08/25/2014 10:22AM

Bergman: Benefits of socialism in racing


We like to think that we live in a capitalistic society in the United States. Yet, somehow, every time you look around at the way businesses are conducted there’s a hint of a socialistic value system.

Take a look at the recently revamped Sire Stakes levels in New York and the tier system in Pennsylvania as vivid examples of breaking down a large pie for the benefit of the masses. In olden days “stakes” races whether they be regional or national were considered to be exclusive for the achievers in the group.

In today’s wussified society we appear eager and willing to celebrate mediocrity. How else can we explain “attendance” awards in school?

In some of our “B” and “C” level Sire Stakes action in the Empire State there appears to be evidence that just showing up is all that is required to be rewarded. More and more horses have flocked to the lower levels of the program creating a much larger underclass. While the program doesn’t drain all of the money from the “A” programs, it takes enough away that we must ask if this is indeed for the greater good, or has simply given more incentive to “underperform.”

For the most part the tiered Sire Stakes program are win-win for the two-year-old division. With bettors having less of an appetite for two-year-old racing, especially on the trotting side, there was little opportunity in overnights for trainers and owners to get young horses raced. When only full scale Sire Stakes programs or Grand Circuit races were in vogue, those under that extreme level were left with minimal opportunity to get experience and at the same time pay some bills.

The programs in New York and Pennsylvania on the juvenile level have been extremely popular and in my mind fill a huge void. Not only do the programs benefit a wide array of horse talent, they keep horses that will potentially have relevance in overnight racing from stressing too much before they have reached their true abilities. The overall benefit of allowing opportunity in the two-year-old class for horses not up-to-speed is critical in an environment where not enough horses are being bred. Many of these younger horses may not be stakes-caliber now or ever, but with experience and time they have the potential to be quality horses for years to come at racetracks in dire need.

With the yearling sales around the corner, the value of these programs is immense to all breeders. There’s nothing worse than to try to sell yearlings annually and finding buyers who can’t afford to step in because they were damaged significantly by the previous sale. With at least some money flowing back after purchasing yearlings and supporting two-year-olds, buyers can see the value in coming back and looking for another yearling that could prove to be the star.

Like all social programs I think you have to examine their capacity to help society while weighing the benefits of the program on a broader scale. In this sense I believe the tiered Sire Stakes programs serve a profound purpose when considering two-year-olds. If we can save even one horse from stress as a juvenile and that horse goes on to a productive racing career, the program pays for itself. Our young horses are too valuable in an era of shrinking supply to risk career-ending injuries during their freshman campaigns.

On the other side of the fence is the question of why these programs need to exist in the three-year-old divisions.

Three-year-olds that aren’t good enough to compete on the “A” level of a Sire Stakes program are essentially not stakes-worthy horses. Why offer purses, of any level, that reward horses for perfect attendance?

There’s no reason to mask the reality of what some of these lower tiered events are. They are a means of paying off horsemen and owners simply for owning a horse bred in a particular state.

Elevating horses falsely to the level of stake-hood does not help increase the level of interest or improve the quality of racing. It is in essence a means of paying for mediocrity.

Perhaps a better purpose for these funds would be as seed money towards an even larger project. Why not pool the money currently being handed down to second and third-level horses and create something that rewards true achievement?

An “Interstate” Night of Champions would provide an opportunity to showcase the best local talent in a competitive setting for bragging rights. Why not group the best of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ontario, Ohio and Indiana?

If 2014 has proven anything to those watching the sport on a grand scale it’s that more and more horses are firmly rooted in Sire Stakes programs. We’ve seen fewer elimination races held and a host of situations where quality horses have avoided Grand Circuit action for the specific purpose of gaining eligibility to lucrative Sire Stakes final races.

It’s hard to say if the sport is better or worse off when fewer horses enter major stakes races. Tioga Downs wasn’t able to attract enough horses for the Cane Pace to require eliminations on Sunday. Mohawk originally had 12 horses named for the Canadian Pacing Derby and when one scratched this past Saturday it created a non-elimination race.

The grim reality of the sport going forward is that the supply chain for racehorses is on a downward cycle. Having programs in place that secure breeding farms remain in operation is vital. If there are assets available that can help breeders while at the same time invite a broader interest in the sport, they must be used for those purposes.

Combining capitalistic and socialistic values is essential to help to both preserve the sport and help it grow. It’s a balance that can and should be achieved. Neither system is perfect but when used together exceptional results can be seen.

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