Recruiting runners - The lengths that different tracks are going to maximize fields for their races

Recruiting runners - The lengths that different tracks are going to maximize fields for their races

 DEL MAR, CA - NOVEMBER 04: Horses start the Goldikova Stakes on Day 2 of the 2017 Breeders' Cup World Championships at Del Mar Racing Club on November 4, 2017 in Del Mar, California. (Photo by Michael McInally/Eclipse Sportswire/Breeders Cup/

By Bill Heller

Remember the classic poster of Uncle Sam pointing at you saying, “I Want You” that was used to attract soldiers for World War I and II? Uncle Sam wanted you for the Army.

Picture a race secretary pointing at you exclaiming, “We Want You.” Not soldiers for the Army, of course, but shippers needed to fill their daily race cards.

The need has never been greater, thanks to a foal crop that has plummeted in the last two decades.

Asked if the New York Racing Association has had trouble filling fields, Martin Panza, NYRA’s Senior Vice President of Racing Operations, said in late February, “What racetrack in America doesn’t? The number of horses has greatly dropped.”

He’s not kidding. The Jockey Club reported that the foal crop has dropped from 40,333 in 1990 to 19,925 in 2018.

What makes those numbers even more impactful is that race tracks these days are trying to sustain year-round racing.

In response, several tracks have been offering incentives for shippers. And the leader of the pack is Del Mar’s Ship and Win Program—which is in a partnership with the Thoroughbred Owners of California—has been offering incentives since 2011. “We set the bar very high,” Del Mar Racing Secretary David Jerkens said. “It’s a lucrative program. It’s an attractive enhancement.”

And Jerkens said this year’s programs at both Del Mar meet in the summer and the fall and will be enhanced from last year when field size for the summer increased from 8.5 in 2017 to 8.7 in 2018. The amount of the increase in bonus payments was expected to be announced in April.

“Last year we had 107 horses participate just in the summer and 49 in the fall,” Jerkens said. “Any time you can add more than 100 horses to your inventory, that’s beneficial. Bigger fields create larger handle and larger purses.”

Here’s how it works...

When it began, Del Mar offered a $1,000 check for shippers making their first local start plus a 20% bonus on top of whatever purse money was earned in that first start. Those numbers grew last year to a $2,000 check and a 30% bonus. To qualify, a horse must have made his last start outside California and not raced in the state the previous 12 months. First-time starters are not eligible.

To date, more than 1,000 horses have participated in Ship and Win. According to Del Mar, those horses have made more than 1,500 starts at its track and more than 3,500 starts at other tracks in California.

Surprisingly, most of the benefactors of Del Mar’s program are local horsemen. “Seventy percent of our starters from Ship and Win have been local owners and local horses,” Jerkens said.

Trainer Bob Hess, whom Jerkens said is the “poster boy for the program,” has been on-board with it from day one. “This is a wonderful program,” Hess said. “I have horses at Gulfstream Park, and I try to bring at least 10 horses to Del Mar. It’s been great. It’s been a win-win. It’s obviously good for Del Mar, but it’s also good for Santa Anita because horses come here and stay here.”

Trainer Richard Baltas is another fan of Ship and Win. “The idea is to get them here,” he said. “I claimed a horse at Keeneland last year, then, after the meet was over, I brought him back here and he won twice. People transfer horses out here from back East. Obviously, it could always be better, but we definitely need something. A lot of trainers don’t have money to buy new horses. No horses mean small fields. It’s a problem in California.”

The program helps solve that problem. “The idea is to get horses to ship to California, and, hopefully, they stay in California,” Jerkens said. “So it benefits Santa Anita and Los Alamitos, too.”

To maximize that possibility, Santa Anita began offering its own “Ship and Stay” Program in 2017. Originally, the program offered non-California-bred horses who last started outside California and had not raced in the state the previous year a 20% bonus for the horse’s first start at Santa Anita and a 10% bonus of $1,000—whichever was higher—for a horse’s second and third starts. All that money was split between the horse’s owner and trainer.

The program has been tweaked, and this year bonuses will be given to the trainer only: 10% for a first start and 10% or $1,000—whichever is higher—for the horse’s second and third starts.

In any fashion, Santa Anita’s program strengthens the Del Mar program—a fact not lost on Panza, who was the Director of Racing at Hollywood Park before taking his job with NYRA. “I’d been in California and saw what Del Mar did,” Panza said. “It works at Del Mar. We did it at Hollywood Park. It’s a good idea. It makes sense.”

Accordingly, he had NYRA initiate its own shipping-incentive program in 2018, one it is continuing this year for shippers who come to race at either Aqueduct or Belmont Park. “We did Oaklawn and Gulfstream Park last year,” Panza said. “We did expand it a bit. I don’t think we have to do it. But it makes sense to get horses back in New York. It makes business sense. We just want to help the owners. This helps a bit. Give any owner some help with expenses.”

NYRA’s program this year offered incentive for horsemen based at Fair Hill Training Center, Oaklawn Park, Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs who raced during the Aqueduct Spring Meet from April 5 through April 20, or during the Belmont Park Spring/Summer meet from April 26 through July 7. Those horses’ owners will be credited with an $800 shipping stipend, excluding stakes races.

A first-time starter must have had their previous three works at Fair Hill to be eligible or display a pattern of workouts at Fair Hill, as determined by NYRA.

Additionally, horses who made their previous start at Oaklawn Park were eligible to NYRA’s Ship and Win Program, which offered a 30% purse bonus for their first two starts as well as a $1,500 shipping stipend for a start during the Aqueduct Spring Meet and the Belmont Park Spring/Summer Meet, excluding stake races.

Shippers who made their previous start at Gulfstream Park or Tampa Bay Downs were eligible for a shipping subsidy for a start during the Aqueduct Spring Meet, excluding stakes races. Owners who shipped horses from either Florida track and made their first New York start from March 8 through the 31st received $2,000. Florida shippers making their first New York start from April 5 through April 20 were credited $1,500.

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