks will never be a problem as long as those tracks are profitable.

    I actually love the MPM model: Year-round simulcasting to pay for a limited meet.

    Year-round racing is fine. I like that there’s always an opportunity to bet on Thoroughbred racing, but year-round racing in Ohio, Illinois, West Virginia, SoCal, NoCal, Louisiana, and Florida is overkill.

    Contract racetracks? No. Contract race dates? Absolutely.

    • Kenneth Rosendo Albarez

      I am an trainer and have trained at the smaller tracks were the racing secretary could not write a race to save her life you guys are talking about this from the wrong perspective many horseman would love to see the smaller tracks close down I live in the northwest it is not horse country like California or Florida or Kentucky it is important to remember its all about the type of races being written and here in Seattle we have two track within a 6 hour drive Portland meadows and emerald downs both of which in my onion should be closed down anyway because they aren’t getting the handle need number one and number 2 I don’t believe that any race track should have any dealings with casinos what has killed this industry is simulate cast during the 8os it never came in a horseman’s to think about that we thought more about were our horse would run the best yes its a business but not a corporate one when the states and legislation start messing with the sport like they have here it kills it I have talked to many California trainer who wont come here because of the purse money so I be lieve in contractions as the ceo of Churchill downs was speaking on I don’t think small track will make it in this economy anyway ecspecally in a state were football is the dominate sport like washington

    • Buddy Hogan

      Only large tracks I like are Keeneland, Saratoga and Del Mar. I would love to go back to Miles Park and Bulldoze Churchill Downs.

  2. Joltman

    Ten really good points on an important issue. The small tracks give people a real close up look at the horses themselves. How many of the great stories of racing were based on the little ‘outsider’ horse that made it to the big show? Who doesn’t root for that horse that you saw at Small Track Downs that actually made it to the G1 at a major city? (Smarty Jones in Pa?) Some small tracks are in places that will never grow because they are simply seasonal – yet still give new fans an up close look, where they can see, smell, hear, feel, the excitement. That’s where it gets ‘in your blood’, not watching it on a simulcast outlet where 3 ‘big tracks’ are running against each other.

    It’s kinda like the US deficit. If we leave these kinds of decisions to the dodos who have been running the place into the ground for all these years, is it little wonder that we keep seeing and hearing more of the same from them and seeing the decline escalate all the faster?

    Why not try to encourage the small tracks as a kind of farm club for developing talent (and fans)?


  3. PTP

    Little tracks have to find that niche and when they can, they can thrive. or at least hold their own, in my opinion. But they have to be ahead of the curve and do something of a purple cow nature.

    Mountaineer is probably a good case in point. It could easily be any small track out there with $200k-$500k handles, but they are not. It sure is not the on-track amenities (no offense to MNR, but when I go there I have to step over beams of stray wood). They did something different.

    Back in the 1990’s they bought into the “on track patrons are tops” and exporting at a low fee to rebaters was evil. Yearly handle was $19 million. They then decided to export hard, find a spot on the menu, and offer themselves at a lower fee. They were also one of the very first betfair tracks.

    In 2000 they did handle of $200 million. In 2001, it was $300 million. Money for purses from betting went up from $3M to over $8M during that time.

    Now MNR is what it is, but their handle is still way higher than a lot of tracks at that purse level.

    What can a track do that is small in 2011, like MNR did in 1999? I don’t know, I aint that smart. But I think it can be done.


  4. Love it. Small tracks absolutely do not equate to ‘disposable’ tracks. I did a piece on some interesting attendance figures on Father’s Day around the country. Of the tracks that reported attendance, Monmouth was far and away the largest crowd at over 54,000, but in second place was Canterbury Park in Shakopee, MN. My home track’s 12,000+ was more than Belmont and more than Hollywood and Sam Houston COMBINED. I know the handle here is nothing sepctacular, but it is part of the fabric of the summer in Minnesota. We don’t try and overrun our capability, just a great, fun summer meet.

    To your training ground point, Carl Nafzger learned the ropes here. As did jockeys Sandy Hawley, Mike Smith and Scott Stevens. Remember Nafzger’s memorable Kentucky Derby win with France Genter’s Unbridled? Where did Mrs. Genter race for a number of years? Canterbury.

    I agree with Ed above. Fewer dates, not fewer race tracks.

  5. This is a great summarization of racing’s current sorry situation. Churchill’s Evans and his ilk have no interest in, or sympathy for, the small tracks which have always served to create dedicated horse racing fans. The Bulldozer of big, contracted commerce is aimed at rolling over smaller venues that embody so much that is hopeful and joyous about horse racing. Thanks for this great assessment.

  6. You make too much sense to be heard! There is NO immagination in today’s horse business!

  7. Observer

    This is a very good, well thought out and well written article about the current state of racing. I think contraction will occur naturally. Besides the large drop in handle that has taken place at an alarming rate over the last two or three years the other ingredient to racing at smaller tracks going the way of the dinosaur is the loss of or lack of owners and breeders. To own a race horse is frightfully expensive. I don’t know what the Michigan training day rate is but I would suspect that with the Michigan purses it is downright impossible to break even owning a runner. And if you are a breeder you face all kinds of obstacles and expenses to get a horse to a sale or to the races. It’s a long time from conception to starting gate and there can and will be a lot of heartache along the way. Can enough folks breed a horse to compete at the smaller tracks? You would be surprised at how many Kentucky breeders are now sending their mares to Indiana, West Virginia and Pennsylvania to take a shot at the lucrative breeders incentives. If something does not change soon, here in Kentucky, we will be left with boutique meets at Keeneland and Churchill. Good luck to all of us and keep up the good work.

  8. Before contraction should happen, seeking optimal takeout rates should be done. If that proves certain tracks to be non viable, so be it. But to give up and put out less product before changing the pricing to the customers is a ridiculous way to do business.
    Good post. Your points are relevant.
    My main points is that this will hurt breeding immensely because owners have less outs, especially if there is a lot less B and C racing.
    And contraction makes the game less important in the eyes of governments (because there is a point where a government will say we can’t worry about a few hundred jobs, where they will worry about thousands of jobs). This can lead to less subsidies, including alternative gambling revenue sharing where applicable.

  9. Rolly

    Nice list…good points…but I agree with Ed, it’s not about closing tracks that have fallen on hard times. It’s about giving those tracks the chance to thrive be removing the restrictions on how long and when they race.
    Two forces are producing a tipping point. The economy reduced how much money was out there for everybody…governments, tracks, owners, customers. The contraction is going to have to happen simply because there are fewer horses at all levels of the game. The other force is that states and regions are going to eventually settle debates on expanded gaming and clearly delineate who gets slots and who doesn’t. That will resolve for current track owners what business model they follow. For those left without expanded gaming, contraction or elimination will be the only options.
    But once things settle, contraction does offer positives. A consolidated industry is more likely to begin rowing the same oars. Tracks that know their place will market themselves accordingly. (The Cincinnati Reds don’t market the same way as the Louisville Bats or the Florence Freedom). Tracks in places with traditional roots in the game can burnish that tradition instead of diluting it by racing dates to keep simulcasting contracts. And a consolidated industry will have to look beyond state borders and local politics to survive. Regional circuits should develop instead of five in-state circuits in a small region like the Mid-Atlantic. The major stumbling block there will be convincing the horsemen who have entrenched themselves in one place that they now need to return to the game’s nomadic roots. They can’t count on year-round racing in one place. The horsemen who can survive in that coming environment will still get their chance to reach the top of the game. Carl Nafzger, Bob Baffert, Steve Cauthen etc. will still have outlets for their skills, and the fans will have a more competitive, vibrant and deeper game to bet on.

  10. I agree with small time racing being part of the community fabric. It’s sort of like little theater; most of the time its great fun but occasionaly, a Kathleen Turner breaks out.

  11. mibredclaimer

    Congratulations! we can now subtract another phrase from the George Carlin Memorial “Things You Never Hear” list – “I actually love the MPM model.”

    All kidding aside, I can get behind a reduction in dates. Realistically, West Virginia probably doesn’t need two tracks running nine months to year-round. At the same time, if Mountaineer and Charles Town are making money on year-round live racing (I don’t know if they are or not), it is hard to tell them to scale it back – Especially with Charles Town putting out some decent fields. Perhaps Mountaineer scaling back is a sign of things to come.

    Would it be a fair argument to say the Kentucky Derby shares some of the blame for the overkill of winter racing? If a track wants to have a legit Derby trail race with preps, the kind that draw national money and attention, it has to run in the dead of winter to lead into them. Outside of Ohio and West Virginia, all of the year-round states you mentioned have Derby trail races, some like Kentucky, Illinois and New York don’t have weather on their side, either.

    Thanks! You can throw Lisa’s Booby Trap on the list of small track horses who made it on the big stage and drew some mainstream attention, even if it was short-lived.

    Short tracks definitely have lots to offer from a “growing the game” standpoint. One point of optimism that I have is that several students in the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program put in time, either as a fan or employee, at nearby Rillito Park. Rillito is among the smaller pari-mutuel tracks in North America, and if most of the people I have spoken to don’t fondly recall the track, they at least have some good stories. The RTIP graduates will be the next generation of racing’s leaders, and hopefully that time spent at Rillito won’t be forgotten at the top.

    For small tracks to survive in 2011, they have to find something the bigger tracks do not offer and promote the hell out of it. One needs too look no farther than Beulah Park for an example of that. Even with mid-sized fields full of ham-and-eggers, they have managed to make a killing on their Fortune 6 wager. The pool for that wager cracked a million dollars on Kentucky Derby day last year and was on the screen of several computers in the Churchill press box when one of the biggest cards of the year was unfolding before them. Beulah found a wager that could capture the imagination of bettors with a potentially huge payout for a tiny investment. The big tracks are just now playing catch-up with the wager. That’s how you do it. On a smaller scale, Great Lakes Downs carved out a nice little niche for itself by running weeknights when the big tracks were either dark or done for the day. Not only did it lighten the competition for the gambling dollar, it opened up the potential wagering from international sources, of which GLD did with some success.

    Ted Grevelis,
    Thank you, sir! Minnesota has built itself up a nice program, and the surrounding community has responded accordingly. The small-to-mid-level venues can definitely create a devoted following. Similar to your story, I was looking through a Thoroughbred Times almanac and there was a list of the meets with the highest per-day attendance on 2007. First through third were Saratoga, Del Mar and Keeneland’s spring meet, but fourth was Horseman’s Atokad Park in Nebraska with 16,000 per day. Granted, it was only a three-day meet, but that’s still pretty good for a track in the middle of Nebraska.

    Also, I would like to note that Mr. Grevelis mentioned this very post in today’s episode of his podcast, “Owning Racehorses”. It can be heard here:

    John McEvoy,
    Thank you for the kind words. We definitely have to stand up for our bullrings and small circuits or risk losing them.

    Thanks! There is still some imagination left in the game. It just needs to be nurtured and brought to the surface.

    Your kind words are appreciated! The decline in ownership has definitely hurt. In Michigan, a high percentage of horses of all breeds are owned by the trainer. Most of them breed, too, or even stand their own studs. As for the exodus of breeding programs from Kentucky to racino states, it doesn’t surprise me because I’ve been tracking it for years. They’ve hit Michigan just as hard, if not harder. They present an opportunity to make a better living for those on the rungs directly above and below them and they’re taking advantage of it.

    And I like your last sentence. Good luck to us all, indeed.

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Before we toss our tracks to the curb, we need to consider what can be done with the existing product. Takeout is definitely a good first step. It seems like more tracks are understanding this point, but clearly, there are some out there that do not.

    Government attention is definitely a valid concern, too. If racing gets smaller in a quick amount of time, governments may see that as a sign of weakness and try to put it out of its misery in several jurisdictions. It could lead to a slippery slope. You’ve got some good points.

  12. ragman

    Beulah no longer has the Fortune 6.
    Tuesday’s Columbus weather forecast..Afternoon, thick cloud cover with a bit of ice..evening, a major ice storm.
    I’m not sure what would prompt someone to print down the program and put time into handicapping for a couple of days.

  13. mibredclaimer

    I’m with you on that. The winners of the “who gets slots” contest will definitely have a better chance to survive in the coming years, and the losers will have a battle on their hands. If that happens, as much as I don’t like it, then the market will adjust itself accordingly. What I don’t like is the call for lower level tracks to “jump on the sword” so the bigger tracks can keep going.

    I have my doubts about the “rowing the same oars” idea. Look at California. That is a pretty streamlined and consolidating circuit (year-round at several different tracks in L.A. and a B-track in the north) and they can’t even decide what surface they want to run on or how much they want to rake from the bettors. Zenyatta fever aside, the California racing product is kind of bad right now – borderline unplayable. I’m not saying creating broader, yet more focused circuits is necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the margin for error that much smaller.

    Also, I’d argue that “traditional” tracks already let their reputation make up for more dates. Keeneland, Saratoga, Del Mar, Gulfstream, etc. all run fairly short meets. Churchill’s runs kind of long, but outside of the Derby and Breeders’ Cup, their class drops significantly. Meanwhile, many of the tracks running long meets (looking at West Virginia, Pennsylvania and a track like Calder) don’t have that tradition to fall back on. Nobody’s driving 10 hours to take a backstretch tour of Charles Town because the legendary Researcher once competed there. To make up for that, they offer something the traditional boutiques don’t – constant availability. Cutting down on the tracks wouldn’t suddenly make Charles Town a destination spot for race fans or first-tier horses, so the incentive wouldn’t be there to change their schedule. It’s gotten them this far. Why change now that the gambling dollar isn’t stretched as thin?

    April Smith,
    Nice analogy! Theater is not my area of expertise, but I may have to steal that with a comparable interest.

    I don’t know which is the more depressing news – finding out that Beulah cut the Fortune 6 or the impending ice storm of doom. The storm does seem like a good enough reason to spare a few trees, doesn’t it? Then again, the storm will probably claim several trees of its own, so that angle is kind of shot. Oh well…

  14. Old Time Race Fan

    Great article. Unfortunately, this is not just about horse racing. It is about all of corporate America. I do not believe that there is ANY concern any more for the customer or fan. It’s all about the bottom line.
    It made me think that your photos of the past year by themselves show why it is stupid to even consider eliminating these great little courses.
    Like yourself, I spent many a relaxing, fun day at Great Lakes Downs and before that, Detroit Race Course. It is sad that anyone would think that they can cut back all the remaining small racing venues and not hurt the sport as a whole.

  15. Derek

    Good article my friend!

    Here in Michigan it sure is a mess!

    No one has brought up the Standardbred angle. In my humble opinion we could use some contraction with Harness tracks here in Michigan. Northville, Hazel and Sports Creek rotating dates is a stretch at best. Consolidation would not only help entries and purses, but one of these tracks could market a real meet. It also may consolidate the betting public and possibly get behind a stronger less confusing marketing effort. (remember that?) haha
    Many states have already started to see signs of this. Some of it needed, some of it just plain sad. I’m one of those that believes small tracks serve a purpose in the game and are great venues for all to enjoy. Heck…even the county fairs (featuring harness racing) in Ohio and Michigan are a blast and a great day out. (ok.. now I sound like a marketing geek)

  16. Very good,but frustrating reading. I can see validity in a lot of ideas but while everyone sits in gridlock nothing will ever get done. Much like healthcare in America.

    The sport starts out on the wrong foot. Look at all the 200k and up yearling or 2yr sale grads wind up in for 5k by the time their 4. Thats like the Pistons paying 500k for Lebrons 5 yr old son, Makes no sense. People liked the drive ins, vhs,dvds etc, If we don’t want to wind up like a video rental store we better adapt. Yes I feel that more people would rather sit at home on most nights or days and bet from computer. Were on it right?.
    It needs better run owner partnerships, tracks.trainers, heck I could get a lic a lot easier then my hvac lic. Put out a good fair product it will succeed. I sold out 7 horses in less then 3 months to a group of very novice partners for the most part. Why common sense marketing that starts with the Breeder?

  17. ThomasMc

    Excellent article.Less is not more as some would have you think.Competitive fields regardless of speed of the horse make for great sport and wagering at all levels.Smaller market tracks must be more bettor and fan friendly and usually are. Keep the pressure on.Your positive ideas are refreshing.

  18. Excellent points – especially the one about the relative talent of horses and the fact that general fans really don’t care whether they’re watching stakes horses or claimers. It’s the spectacle of watching this wonderful athlete – at whatever level – that keeps us all in the game.

  19. mibredclaimer

    Old Time Race Fan,
    Might kind words on all accounts. This is definitely a very specific version of a much larger-reaching issue. The difference here is the CEO of Wal-Mart, to my knowledge, never came out and said the local five and dime (or even the K-Marts or Targets of the world) should close up shop for the good of retail stores everywhere. They just open up a franchise right next door and shut them down the old fashioned way. It’s still a punk thing to do, but at least the market decides who lives and dies – not someone in a position of power who stands to benefit. That is not to say this is what Mr. Evans had in mind when he presented his plan, but it is not hard to make a connection.

    Thanks much! Harness racing definitely factors into that equation as well. They’ve already cut down two Michigan tracks in the last decade (Saginaw and Jackson, not to mention Muskegon Race Course not long before that ), and drastically cut fair circuit racing opportunities. If Hazel Park and Northville weren’t the top two simulcast handle producers in the state by a mile, a case could be made that three harness tracks within an hour or so’s drive is a lot, but clearly the business is there, at least from a “keeping the lights on” standpoint.

    Scott B,
    It is indeed crazy that people go so high on sale prices in auctions for such unproven commodities, but if Sheikh Mohammed wants to push seven digits to the center of the table for a horse, I guess that’s his prerogative. If I were in the ring or holding the hammer, I wouldn’t try to stop him. I wish he’d try it in Michigan sometime. 🙂

    I agree that at-home betting is probably going to be the wave of the future, but I’ve sat in on enough state hearings to know that the notion still scares people. The “what about the children?” argument comes up every time, and despite the safety features and examples from other states that are clearly stated, they stick to their guns.

    Thomas Mc,
    Thanks! When done right, I often find myself enjoying playing the races at a smaller venue than a huge one. As long as it is properly staffed, the betting lines and crowds are usually manageable, there are fewer obnoxious drunk people to deal with and you can just get a better feel of what’s going on.

    G. Rarick,
    Agreed. Except at the very highest levels (Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra and their ilk), I believe the class of racing is secondary to how it is presented. Am I having a good time? Am I making money? Are the races playable? Is the food good?

    With repeated visits, fans often find their own favorite horses and connections and root for them as if it was a graded stakes competitor. For me, it was a mean, little ugly gelding named Ltn. Larry. He ran at Mount Pleasant and jumped up in class to Great Lakes Downs four or five times a year to compete in low claimers. He looked like he couldn’t run a step, and most of the time he couldn’t, but once a year he freaked and would wire a field at GLD for a sick price. When you care about specific horses for your own reasons, you create your own quality fields. That’s what racing is all about.

  20. ragman

    I’m not sure if this is relevant to your article. What happened to Pinnacle’s website?

  21. mibredclaimer

    It’s been down for a few weeks now. Must be another cost-cutting method, being as though they aren’t really putting out any product to advertise right now. Beats me.

  22. Hot In Hialeah

    “Just because a track does not feature graded stakes competitors does not mean it isn’t important to the community.”

    This sums it up perfectly. Your Yellowstone Downs remarks were good and I would like to echo them with Rillito Park in Tucson. A grandstand literally falling down around you, the shaky structure packs them in each race day to watch 1,250 claimers race 5 1/2 around two turns. But it works for them! So who the he** is Bob Evans, Claire Novak or anyone else to tell them to close. Their on-track handle figures dwarf some much bigger facilties and markets, Texas, Iowa & New Mexico To Name A Few.

    Imagine Major League Baseball Asserting That Independant Leagues Be Eradicated Because Their Are Not “High Quality” Enough To Exist.

    Imagine Coca-Cola asserting that R.C. and other regional colas should be shut down because they are not “higher quality” than Coke. SAYS WHO???? If RC can stay afloat and has supporters to justify their expenses, then NOBODY, I repeat NOBODY, has the right to shut them down. This Is FREE MARKET, remember!?!!

    The business arena dictates who stays and who doesn’t. Subsidies? No. Good Business And Workable Business Plans On ANY Scale? Yes. Plain. Simple. Done.

  23. ragman

    No Fortune 6.
    Try Bloodhorse 2/31 Penn Nat CEO Joe Carlino “we’re not running a public charity.”

    10: Almighty Dollar
    There are a hell of a lot horseplayers that won’t go near a simulcast outlet on Derby or Breeders Cup day because of the crowds. Who would want to be behind someone trying his yearly attempt at a tote machine especially now that they have 10 cent supers. This was also true on Saturdays in the old days. Often I heard “I’m not going to fight with those Saturday Bettors.”
    So maybe a few $$$ are lost on Derby day but I’m sure that the regulars would find Twinspires and put a lot more money into the pools over a years time.

    Hot In Hialeah

    The TOTAL handle for Rillito on the 29th was $99,014 and on the 30th was $101,127. Smallest handle of the day anywhere. Sam Houston in Texas was well over a million each day and Beulah Park with 7 races reached $410k. When do they dwarf the handle at tracks in Texas, Iowa and New Mexico?
    You are right in that no outsiders can tell them to close if they don’t want to.

  24. mibredclaimer

    Hot in Hialeah,
    I mentioned a few comments back how I hope that the small track experience at Rillito makes an impression on the RTIP students who frequented it, so one day, when they are the industry’s leaders, they will remember what it meant to them and act accordingly. In a way, I’m glad the Tucson area doesn’t have a big-time track because it gives students little choice but to experience the small track lifestyle and all it entails. It’s good for them. One of these days, I’m going to have to get down there and see it for myself. There is nothing cooler than a town that loves its track.

    Wow…I really don’t like that guy.

    Here is a link for those who would like to see exactly what Mr. Carlino said:

  25. ragman

    Anyone have a link to Crain’s article on Pinnacle?

  26. Gary Tinkle

    Thoughtful and interesting article, and great comments. Let there be no mistake, horse racing nationwide will only survive with small outfits and claimers of low to moderate value!
    In Michigan horse racing will only survive if the current administration does not continue using the shallow argument, when it comes to Michigan horse racing industries attempt to offer new pari-mutuel products and Lansing’s position screams “expansion of gaming,no” you’ve got to be kidding. Casinos continue to grow, lottery introduces new games “PowerBall”. Yet horse racing must to basically continue to offer the same product, that started gaming in Michigan in 1933 with pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing.

  27. As usual, I am late to the debate. We have the same arguement on the standardbred side regarding too much product spreading simulcasting dollars to thin. The answer they say is to shut down the small tracks, the Thunder Ridges, Blue Ridge Downs, etc.

    One day I looked at the simulcast calendar at the Red Mile and found twenty one harness tracks on the simulcast calendar and there was the answer. It is not the number of tracks around; it is the fact they can’t schedule correctly by running seasonal meets. Run a seasonal meet and you will see attendance grow as people know it is something special.

    One problem harness racing has is there is little wagering interest through ADWs. Well let me ask this question, how do you expect someone from Wyoming to wager on harness racing if they never saw it in person; to experience the game? The same thing with thoroughbreds. Close the bull ring tracks in these states and the next generation will not be wagering thoroughbreds as they never had the opportunity to see it live. People need to experience racing before they wager on it.

  28. mibredclaimer

    Gary Tinkle,
    Thanks! You are correct, there has to be a lower level for racing to survive. If your neighbor down the street owns horses, that makes everyone around him or her a little more likely to care about racing (I know it worked on me), and that will happen less often if they cut out racing’s bottom end.

    Government interference (or in some ways lack of interjection) is without a doubt a bigger threat to Michigan’s tracks right now than any corporate policies. However, many of the same arguments apply, and the worst case scenario is the same. I wish I knew what it took to really get these points across to a majority of the people in Lansing. We’ll have keep plugging until something sticks.

    A good comment is never late! I addressed most of it on your post in response to this one.

    For those of you who would like to see it, the post can be read here:

  29. Jen

    What a thoughtful, common-sense post. I agree with you on each and every point, but especially how, well, idiotic it would be to shut down some of the smaller tracks, thereby taking “everyday racing” out of reach of the average fan not living near a big track, to say nothing of potential fans.

    A Detroit girl myself, there were no racetracks for a horse-crazy girl whose mother adored Secretariat to go to (there’s the harness track in Warren, but…I love Thoroughbreds). We got the Triple Crown races, a few preps, and the Breeder’s Cup on television, but that was it. My parents weren’t driving to Thistledown or Keeneland, and they weren’t letting me do it on my own, either.

    After marrying, I moved to live with my husband, who works for a major Pittsburgh company. We live in WV’s panhandle, and lo and behold…there’s a racetrack nearby! Joy! Yes, it is Mountaineer, but I was tickled pink to have a track that wasn’t a day or more away. My husband finally relented, we went, and despite not understanding my cheering madly for horses on television, he “got it” at a real, live race. NOW he is a fan. The same goes for my dad, actually—I accompanied my parents on a trip to Lexington one year, and convinced them that we had to go to Keeneland at least once. Dad was reluctant, but took his horse-loving women to the track; we went back to Keeneland THREE MORE TIMES that week and had a fantastic, thrilling time. It speaks to the power of the actual experience.

    Not only do my husband and I enjoy going to MNR ourselves, when Mine That Bird (I was more interested in Big Drama) ran in the WV Derby, friends excitedly met us, the ‘locals’, and we went to Mountaineer together. We sat in the grass (the stand was jammed), picnicked, folks placed bets, everyone cheered on the horses and we had a great time. And my friends are now interested. We enjoy meeting up at Mountaineer during the summer and fall. And we are, supposedly, the demo racing is after. You know, the one they try to catch with awful broadcasts on Bravo and with irritating celeb interviews prior to big races. (Dad likes to go with us when my parents visit, too, though he does wish it were more like Keeneland!)

    No, MNR sure as heck is not Keeneland or Saratoga or Santa Anita, but…we’re there. None of my friends are going to drive several hours to spend a day at the races, but twenty or forty minutes is much more do-able.

    To can these “little” “nobody” tracks would be one of the dumbest things racing could do, for all the reasons you outline and more. It would destroy any chance of getting many people hooked on the sport. Unless you can get folks standing at the rail, hearing the noise and feeling the earth rumble when the field goes by, they’re not going to get it, and racing will be left wondering where the fans are.

  30. Jen

    Oh, dear, just realized how late to the game I am. Darned reader…!

  31. ragman

    The casino’s don’t want the Michigan tracks to have machines of any kind so it’s not going to happen. Dick Posthumas is now Rick Snyder’s point guard and his quote from 2004 should send a message,”there are more cattle on individual beef farms in Michigan than there are racehorses in the entire state.” Let’s see what type of legislation he’s going to let move forward.
    There is Urban Legend that the tracks could have had slots long ago if they had come up with the right sum to grease some palms in Lansing. They didn’t so now they have to try and buck the bottomless pits of $$$ that the casino’s have to protect their turf.

    When Pinnacle first opened they were running on weekdays where they were getting the handle over $3ook on some days. They should have stuck with that plan(?). Last years switch to the Country Club plan(weekend racing) saw their pools sink to nothing ($95k on closing day) and it really showed that the meet was just a way of distributing the simulcast tax money to the horse owners. Until someone wakes up and realizes they have to have decent pools to attract bettors they’ll keep on bleeding red ink.
    If Campbell is looking for investors he should try the MIHBPA members. They have a vested interest but then again maybe they know him to well.

  32. Gary Tinkle

    Yes, MIHBPA members have a vested interest, but investment? Let’s not forget the millions invested over the years to breed and race our horses. Somehow that gets overlooked in the discussion, does it make sense for MIHBPA members to continue to invest in Michigan with the little they may have left? Especially, when a fair opportunity to compete does not appear to be a reality on the horizon. Will Governor Snyder and our legislators continue the practice of previous administrations of systematically dismantiling the industry?

  33. Beulah is gone after this year, Suffolk, Pinacle the endangered list goes on and on. much like us debating each other rather then a pro active approach to fixing the short comings. It’s funny that a group can come to Mi and get non Indian Casinos quite quickly. Why should the Indian tribes have that monopoly in the first place? Times change but horsemen tend to be behind in more ways then one. To compare the state of horse racing in WV to that in Mi is not even close. Most all who looked ahead in Mi are now in WV. While these post show the passion of all. They do nothing for the end result. Im not old enough to rember protests or rallys of the 60s, but the little noise we make is heard only amongst us

  34. In regaurds to Jen yes we need more fans like you speak of. I wager a very large sum of money every week on the sport. I am no more valuble then the fan that wagers $2 in terms of the sports rise. Its not about the cards or the handle so much. If that was so Beulah wouldnt be going under or have 1500 horses. If Suffolk has horses running 22 times in a meet who is that good for? People pay to go watch M.L.B games. No one pays to watch me play softball. This is a sport. Think about it?

  35. ragman

    Next Friday is Michigan budget D-Day. So do you think Rick Snyder has received more than 20 or less than 20 letters urging help for the racetracks and horse industry?

  36. My guess is less, Thats my point. I have sent one with No reply back. It would take 2-5,ooo people in front of his door to get him to pull it out of the trash can, where Im sure it sits.

  37. anytime bob evans and churchill downs comes up with a good idea ,you had better be churchilldowns or bob evans coz they will be the only ones its good for , from a track that has given nothin and tacken all ,it costs 60000 to run in the derby and they have 20 starters ,plus a sponser plus the state ok ky racing moneys, so they dont even have put up priz money on thier banner race ,the thing that puts them in the black for the whole year

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s