12/09/2014 2:52PM

Field size hot topic at Racing Symposium

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TUCSON, Ariz. – A handful of racing officials kicked off the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming on Tuesday by presenting detailed data showing how field size affects betting figures, a critical issue for North American racetracks due to sharp drops recently in the foal crop and handle.

The panelists appeared on the symposium’s first panel, entitled “Declining Field Size: A Global Issue.” While much of the data presented during the panel confirmed the larger, mostly obvious point – the smaller the field, the smaller the handle – some aspects of the analyses refined the point to a significant degree. More importantly to North American racetracks, the analyses claimed that racetracks can reverse stubborn drops in handle by focusing more acutely on how to manage field sizes.

For example, Jennifer Owen, a research consultant with an Australian company, presented the results of a regression analysis of U.S. racing and field size that showed that handle on U.S. races could climb as much as 43 percent if the industry reduced the number of races so that horses were evenly distributed among the remaining races to produce a field size of 10 horses per race. That’s a huge number for the U.S. racing industry, where handle has dropped by nearly 30 percent since the high-water mark in 2003.

Conversely, Owen’s analysis showed that handle could drop nearly 60 percent if the number of races were increased so that field size dropped to six horses per race. Not coincidentally, one year ago, Hank Zeitlin, an official with Equibase, showed that field size at U.S. racetracks would drop to 6.2 horses per race by the end of 2015 if racetracks did not begin to severely cut back on races.

“The implications of small fields is clear,” Owen said at the conclusion of her presentation.

As it stands now, field size has dropped one horse per race over the past 25 years, from 9.0 horses per race to 7.9 horses per race. Field size is expected to drop sharply in the next year unless tracks cut more races from their schedules, a measure that is generally resisted by horsemen’s groups, even though purse distribution at U.S. racetracks has not dropped nearly as sharply as handle due to subsidies from casinos. In fact, the average purse per race is actually up over the last 10 years to a record number, while the average purse per runner is even higher.

Steve Koch, the vice president of racing for Woodbine racetrack in Ontario, Canada, showed how the value of adding a horse to a race diminishes significantly as field size grows, demonstrating that it’s better to focus on adding horses to short fields than adding horses to large fields. Koch concluded in his analysis that by “smoothing out” field sizes so that every field had Woodbine’s overall average of 8.4 horses, Woodbine would theoretically increase handle by 23 percent because the handle losses on the six-horse fields are greater than the handle gains on the 10-horse fields.

“This is the bottom line of why field size matters,” Koch said. Following the presentation, Koch stressed in an interview that the gains were theoretical, and that “smoothing out” the field sizes is more easily done on paper than in real life.

Chris Larmey, a horseplayer who is on the National Handicapping Championship Players’ Committee, explained in his presentation that short fields are unattractive to recreational players because they are “less-challenging puzzles.” For professional players, the small pools accompanying short fields reduce the amount of leverage the players can use, Larmey said, leading to even less interest in the short-field races.

In a later, somewhat-related panel Tuesday, Martin Panza, the senior vice president of racing operations at the New York Racing Association, said he did not have a clear answer for how to increase field sizes, although he suggested more regional competition between tracks, fewer race dates, and rejiggering the percentages of the purse that go to the top four finishers.

But Panza did point out that increasing purses does not seem to be a clear answer – field size has dropped at NYRA tracks since the association began getting huge subsidies from a casino next door to the association’s Aqueduct Racetrack. That dovetails with national data: Despite billions of dollars in subsidies over the past decade to purses, foal crops and field sizes have dropped.

Koch said regional cooperation would be important if racing were to seriously attempt to address the declines that are threatening to get even worse over the next two years. However, using elephants at a watering hole as a metaphor, he explained that racetracks are in competition with each other for horses and handle, complicating relationships.

“I think us racetrack elephants are looking at each other a little funny right now, a little cockeyed, wondering who’s going to get that last drink of water,” Koch said.

riconap More than 1 year ago
A fair playing track, with little or no bias, would result in larger fields. This is so since front runners are usually favorites who can scare away closer types when the sped up track surfaces makes it almost impossible for them to win.
Jay Holden More than 1 year ago
Field size: does this take into account all the turf races taken off the track, therefore numerous scratches. What about the huge amount of horses that are scratched ona daily baseis because of unwilling jocks that get their jock mount to walk out of the paddock. Used to be if a rider was scared you could get a replacement jockey. That doesn't happen anymore. If we take the vets off the backside the owners will come back and give the horses and horsemen a real level playing field. No more. Clembuterol, bute, banimine,ketofin, methocarbomol, lasix , dex and excess cobalt. The sport might come back
M More than 1 year ago
If you get in the top 4 as an owner, it ought to cover at least half your monthly costs... At many tracks across the US, you can't even break even with a low to mid-level claimer unless you win (like every time!). In fact, I would extend payouts to 6th and increase them, Then you have more horses entered in hope of a meaningful payout. If three tough horses at your level enter, there is no reason to even bother.
jim lefferts More than 1 year ago
Do "leaders" of the racetrack industry really need to commission a study to show that larger field sizes correlate with greater handle? Yet another example of the industry staring blankly at surface level symptoms while doing nothing about the underlying issues that are killing the game: takeout and integrity. The mind reels to comprehend the magnitude of failure that is a 30% loss of business during a time in which it should have gained 30% or more easily. In the last 10 years broadband access has become wireless and ubitquitous putting horse race wagering, through ADWs, literally at the fingertips of hundreds of millions of people that previously had to drive to a track. Simultaneously, TVG and HRTV have emerged as solid content providers greatly increasing horse racing's exposure on TV. How could the industry have so clumsily fumbled the ball at such an opportune time? By ignoring its two biggest issues: takeout and integrity. Meanwhile other forms of gambling are growing like wildfire during the same period. And that competition has only just begun as sports wagering is soon to gain to gain a vastly larger foothold. Even the commissioner of the NBA is addressing what the opportunity presents for his league. All of these other forms of gambling offer two things racing doesn't: a low takeout and integrity. Racing's long-term players are leaving the game because they can't beat the onerous takeouts and they feel there are just too many drugs and trainer intentions in too many races that they just don't have privy too. New players, who are often already educated gamblers, try the game out briefly then quit, concluding it's silly to play a game with a 20% rake when there are so many other forms of gambling readily available at a reasonable 10% takeout or less. Racetrack leaders have only fueled racing's demise by raising effective takeouts through the blended impact of exotic bets many of which have takeouts that are absurdly high in the mid-20s to 30%. Racetrack industry leaders need to wake up and address the real issues. Job 1 is lower takeouts. It is a must do lest your demise be hastened. Of course it will be hard. For most of the minds with short-sighted vision in the room impossible. It will ultimately mean far fewer tracks (let them be casinos which is all most of them are anyway), renegotiated arrangements with state and local governments, increased operational efficiencies and other measures that are hard work. But for those tracks that remain, it will mean less competition for horses and wagering dollars resulting in larger fields and much larger pools. For the players, with a reasonable takeout, they can get back into the game. For the hundreds of millions with broadband access, they can discover the game and stay with it. Ultimately the sport can begin growing again. It is a far more interesting and exciting proposition than any other form of gambling. Its storyline and characters so much more compelling. Sadly, the industry is killing the goose that lays the golden egg - the player - and reparations are in order. Job 1a- Get drugs out of the game. No drugs on race day. Beyond the obvious cruelty of running injured animals because their pain is being masked by drugs, it is incomprehensible that any game upon which the outcome is being wagered on allows anyone to add or subtract a drug without the knowledge of 99.9% of the bettors. A trainer can add a drug to enhance performance or withhold it to lessen performance and bet accordingly. We as players have no idea. This must stop! It is incredibly sad to watch the sport we love wither on the vine as its leaders talk of a need for fuller fields while ignoring fundamental issues year after year - in fact exacerbating them. It will continue to die slowly until somebody with vision and courage steps up and leads.
btr10000 rd More than 1 year ago
Cutting the number of races sound like a preferred method to boost field size. Horse men groups, who unlike us handicappers, has a seat at the table, strongly resist reduction in races or racecards per year. Why are they breeding less horses if more are needed? I'll leave that out there. Now, trainers and owners at NYRA are perfectly happy with smally field sizes. Everybody gets a check, if there sound enough to get in when there is a small field for slot inflated purses. In fact NY people at the sym talked about paying out beyond 6th or 7th finish position because adding that horse drives up handle. Purse money should be earned. Expanding purse payouts beyond betable postions(4th) in NY doesnot set the right motivation for horses connections. Remember there are a few of us handicapping /betting the product. I stopped totally on Yonkers becuase the purse money went up by 40% with the old purse splits. Purse splits need to be set or reset to emphasize the need to win. Especially with slot inflated purses. What ever is decided don't forget us. Thank you....RD
Bruce Alexander More than 1 year ago
reward the breeders with that slot money nybreds were suppose to run for 25 % more than open horses in ny what happened ?