08/24/2010 11:25AM

How to Save America's Graded Stakes


The announcement last week that the Maryland Jockey Club was cancelling the De Francis Dash was bad news for racing. Coming on the heels of the New York Racing Association's cancellation of the Matron, Futurity, Jerome, Peter Pan and Stuyvesant Stakes, one begins to tremble for the existence of graded stakes racing in America.
Laurel's De Francis Dash had been mysteriously downgraded to Grade 2 status by the North American Graded Stakes Committee in December. That in spite of the race having been won by four champion sprinters- Housebuster, Cherokee Run, Smoke Glacken and Thor's Echo- since its inception in 1990, as well as by multiple Grade 1 winner Vineyard Haven last year. Maryland Jockey Club officials were quick to point out that the Dash was not dropped because of the downgrading, but because of a lack of funds. They hope that the race will return in 2011, but we never saw another D.C. International after that great race was discontinued at Laurel after its 1994 running.
NYRA uses the euphemism "on hiatus" to describe the disappearance of five graded races from its 2010 calendar. Does this mean they are on vacation? Would it be possible to visit them up at Saratoga or on the Riviera to inquire about their wellbeing? The problem at NYRA is, of course, financial as well. The pity is that cost cutting measures must include the very lifeblood of the sport, its best races. In their place we will get an ever increasing number of cheap claimers and state-bred events. It is the equivalent of cancelling five or six of college football's bowl games so that the Florida Atlantic-Florida International game can proceed as scheduled.
Can anything be done about this sad situation? An answer must be found to that question sooner rather than later, so here is a radical, two-pronged cost cutting proposal for every track in the country, whether or not any of their stakes races are in jeopardy.

In the computerized age, the pari-mutuel clerk has outlived his usefulness, with many of them behaving as if they would rather be elsewhere, anyway. The savings to be gained by a completely automated pari-mutuel system would be huge, and there is a very successful template for the move.
It comes form Japan, where for 20 years the Japan Racing Association (JRA) has been doing just fine without pari-mutuel clerks. In fact, the JRA has been doing outstandingly well since they showed virtually all of their clerks the door. Purses are the highest in the world in Japan, where hardly a week goes by without a $1 milllion race being run.
The system in Japan works like this. Bettors fill out computer cards to place their bets. They then insert the completed card into a pari-mutuel machine, then insert the money required. Out pops their ticket, which, if it turns out to be a winner, is inserted back into a machine, at which point out pops the bettor's winnings or, if he prefers, a voucher in the same amount.
If the bettor makes a mistake on the betting card, a bell goes off and a nearby panel immediately opens revealing a clerk- usually an attractive young woman- who shows the player his error and how to correct it.
This system also has the benefit of eliminating long lines, as bettors fill out their cards away from the machines, unlike machines at American tracks where betting data is input at the windows.

The money saved through this proposal might not be as much as that saved by dismissing the pari-mutuel clerks, but it would be substantial, and again, there is precedence.
Throughout Europe, horses go down to the start solely under the power of their riders, and the game there has not suffered a bit during the hundreds of years that this has been the practice.
Jockeys are professional horsemen. If they can get a horse from the starting gate to the finish line in good order, if they can ride a horse out after the finish and get him back to the unsaddling area in one piece, then they can certainly get him from the entrance to the track to the starting gate.
Losing the outriders would also eliminate the need for most post parades. During these exercises, the runners are frequently obscured by the squatty bodies of the ponies, especially on television.
Two outriders, the ones that wear red jackets and black helmets, should be retained. These are the ones who can run down a loose horse on the rare occasion that becomes a necessity.
There are other benefits to be gleaned by canning the outriders.
In Europe, horses gallop down to the start, and there is much to be learned about a horse's chances in a race by watching it do so. If it goes down fluently, or in a businesslike fashion, it is an indication that all is well. If, however, a horse is fighting the bit on his way to the start, or throwing its head about, or otherwise unable to act naturally, that is a bad sign, and you might not want to bet on that animal.
Every racetrack manager in the nation knows how much money would be saved by adopting these proposals. Certainly it would be enough to save the De Francis Dash. It would even be enough to revive the five races cancelled in New York this year.