The Future of Horse Racing

September 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Horse Racing 

WHAT IS HORSE RACING’S BIGGEST PROBLEM?

There are so many things wrong with thoroughbred horse racing in the United States, it’s hard to know where to begin – drugs, safety, oppressive takeout rates, cumbersome government oversight, overdependence on slot revenue, too many races, too few horses, stars that disappear as soon as the public begins to root for them, and on and on. But none of these problems will matter if the number one problem affecting the sport isn’t fixed soon – a dwindling fan base and overwhelming apathy from the general public.

The NTRA and other groups have made attempts to promote racing (“Go Baby Go!”), but they’ve always treated it as a marketing problem. Flashy ad campaigns and free tee shirts are not going create a sudden groundswell of support. These are shallow approaches and what little effect they have on the public quickly dissipates. A deeper approach is necessary for racing to regain a significant portion of the public’s consciousness.

Let’s use this discussion forum to share ideas and try to come up with a plan to make horse racing in this country as popular in the 21st century as it was in the first half of the 20th century. Let’s start with ideas first and worry about what can be implemented another day. If we limit ourselves to what we think industry leaders would accept or racing commissions would approve, our plan will end up being no different than maintaining the status quo.

There are two approaches I would like to examine:  Promoting racing as gambling and promoting racing as a sport.

 PROMOTING HORSE RACING AS GAMBLING

This country is clearly addicted to gambling in nearly every form. Yet, in spite of this, pari-mutuel handle has been dropping for years. Why? I don’t have a definitive answer, but here are a few thoughts:

• It’s complicated – face it, handicapping isn’t easy. The Racing Form is indecipherable to most people. Even the betting options themselves can be difficult for neophytes to understand.

• It’s slow – 9 or 10 races a day at the track, 20-30 minutes apart, isn’t a lot of action compared to a slot machine or a blackjack table.

• Huge payouts are rare – The occasional million dollar pick six carryover creates a bit of a stir within the industry, but it’s usually over before the general public hears anything about it. Compare that to lotteries, like Mega Millions or Powerball, where $100 million dollar payouts occur regularly and seemingly every drugstore, gas station and grocery store in the country has a sign displayed promoting it.

To promote the gambling aspect of horse racing to the masses, the industry is going to have to ‘dumb it down’ a bit. Racing will need to present itself as a lottery/slots alternative, with the live horse racing simply being a more exciting, visually appealing, delivery system. [If horse racing can’t compete with ping-pong balls, there really is no hope.] If it can’t be about studying the Racing Form (sorry Steven) to find winners, it will have to be about getting lucky and winning big with little or no effort. Creative wagers will have to be developed that can be bet quickly and without a lot of thought, but have the potential to capture the public’s imagination with huge payouts.

Here’s a couple of ideas to start with:

• Imagine a 30 minute Saturday afternoon or evening lottery drawing where a horse race determines each winning number instead of bouncing ping-pong balls. And it’s not just a pick six, it’s also a pick 5 on the last 5 races and a pick 4 on the last 4 races, etc., all on the same ticket, so players/viewers are alive right to the end of the show. If no one hits all six, there’s a huge carryover with a week to promote it and build the jackpot. Racing should also find a way to join the lottery’s retail sales network and let them sell the tickets instead of forcing customers to bet at the track or via ADW.

• For faster action, how about an Instant Pick-3, three races from around the country run in the space of five minutes that could be bet like the daily number? Hell, why not start them at the same time and let the first winner to the finish line be the first number drawn, etc? Given how often races around the country go off at the same time without planning, I’m sure quite a few of these bets could be scheduled on busy race dates.

PROMOTING HORSE RACING AS A SPORT

Another approach to increasing the popularity of horse racing is to create an environment where sports fans can become emotionally invested in the sport’s athletes in much the same way they root for a football team or follow individual NASCAR drivers or pro golfers. It certainly won’t be easy, and will take many years to accomplish, but the potential is there.

The first step will be for horse racing to begin thinking of itself as a league, with standings, pennant races and definitive championships at the end of the year. We have some aspects of this now, but they’re disjointed, poorly implemented and inconclusive.

Recreating Horse Racing as a Sports League:

The Breeders’ Cup will need to become a definitive, end of year event that determines the champion of every racing division. Although the Breeders’ Cup is billed as the World Championships, the ‘World’ part is still more wishful thinking than reality and the ‘Championships’ part is just not true. The championship winners for the year are determined by voters from the DRF, NTRA and NTWA and presented as the Eclipse Awards in January – over two months after the Breeders’ Cup. Can you imagine sportswriters getting together two months after the Super Bowl and voting for the ‘real’ champion? Keep the ceremony in January if you want, but the Breeders’ Cup races have to be the end of the season and the championships need to be decided when the horses cross the finish line.

Should a Breeders’ Cup race winner automatically be the championship award winner? The answer has to be NO. Horse racing isn’t like other sports where every team plays the same number of games and the best teams advance to the playoffs. A team can’t just show up for the Super Bowl without having earned their way to the final game. The same must be true for horse racing. Da Hoss winning the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Mile off a nearly two year layoff and only one prep race was an amazing story, but it doesn’t (and didn’t) make him a champion. In fact, he shouldn’t even have been allowed to run. The Breeders’ Cup, like championships in other sports, should be reserved for horses that have earned their way to the ‘big game’.

Championship winners in each division will be determined by points earned in graded stakes races throughout the year, with the Breeders’ Cup races being more heavily weighted.

The points system should be structured so that a couple of races during the year followed by a win in a Breeders’ Cup race is not enough to win a division championship. The system should reward horses that accrue points throughout the year and run well in the Breeders’ Cup.

Throughout the year, point standings in each racing division, and for the jockeys and trainers, would be maintained and publicized so fans would know where their favorites rank and what they need to do to win a championship.

Eclipse Award voting would be eliminated or limited to the Horse of the Year – all division award winners will be determined by the points system.

Graded stakes points standings will determine Breeders’ Cup race starters, which also makes “Win and You’re In” a thing of the past. A similar program would be needed to qualify European runners, but that also opens the question of how important it really is to have the Euros invade on Breeders’ Cup Day. Remember, we’re trying to broaden the appeal of horse racing to the American public. What’s the point of getting fans to follow racing in the U.S. all year long only to have horses they’ve never seen (or heard of) show up (and win) the championships? It at least needs to be discussed.

Promoting the League:

Like all other sports leagues, this league will need to utilize a star system to promote itself. There are three groups in horse racing that are ripe for promotion: the horses, obviously, the jockeys, and the trainers. Unfortunately, there are currently problems with all three groups. Let’s start with the jockeys.

This should be an easy sell. Jockeys are incredible athletes, arguably the best in all of pro sports. They compete daily in a fast, high-risk sport that is dangerous and exciting. The top jockeys should be national stars. But they’re not, for one simple reason: they’re treated as independent contractors by the industry rather than as marketable assets. Racing will need to recognize that jockeys can be the face of racing and promote them as such. As part of that, racing will need to follow in the footsteps of other pro sports who train their athletes in media relations, coaching them to improve their interview skills and even providing English tutors for those who need it. Horses come and go in a year or two, but jockeys can have long careers and that longevity should be used to establish enduring relationships with the fans.

Trainers and their stables could easily be thought of as, and promoted as, teams. Much like the jockeys, they have long careers and could easily be marketed as team managers or franchises. There could even be multiple divisions based on the the size of a trainer’s stable to pit the mega stables like Pletcher and Asmussen against each other, but still leave room for smaller stables to compete for end of season awards. Maybe someday a Pletcher/Asmussen rivalry could be just as heated as the Yankees/Red Sox. OK, maybe not. But what’s keeping trainers from being marketable commodites? Much like the jockeys, they need quite a bit of help with their media skills. Does this interview sound familiar?

Reporter: “That was a nice win by your horse. Where will he be running next?”
Trainer: “Well, we’ll see how he comes out of this race over the next few days and in a week or two the owner and I will take a look at the schedule to find a good spot for him.”

How many times have you heard that? Just about every time. Trainers will need to become more forthcoming with their plans. Yes, we know everything is predicated on the health of the horse, but give us your best-case scenario so we can feed our imaginations.

And that leaves the real stars of the sport: the horses. There is still great potential in this country for the public to be captivated by special racehorses. Unfortunately, that trust with the public has been abused over and over again in recent years by short-sighted owners more concerned with quick profits than the long-term growth of the sport. Clearly, something will have to be done to encourage owners to keep their horses running, not just through their three-year-old season, but as four-year-olds and even older.

And that brings us to the breeders, who seem to be using a two-pronged approach to kill their own sport. First, they’ve systematically abused their responsibility as stewards of the breed by promoting weak traits, such as exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging, unnatural precocity, and speed over stamina – all for short-term profit at the expense of strengthening the breed for the future. Second, they’ve build a system where the stars of the sport are more valuable to them as bloodstock than as racing stock. A horse that wins the Kentucky Derby, or even a couple of prep races in impressive fashion, can generate millions of dollars for the owners as a stud without accomplishing anything else in his career. That has to change.

What can racing do to influence the actions of owners and breeders? Quite a bit if they truly wanted to. But first, horse racing will need to decide if it can be a sport on its own or if they want to continue to be the public face of the breeding industry with their primary role being to create value for breeders. There’s no reason a separate horse RACING industry couldn’t dictate terms to owners and breeders.

Racing could:

– allocate more purse money to races for older horses than for two-year-olds and three-year-olds.

– penalize horses who retire early by forcing their offspring wait an extra year or two before being allowed to race.

FIXING THE GRADED STAKES SCHEDULE

Are there too many Graded Stakes races run in the United States? Possibly, but it’s hard to say because they are so poorly organized. There are certainly too many Grade 1 races. The distribution of stakes grades should resemble a pyramid with fewer Grade 1 races than Grade 2 races and fewer Grade 2 races than Grade 3 races. For instance, for every Grade 1 race there should be two Grade 2’s and three Grade 3’s.

                  2010 Adjusted
Grade 1    113         81
Grade 2   156       162
Grade 3   218       244

Having fewer Grade 1’s makes each one more valuable, more meaningful and increases the likelihood of top horses facing each other more often.

Balance Distribution of Graded Stakes races by Age, Sex, Surface, Distance?
– Also balance by region (NY, FL, KY, CA, etc)?

More Grade 3’s early in the year/More Grade 1’s later in the year?

Consider post-race grading adjustments, similar to how AGSC evaluates off-turf races
– Grades could be raised or lowered depending on # of starters, quality of field

Designate some races as higher than Grade 1
– Breeders’ Cup worth 2x or 3x a Grade 1?
– Triple Crown races worth 2x a Grade 1?
– Selected other ‘super’ Grade 1’s?

Should the Grade Stakes schedule end with Breeders’ Cup Championships?
What to do about post Breeders’ Cup races?
– only card Graded Stakes for 2yo’s and count them towards next year?

Should there be Graded Stakes races restricted to three-year-olds late in the year?
– For instance, does it make sense for there to be a Grade 1 restricted to three-year-old fillies in late November? Shouldn’t they have to beat older horses at that point in the year to earn a Grade 1?