02/22/2012 10:45AM

Beyer: Tampa Bay Downs decline sudden as its ascension


At a time when much of the horse racing industry has been in decline, Tampa Bay Downs has been the sport’s shining success story. The Oldsmar, Fla., track attracted the attention of bettors from coast to coast by offering large, competitive fields with the potential for big payoffs, and its 2010-2011 winter season produced record results. Long regarded as a minor-league operation, Tampa averaged a stunning $4.57 million per day in wagers.

I have been a Tampa loyalist for years, and I was one of many horseplayers who eagerly anticipated the winter season that began in December. And I am one of many who have been disappointed and disillusioned about the decline of the track’s product. The fields aren’t as big. The races aren’t as competitive. The betting isn’t as interesting. Customers have responded accordingly. General manager Peter Berube said that wagering has dropped by about $500,000 a day – an abrupt reversal after years of growth.

The decline is by no means a mysterious phenomenon. Two crucial issues are involved. One is a factor that every handicapper confronts virtually every day. Another is a more corrosive problem that is going to affect most of the U.S. racing industry.

Anyone who bets Tampa is keenly aware of Jamie Ness, who has dominated Tampa as few trainers have ever dominated a lengthy race meet, winning with 45 of the 98 horses he has saddled — an astonishing 46 percent. Ness trains a big, far-flung, professionally run stable, a distinct contrast with many of the shoestring operations against which he competes. Even the weakest of Ness’s runners go off at low odds, and handicappers ought to relish the prospect of playing against horses who are overbet, but we have all learned this lesson: Don’t. Ness wins regularly when logic suggests he shouldn’t – with horses like Escort.

Trainer Tom Proctor, a nationally respected horseman, gave up on the once-classy Escort and dropped him into a $10,000 claiming race, which he lost by seven lengths. His career as an effective racehorse appeared to be finished, but Ness nevertheless claimed him and entered him three weeks later. Escort was made the odds-on favorite solely because of his new trainer’s mystique, but betting against the mystique wouldn’t have been a smart idea. Escort promptly won by 15 lengths. If Ness can improve so dramatically upon a trainer of Proctor’s stature, he can do anything. Accordingly, gamblers don’t want to bet against him and may prefer to avoid races where he is a presence. Rival trainers don’t want to run against him. Ness’s last three winners paid $2.60, $5.40, and $3.20 – all in fields of six. So much for the big fields and big payoffs that have made Tampa popular.

Yet if the Ness factor is frustrating, it will not necessarily be everlasting. Nobody wins at a 46 percent clip forever. But Tampa is also a victim of a problem that faces every track and can only get worse: the shortage of Thoroughbred racehorses in the United States.
When the financial crisis struck America in 2008, the racing industry was hard-hit immediately. Gamblers bet less money. Tracks’ business dropped sharply. Owners bought fewer horses. Breeders suffered, bred fewer mares, and in some cases went out of business.

Before the crisis, the production of U.S. Thoroughbreds had been fairly constant, averaging 34,800 foals per year. The number dropped in 2008 and 2009 to about 32,000, a decline now affecting the sport because those thousands of unborn horses would be 3- and 4-year racehorses this year. The real crisis, however, is yet to come: In 2011 the size of the U.S. foal crop plummeted to an estimated 24,900.

However, in Ocala, Fla. the heart of the state’s breeding industry, the real crisis has already arrived. The number of foals born in Florida dropped sharply in 2008 and has continued to fall. “We’ve had a total collapse of the Ocala market,” Berube said. “Farms are closed or are in foreclosure. It’s a mess up there.”

Roy Lerman, a breeder and a longtime Tampa Bay supporter, said: “When the depression hit, the small breeder could no longer sell that ‘backyard horse’ for a decent price. They were producing the $10,000 to $25,000 horses that would be the backbone of Tampa Bay. Now the small breeders have disappeared.”

Berube said that 30 percent of the runners at Tampa used to come from farms and training centers in Ocala. That number has dropped by half. “We knew this was a ticking time bomb,” the general manager said, “but I thought we’d have a few more years before it impacted us. This year is the first time we’ve had difficulty getting race cards filled.”

Racetracks need to offer attractive purse money to compete for a dwindling supply of horses. Tampa’s purses, however, are meager — particularly for its bread-and-butter claiming races. (They are lower, for example, than those at Laurel Park, even though the size of Tampa’s betting business dwarfs Laurel’s.) Good stables that have been Tampa fixtures are running at least some of their horses elsewhere this winter – mostly at tracks, such as Gulfstream Park, that offer purses augmented by slot-machine money.

One possible course of action for Tampa would be to cut back its schedule in an effort to bolster the size of its fields. But there aren’t going to be any easy remedies for the diminished quality of competition, because the small Thoroughbred  crops of 2010 and 2011 are certain to impact the sport. Most tracks in the country will also be grappling for answers to the problems that Tampa has begun to face this winter.

- The Washington Post

Dave Bukovac More than 1 year ago
Jamie Ness is one reason bettors are are not betting races his barn has an entry in. Gerald Bennett is another what seems like a very good handicapping race becomes a pass for me and my modest wager. How do trainers work such magic? I have felt that Ness and Bennet are actually bad for racing at Tampa unfortunately they win to many races. Some of you that read this will remember Oscar Barrera Aqueduct winter inner track trainer. Who would claim some of the cheapest horses on the grounds. Oscar didn't have to train the horses for a few weeks like Ness after a claim. He would run the horse back in two or three days in allowance company and win year after year. Disappearing or at least having little or no success when the racing switched to the main track than Belmont and Saratoga. How do these trainers make these horses into superior race horse in a matter of days or a few weeks. daveb
Kenny More than 1 year ago
Look at AQU race saturday won by Beau de Beaupre, trainer Rudy Rodriguez, 30-1 same class on Jan 4 for Dan Conway (no slouch) the horse is trounced, transfer to RR, one garbage work on 2/4, then wires the field at 9-1 2/25. Stewards at least should be asking questions and publicly remark on such improvement. Its instances like this that make a mockery of the game and make it hard to attract new people to the sport. Its these sudden improvements from the same barns that defy explanation and make other good trainers seem like idiots by comparison, that have ruined the game.
goforgin01 More than 1 year ago
Conspiracy theories in this game are a joke. There are organizations like TRPB that monitor/investigate/police the game. Let them do their jobs, while you as a handicapper do yours. Ness is out of the money 25% of the time. If you find those opportunities...particularly where he's 5th or worse...your exotics payouts will reflect it.
Kenny More than 1 year ago
It's not a conspiracy theory, just plain logical thinking. The handicappers ARE doing their job....they are running for the hills to bet something other than Tampa Bay races!!!!!!
goforgin01 More than 1 year ago
Corruption and graft are everywhere in society. The horse racing game is not immune. But if you're going to point at every aberrant performance and cry wolf, I'm going to say there are a myriad of legitimate reasons for form reversal in either direction, and any one of them (or more than one) is a more likely explanation than cocktails and dreams.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There are Jamie Ness's at second and third tier tracks all over the country that dominate the particular venue they race at and believe me, that's where TBD needs to be catagorized. Don't blame Ness It really doesn't matter who blew the TVG deal because the greedy owner wouldn't do anything to help the horsemen anyway. Their cardroom makes the track money but have the horsemen seen any of it? When was the last time they put any money into the backside? The mainstay of the racing community lives in what could be discribed as a cesspool. By the way, has anybody noticed the alarming rise in catistrophic breakdowns this season?
Mark Kane More than 1 year ago
I know this take three of the top trainers and add Jamie Ness. Now have them claim 10000 dollar horses and see who comes out on top. Jamie puts his horses in the spots where they can win. Jamie been winning that way for years he has a eye for claiming and thats where he makes his money. Do not hate him because you cant beat him.
John S More than 1 year ago
While I agree with the comments below, my biggest issue is the ridiculous bias for inside speed this year. It's like harness racing - whoever gets the best trip wins - not the best horse.
Hunter Delaney More than 1 year ago
Escort....trained By Todd Pletcher until May 2011 disappointing 6th in Chick Lang Stakes....picked up by Proctor, claimed by Ness for $10,000.00, and raced back for $8,000.00, while winning. Sheer genius......
Del Donaker More than 1 year ago
I don't see why the industry thinks bigger fields and ten races a day is the answer. I like Golden Gate on thursday and friday when they run 8 races. I don't like chaos and I don't have time to handicap 10 races. And there are still plenty of long shots and big payouts with small fields. Also, I like turf and synthetic. On dirt you get winners that look like Secretariat on one race and then come in last the next. Dirt is the wildest surface there is. I've been trying Santa Anita and it's just nuts in my opinion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wasn't there someplace that you could go to look up each trainer's medical violations? I can't seem to find it.... any suggestions anyone?
Laura Buenaventura More than 1 year ago
All of what is written is correct but a few other items need to be adressed. First, Tampa after years of growth has given very little back to horseman-purses have not gone up in years.Mdn SpWt is still 17,000 ridiculous in this era,especially with their increase over the last6-7 years.Secondly TVG did a great job promoting Tampa but they decided to go the better route for their bottomline and use HRTV which has to many tracks on at once therefore eliminating tampa midway thru the card.Less to horseman and less to the bettors equals weaker product.A major fact racing continues to ignore!!!