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Fields of Dreams

RACING (NAT)Web Master
Fields of Dreams Words:  Denise Steffanus   Racing secretaries nationwide are clamoring for horses to fill races while industry groups try to find a solution. But it's a complex issue. Everybody with a role in the decline in field size seems to point the finger at someone else. Trainers, owners, racing secretaries, breeders, consignors, track management, and the horses themselves all have been blamed.   The simplest explanation for the decline in entries is that there are fewer horses. But when you compare statistics for 1990 and 2016, disregarding horses not old enough to race, they tell a different story.   When looking at horses of racing age, the 2014 foal crop (the youngest horses eligible to race in 2016) was 43% of the 1988 crop (for the 1990 racing season). But the number of races in 2016, compared with 1990, declined by 52%.   Today's racetracks have full barns, and many impose a limit on the number of horses a trainer can have on the grounds. So why aren't these horses racing?   "People say, 'Well there's nothing in the [condition] book that I can find.' But there are plenty of races," said Jim Cassidy, president of California Thoroughbred Trainers.   He thinks trainers sit out races primarily to protect their win percentage because owners look at this statistic when they select a trainer. So rather than race a longshot, trainers will instead breeze the horse and wait for a sweet spot that all but guarantees them a win.   Ron Ellis, who has a stable of 32 horses in California, is known for taking his time with his horses. He disagrees with the premise that trainers are holding back horses that could be racing.   "I really think that if horses are doing well, trainers run them," he said. "That only makes sense because that's basically how we make our money, off the commissions of horses that are racing and winning.   "It's my feeling that trainers, if they have a horse that's doing well and it's sound, they would prefer to run it over not running it. Trainers don't run horses when they're not doing well. I don't think they sit on horses that are doing well is basically what I'm saying."   Training philosophies have changed since the days when trainers raced a horse to keep it fit and hoped to take home a check in the process. Also gone are the days when owners were delighted just to watch their horses race.   "Most owners want instant success, and this is the problem," Cassidy said. "They don't want to go out there and finish fifth or sixth. They want to win. And this places a lot of pressure on the trainers."   Cassidy believes the type of horses breeders produce goes hand in hand with an owner's desire for instant success. Buyers want speed horses who have proven themselves as ready to run at two-year-old sales.   "You have so many commercial breeders now, and all they do is breed speed to speed and softness to softness, and we wind up with horses that are very tender, soft, can't take the pressure, can only run so many times and they get hurt easily," he said.   Jockey Joe Bravo, a fixture on the East Coast, takes it one step further. He blames consignors for cranking down on two-year-olds to produce insane fractions in breeze shows.   "Couldn't they two-minute lick these horses instead of going all out and having a baby put everything on the line? It would be nice to keep those horses around, and they would stay around a lot longer if they weren't asked to do so much at a young age," he said.   Consignors and breeders   David O'Farrell, farm manager of his family's Ocala Stud in Florida, which has been a leading consignor at two-year-old sales since 1958, said Bravo has it all wrong.   "Studies have shown, and it's proven, that two-year-olds-in-training sales produce horses with higher than average earnings, more average starts, and a higher percentage of starters than yearling sales or homebreds," he said.   O'Farrell cited studies done by Dr. Larry Bramlage, chief of surgery at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, whom he calls "the most well-respected veterinarian in the equine world." Bramlage presented the data on behalf of the Thoroughbred Safety Committee at the Jockey Club's 2008 Round Table Conference in response to industry questions about the durability of the breed, training and racing practices for two-year-olds, and the current training philosophy, among other issues.   Bramlage told participants that preparation for sales did not compromise the horse's ability to race when compared to the breed average.   "This data is definitive," he said. "It shows that horses that began racing as two-year-olds are much more successful, have much longer careers, and, by extrapolation, show less predisposition to injury than horses that did not begin racing until their three-year-old year. It is absolute on all the data sets that the training and racing of two-year-old Thoroughbreds has no ill effect on the horses' race-career longevity or quality."   O'Farrell said the industry needs to look at so-called "super trainers" when it comes to the decline in field size, a point Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, made in several interviews after his recent move to Santa Anita.   Ritvo told the Los Angeles Times: "We have a lot of super trainers, who have these huge 200-horse outfits. Are they good for the game? A lot of us would argue no. Those guys that have them have worked hard. They’ve developed great skills and they are great guys. But how does a smaller guy get started if the owners are giving all their horses to the same guys? Let’s face it, if you have a 2,000-horse population, are you better with 25 trainers or 100 trainers? We’re better off with 100. Why? Because rather than having 20 two-year-olds, not willing to run them against each other, this population would get spread out."   Super trainers   When the finger points at super trainers, Karl Broberg bristles.   "They have no idea how our operations work," he said.   In 2016, Broberg had the second-highest number of starts (1,566) nationally. His win score was 55%. The Louisiana-based trainer, with about 130 horses in training, typically has strings running at six racetracks. His horses compete from Texas and Louisiana to Iowa to the Kentucky-Ohio circuit.   Some of you may not have heard of Broberg, and the names of his top horses probably aren't familiar. Broberg's highest racing achievement was with Diva's Diamond in 2015, when she was second to Untapable in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. This is the only time he has hit the board in a graded stakes in his eight-year career. Broberg's stable consists primarily of claimers, allowance horses, and those competing in local stakes. Yet, year after year, he takes home leading trainer titles at many of the tracks where he competes. Nationally he has been the top trainer by wins since 2014, ranking second behind Steve Asmussen in 2013.   Unlike high-profile super trainers such as Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown, Broberg is a blue-collar trainer with whom most horsemen can identify.   He scoffed at the notion that a super trainer with, say, 20 horses fitting the same conditions would make most of them sit out a race in favor of the one or two he thinks have the best chance to win. He explained that his operation functions like six smaller stables at various tracks; he doesn't have all 130 horses stabled at a single track.   Most super trainers operate the same way, because many racetracks limit stall allotments to 35-40, Broberg said. One exception is Saratoga Race Course, which allows high-profile super trainers to bring 100 or more of their horses to the boutique meet, largely because these horses are the elite runners fans want to see.   Broberg said changes in claiming rules and entry rules would enable trainers to race more often. He is especially frustrated with the rule that a claimed horse must run at a 25% higher claiming price for 30 days after the claim.   "Say I claim a cheap $5,000 horse," he said. "In the past in Louisiana, I could run that horse back within two or three weeks. Now, I'm forced to sit on that horse, unless it's proven to be worth more, for 30 days."   Broberg objects to restrictions on how soon a trainer can run a horse back, citing Louisiana's rule that states a trainer is not permitted to enter a horse that is already in a race, even though entries are taken seven or eight days in advance.   "That has cost them a ton of starts from me, because when a horse is doing good, the best thing you can do for that horse is get him right back in," he said. "Not all horses are the same, but with many horses, when one's hot, you want to get it right back in there."   Racing secretaries   Racing secretaries are responsible for drafting condition books and adding extra races during the meet when the need arises. Three principal components help a racing secretary put together a meet that produces the best possible racing product: past experience of the type of races expected to be in demand; a database of the past performances for every horse named on stall applications; and good, open communication between the racing office and trainers.   Since 2003, Rick Hammerle has been the racing secretary for Santa Anita, where he also is vice president of racing. Outside California, he did stints at racetracks in New Jersey and Florida.   "My job is to provide races literally for every horse that is on the backside in a certain period of time," he said.   Hammerle has an open-door policy to encourage trainers to let him know what conditions they are looking for if they can't find them in the book. He even accepts lists from trainers of the types of races they would like him to write—in fact, he welcomes suggestions.   "Most of them know the pattern," he said. "They know there are going to be certain races that are going to be there every couple of weeks, and they don't need to ask for them. But they may have a horse that's returning after a layoff or a special-conditioned horse that they're looking for something, and they ask if I can put it in there."   Santa Anita canceled four Thursday cards during its spring meet because of lack of entries. Hammerle said the weather was to blame, not the racing office or the trainers.   "Here in California, and specifically at Santa Anita, we got pelted by two months of steady rain, right at the beginning of our meet," he said. "When it rains, all those horses that weren't quite ready all of a sudden are a month behind, and some of them are two months behind because they just couldn't get them consistent training on the racetrack. That really pushed us back here."   If Mother Nature cooperates, Hammerle is confident things will be fine, especially with track management, trainers, and owners all working toward a successful meet that will draw fans and increase handle.   Field size has a direct impact on handle. Gamblers bet more money on larger fields, because larger fields offer more betting opportunities and a greater potential for longshots to come in. For the fans, who are the bedrock of the racing industry, larger fields offer more excitement. Even though they may not singularly wager as much as professional gamblers, collectively their dollars are a large part of the handle. Attract more fans and you attract more dollars. New owners evolve from avid fans, and more owners translate into more horses.   Economics Is the Issue   Bramlage is especially interested in what is causing field sizes to decline, so he has studied the trends in racing to determine their impact. To him, the answer is straightforward—economics. The cost of racing a horse has gone up, but purses have not kept pace, except at the high end of the sport, he said.   "If you look at the economic model and all the factors that go into that—the trainer's strike rate, the cost of racing, and our inability to be patient with a horse—they have to be successful fairly early on or we give up on them," Bramlage said. "But that's just not with racing. That's with stallions and everything, because the economic pressures are a lot higher than they used to be when racing was generally in the hands of the philanthropist families, where Darby Dan is racing because they like their colts and mares and they'll give them all the chance they can, and they might give them 20 starts before they give up on them. Now, for most people, they probably don't give them five starts."   Owners   An information sheet for potential owners issued by West Point Thoroughbreds estimates the cost to maintain a horse at $50,000 to $60,000 per year. This includes an average day rate of $100 for training; veterinary and farrier bills; transportation and other miscellaneous costs; and, if necessary, a quarterly call for $600 to $750 additional funds for unanticipated expenditures. This means the meter is ticking on any horse that is not earning its keep.   So while some people view fewer starts per horse as a decline of durability in the breed, Bramlage sees it as a lack of patience with young horses who aren't performing. In a nutshell, owners are cutting their losses and moving on to another horse they hope will do better. Similarly, trainers rely on commissions on purse money for their livelihood, with their day rates devoted to covering expenses. If their horses don't get a check, neither do they.   An interesting statistic Bramlage uncovered is that the average starts per horse rise and fall with the value of yearlings at sale.   "The reason is that when yearling values go up, horses retire faster … Starts go back up when sales prices go down, because horses stay in training longer," he said.   Presumably this trend is intended to protect the owner's investment in a high-dollar yearling by racing the horse only when it has a good chance of winning in order to maximize its value in the breeding shed. Bramlage said it is now common for trainers to scratch horses if the morning line is unfavorable, alleging the horse is ill. There's even a term for it, "30-to-1 fever," he said.   Modern racing has become more of a business than a sport.   Potential solutions   The California Horse Racing Board's Race Dates Committee met on May 24 to brainstorm ways to increase entries and field sizes in California. One suggestion was to charge trainers stall rent, which they could recover pro rata each time they raced. This would discourage trainers from using the racetrack as a training center while racing few horses.   Changes in claiming rules and scratch rules also were mentioned as a possibility.   An unpopular suggestion was to initiate a single racing circuit in California, where the show would travel from track to track like a carnival, instead of tracks in the north and south operating simultaneously.   Fred Pope, a Lexington advertising executive and racing commentator, has been on this soapbox for decades, arguing that the salvation of racing would be a national circuit featuring celebrity horses. His "talent-centric" idea, as he calls it, would elicit racing groupies, like those fans who follow NASCAR, wanting to see their favorite runners in action.   The racing industry scoffs at Pope's idea every time he trots it out. Yet, he keeps tilting at that windmill.   Horses aren't Indy cars. Their bodies simply cannot withstand the kind of national campaign that circuit racing would impose upon them. The average number of starts per horse in 2016 was 6.2—hardly enough appearances to sustain a successful campaign on a nationwide circuit.   Gone are the days of champion John Henry, who made 83 starts during his eight seasons on the track; Hall of Fame mare Pan Zareta, who raced 151 times over 22 tracks in three countries during her five-year career; and the ultimate fan favorite, Seabiscuit, who traveled coast to coast, racing 89 times between 1935 and 1940.   Weekend racing only   Some of the nation's racetracks that are having difficulty filling races have cut back to a three-day weekend of live racing. Horsemen on both coasts think weekend-only racing would be a hardship for everyone whose livelihood is the track—right down to the maintenance crew that sweeps the grandstand. Essentially, their full-time job would become a part-time, weekend job. But because their track job would entail working either Fridays or Mondays, they would have difficulty finding a job through the week.   Beyond the economic hardship, Bravo said weekend-only racing would be physically tough on riders.   "It's tough to keep your fitness during the week without riding," he said. "You see the tracks with the least racing days, they try to put more races on the card. Instead of like a ten-race card, they try to run 12 races. It makes it hard if you're doing nothing for four days and then you get thrown into the weekend of riding a bunch of races. It's physically demanding, and it's hard to keep your weight, it's hard to keep your timing.   "A lot of us have tried to do it at tracks where they have shorter racing days or are just racing weekends, but it's physically demanding. I'm lucky, I'm very small so I can keep my weight down. But for a heavier rider, you're asking them to cut back four days and not eat. It's pretty tough."   Tracks that cut back to weekend-only racing risk losing the best of their jockey colony to tracks that offer them more opportunities to ride.   "I wouldn't mind seeing shorter racing days but compacted into a full schedule instead of just weekends," Bravo said. "Dragging it out makes it hard on everybody. The majority of gamblers and a lot of the higher-end people have nothing going on during the week. What is there to do for daytime entertainment if you take horseracing away, go to a movie theatre or the mall? What's better than watching horses run around every half hour and have action from one o'clock to five every day during the week?"   New owners   The only consensus is that the sport needs more owners. More owners will bring more horses into the sport, and more horses could attract more trainers. Larger fields will attract more fans and drive up handle. Greater handle would enable racetracks to raise purses—the trickle-down effect.   In 2011, The Jockey Club commissioned a study to determine how to address the decline in foal crops. The study's recommendation was to promote new ownership. The Jockey Club initiated such a campaign, developing an owner website at www.ownerview.com and sponsoring a series of Owner Conferences, the next one scheduled for October 30-November 1 at Del Mar.   “One of the most important recommendations emanating from the comprehensive economic study of Thoroughbred racing conducted by McKinsey & Company in 2011 centered on the need for a central resource to encourage ownership of Thoroughbreds and provide accurate information about purchasing and owning a Thoroughbred," said Bob Curran, vice president of communications for The Jockey Club. "In an effort to reduce the barriers to ownership, The Jockey Club and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association subsequently created OwnerView in May 2012, and we continue to provide pertinent information to new, prospective, and current owners through our website and our very popular Thoroughbred Owner Conferences which are held during Breeders’ Cup week each year.”   Olympic skier Bode Miller, one of the sport's new, exciting owners, offered an idea to get more owners into the sport—a tax exempt, not-for-profit entity, similar to a syndicate, to which owners could donate active racehorses, and those who want to be involved could donate funds to support the stable. All donations would be tax deductible through the 501(c)3 status, and any profit would benefit designated charities.   "So it's a way for people to have a super-duper, low-entry point financially and have ownership in horses with it only benefitting charities, not-for-profits," he said.   Allowing people to dip their toes in the industry could entice new owners into the sport.   The future?   "Any sport has trends up and trends down," Hammerle said. "I do think we may have hit bottom four or five or six years ago. We, the industry as a whole, have recognized some of the mistakes we've made and made some adjustments. I feel very positive about the way things are going.   "I think we'll continue to see some evolution in the way things are being done, both for the owners and the trainers, and obviously the fans. I think we'll see a lot more fan involvement with the game. And I'm very high on it. I see some people involved now who really get it and want to do the right thing. So, as I make the trips around the country for the bigger [racing] weekends here and there, I'm very pleased at what I see."     [sidebar] Marketing the sport   One of the goals of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association was to market the sport nationally, but ads have been dust in the wind. The best commercial to come along in years that drives interest in Thoroughbreds is the new Audi S5 Sportback spot that features 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat. The ad was filmed at Santa Anita, and it pulses with the excitement of the sport.   No doubt, the Audi commercial cost a lot of advertising dollars, but marketing doesn't have to be expensive. Racing needs more creativity and thinking outside the box.   While Lexington advertising executive Fred Pope's idea for a "talent-centric" racing circuit has never sprouted wings, the notion of a "talent-centric" marketing approach might work. Exploiting the old saw that everyone has a story to tell, racetracks could feature a "Trainer of the Day," telling his or her story in the program and introducing the trainer to fans during a spot between races. What better way to market blue-collar trainers to prospective owners? Interesting stories about horses or riders or trainers could be offered to local news outlets, who always welcome free copy.   Old black-and-white newsreel footage of the golden age of racing, when it was chic for celebrities to be seen at the races, shows starlets reading the program, smoking cigarettes on long-stemmed holders, and waving their tickets at the camera. Movies were rife with racing slang and people reading the Daily Racing Form. To draw more fans to the sport, we need to make the races "the" place to be again. Imagine if the racetrack were the favorite spot of the Kardashians!   Smaller, regional tracks might consider contacting their state's film office and other entertainment groups to find out what celebrities are in town and extending those celebrities a day at the races, courtesy of the track—dining in the clubhouse, a tour of the backstretch, a visible yet private "Celebrity Box," and maybe a cache of Celebrity Dollars to wager, like Monopoly money, that could be tracked for fans as the day progresses.   Fans would know to look for the Celebrity Box to see who is there and to watch them enjoy the races. TVG and other groups televising the races could be asked to spotlight the box and the celebrities during their telecasts. Perhaps, with the approval of the celebrity, the track could announce the celebrity's presence in advance. —Denise Steffanus

Racing secretaries nationwide are clamoring for horses to fill races while industry groups try to find a solution. But it's a complex issue.

Everybody with a role in the decline in field size seems to point the finger at someone else. Trainers, owners, racing secretaries, breeders, consignors, track management, and the horses themselves all have been blamed.

The simplest explanation for the decline in entries is that there are fewer horses. But when you compare statistics for 1990 and 2016, disregarding horses not old enough to race, they tell a different story.

When looking at horses of racing age, the 2014 foal crop (the youngest horses eligible to race in 2016) was 43% of the 1988 crop (for the 1990 racing season). But the number of races in 2016, compared with 1990, declined by 52%.

Today's racetracks have full barns, and many impose a limit on the number of horses a trainer can have on the grounds. So why aren't these horses racing?

"People say, 'Well there's nothing in the [condition] book that I can find.' But there are plenty of races," said Jim Cassidy, president of California Thoroughbred Trainers.

He thinks trainers sit out races primarily to protect their win percentage because owners look at this statistic when they select a trainer. So rather than race a longshot, trainers will instead breeze the horse and wait for a sweet spot that all but guarantees them a win.

Ron Ellis, who has a stable of 32 horses in California, is known for taking his time with his horses. He disagrees with the premise that trainers are holding back horses that could be racing.

"I really think that if horses are doing well, trainers run them," he said. "That only makes sense because that's basically how we make our money, off the commissions of horses that are racing and winning.

"It's my feeling that trainers, if they have a horse that's doing well and it's sound, they would prefer to run it over not running it. Trainers don't run horses when they're not doing well. I don't think they sit on horses that are doing well is basically what I'm saying."

Training philosophies have changed since the days when trainers raced a horse to keep it fit and hoped to take home a check in the process. Also gone are the days when owners were delighted just to watch their horses race.

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