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.