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.
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.”