07/09/2012 8:51AM

Bergman: Adjusting purse distribution one way to restore competitiveness


If you’ve paid attention to press clippings in recent weeks you might assume that the sport of harness racing has never been better. Words have been floated around with horsemen suggesting that purses have attracted the best horses and thus the obvious, best racing.

It’s a big fat lie.

Purses have gone a long way to mask the ills of a sport, but reality of an eroding fan base and a product not nearly as compelling to the general public as it obviously is to horsemen and their organizations.

In an era when track owners and horsemen’s groups alike care more about portraying themselves to politicians rather than the appealing to the public, bettors have become a lost commodity. So off base have been the goals of racing’s leaders that the core product has become a steady stream of short-priced favorites.

If there is one certainty about the sport-business as a whole it is that it’s impossible to get any group to agree with another on material change. Yet as the wheels in political circles make the inevitable conclusion that handouts must come to an end, the haves still don’t seem to understand that they must change.

What must change is the illusion that purses equal competition. There is simply no truth to this statement no matter how it is couched or perpetrated on an unaware public. In many ways higher purses have killed competition as a string of high-powered trainers have dominated the top three spots at tracks throughout North America, while the remainder appears satisfied to get fourth and fifth place checks from inflated purses.

Whether a field has eight, nine or ten horses it really doesn’t matter. What matters to the public, and those hoping that the risk-reward ratio tilts in their favor, is the appearance that a high percentage of horses in the field have an actual chance to win.

Currently the imbalance in fields is the singular cause of short-priced favorites and in many cases short exactas and triples. The incredible depth of racing opportunities, a catch-phrase horsemen use when faced with cutting racing dates, has provided the higher echelon trainer with greater earning power while robbing the sport of meaningful competition.
Reducing racing days or lowering takeout only make sense when they can be combined with an exciting and competitive betting product. Under current conditions at tracks with or without slot revenue the situation is starkly similar in regards to competition.

There is not enough.

For the racing business to survive and thrive there needs to be a similar level of risk and reward for the players in the backstretch and grandstand. The business can’t move forward unless parties bend for the common good. That’s one optimum reason why this sport needs to change the way purses are distributed.

For years the argument has been made that paying the owners of the first five finishers didn’t agree with the essential premise that horseplayers follow. If the bettors get paid off based on the first three finishers why should the owners, trainers and drivers get rewarded when a horse finishes fourth or fifth?

The claim becomes more real in today’s climate where many trainers are more than happy to collect checks while failing to attempt to contest a race. Recently one driver-trainer at Yonkers was commenting about how well one of his pacers had done over the last few years at the track. “I only pulled on the right line once,” he claimed. In layman’s terms the horse had piled up huge earnings while essentially not trying to win races.

It’s hard to blame those smart enough to game the system. Yet at the same time it’s impossible to ignore when the activity becomes rampant. Such is the dilemma the sport now faces.

Perhaps the simplest way to fix this problem is to alter the structure in which purses are broken down and incentivize winning and finishing second. Currently 75 percent of purse money goes to the top two finishers. Thoroughbred racing offers 60 percent to the winner while the Standardbreds pay out 50 percent. Given that Thoroughbred horses race less frequently, Thoroughbred owners, trainers and jockeys have many more reasons to attempt to win each and every time they go to the track. Conversely, Standardbreds, because of the purse structure, have less incentive to win because they race more frequently and are rewarded in a better way for losing than the runners.

It would be unfair to claim that purse breakdown alone is the reason that horse players prefer thoroughbreds to standardbreds by a wide margin, but at the same time it would be foolish not to recognize the need to have greater incentives to win.

Purse money is important to help owners defray the costs of caring for a racehorse. Yet many owners go into this sport for fun and excitement and only hope of breaking even. Is it wrong to ask that success be rewarded in a way that encourages good behavior (trying to win)?

Perhaps an instant argument to this suggestion would be that giving alleged drug cheats more money for winning would be criminal.

While this could be true, the feeling is that horsemen as a whole might have more incentive to root out their brethren if in fact they were impacted more severely from such injustice.

From this point of view it isn’t that we have too much racing, it’s that we have too much non-competitive racing.
Changing how purses are broken down would go a long way towards improving the percentages of races people could wager on. It would instantly call on drivers to pull from third or fourth on the rail and go after the leader, or otherwise run the risk of coming back with no money for driver, trainer or owner.

Just imagine what would happen if catch-drivers weren’t paid at all for finishing worse than third?

At least we can dream.