03/04/2016 3:56PM

Higher purses going to fewer runners


There was ample amount of yin and yang for owners and breeders when it comes to the state of the Thoroughbred purse landscape and racehorse earnings in 2015. There were some good and some bad aspects in the data when looking at the macro and micro pictures of purses and runners, but the good outweighs the bad for the most part, at least when it comes to the averages, or those lucky enough to beat the odds and be represented by a top runner.

First, the good news: In 2015, the average earnings per runner increased to a record $21,632, and the average purse increased to a record $27,341.

Now, the bad news: Total purses in North America in 2015 declined 1.4 percent from 2014, the number of races declined 5.4 percent, and the number of runners declined 3.3 percent.

This scenario – a decline in the number of races and runners while purses remain relatively flat – has been going on for quite some time as the sport shrinks and race days diminish. That’s also created a challenge to racetracks, which struggle to fill races and race dates as the foal crops have decreased.

The good news for owners is that the dynamics from the declines in races and runners coupled with relatively stable total purses has meant that average earnings per runner have been on a steady rise for decades. The bad news for owners, though, is that an average earner is not much to celebrate because it would mean the horse is losing money if it were being campaigned at a major racetrack and training bills were $100 a day or more.

Data generated for this article by The Jockey Club indicate that the general outlook for owners is that it’s hard to make money racing horses, but if you are lucky enough or smart enough to get a good one, the rewards are great.

Here are some of the highlights of the 2015 racing season when it comes to racehorse ownership and the purse landscape. Data are for all races in North America, excluding Puerto Rico and Mexico:

 Average earnings per runner was $27,341, but getting an average runner was not a given, and the majority of runners earned much less than that. The median earnings – half earned more than and half less than – were just $9,225.

 Total purses in 2015 exceeded $1 billion for the 17th consecutive year, at $1.15 billion, though there has been little growth overall in total purses. Total purses in 1999, the first year they topped $1 billion, was $1.07 billion.

 Claiming races accounted for 62.8 percent of all races but distributed just 34.1 percent of all purses.

 The 2,072 stakes races represented 4.9 percent of all races and distributed 25.7 percent of all purses.

 Races at six furlongs accounted for one in every four races.

 Of the 53,365 runners, just 410 earned $200,000 or more.

 On the other side of the earnings equation, 10,427 runners earned less than $1,000, with 1,488 earning nothing.

 There were 1,043 races with a purse of $100,000 or more.

 Horses who made just one start earned an average of $3,553. Horses who made 10 starts earned an average of $31,727.

 More than half of all starters failed to win a race, with non-winners earning an average of $5,356. Horses who won one race earned an average of $25,568.

In 2015, the decline in runners and races that began at the end of the 1980s continued, a result of the foal crop peaking in 1986 at more than 51,000 foals and dipping to about 23,000 foals today.

This has made it difficult for tracks to fill races, and the paucity of available runners has impacted race days and the length of race meets. In 1989, there were a record 82,708 races in North America, and a decade later, it had already dropped to 62,073. By 2009, it was 55,984. Last year, there were 42,220 races, 49 percent below the 1989 peak.

The good news is that total purses have been relatively stable over the past several decades, despite parimutuel handle peaking at $15.7 billion in 2003, because purses today are bolstered by hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies from alternative forms of gambling. The result is that the average purse has been on a slow but steady rise over the years.

The average purse in 2015 was up 4.3 percent from 2014, the increase coming from a sharp 5.4 percent decline in races while total purses declined 1.4 percent.

In other key measures of 2015, average earnings per runner increased 2 percent because the number of races declined at a greater percentage than total purses. The number of races declined by 3.3 percent, to 42,220. It was the fewest races held in North America since 1962, when there were 41,766 races. Generally, the number of races had increased annually from the 1940s until peaking in 1989 and declining almost annually ever since.

No racehorse owner wants to be average, and Table 1 illustrates the distribution of earnings for runners in 2015.

On the positive side, 1,571 runners won $100,000 or more, but that was just 3 percent of all runners. That elite group earned an average of $212,713, collectively winning 28.9 percent of all purses.

To get one of those six-figure earners, an owner most likely was campaigning a stakes winner. In 2015, 869 horses – 55 percent of the horses who earned $100,000 or more – were stakes winners (Table 6, page 11). Of the 410 runners who earned $200,000 or more, 89 percent were stakes winners.

A total of 13,148 runners – 24.6 percent of the total – earned $25,000 or more, and they won a whopping 74.8 percent of all purse money.

That means there was little money left for the other 40,217 runners, and a vast majority of runners earned far less than the overall average of $21,632. In fact, 2.8 percent of all runners, 1,488 – almost as many as those who earned six figures – earned nothing, and 10,427 horses, almost one in five runners, earned less than $1,000.

Table 2 provides a snapshot of the racing menu provided to bettors for the year. As usual, claiming races were the main fare, with 62.8 percent of all races being claiming races or maiden claimers.

While the majority of races were for claimers, those 26,515 races distributed just 34.1 percent of all purses. The average purse for all claiming races was $14,858, about 54 percent of the overall average purse for the year.

The most lucrative races, as always, are stakes races, and the table shows why every owner wants a Saturday horse. The 2,072 stakes races accounted for just 4.9 percent of all races, but they distributed 25.7 percent of all purses, and their average purse was $143,264, or 5.2 times the year’s average purse.

Straight maiden races accounted for their usual percentage of about 11 percent of all races, and they offered an above-average purse of $36,305. The “All Other” line in the table, 9.8 percent of the total, is largely optional-claiming/allowance races.

Table 3 examines the distribution of races by distance and shows why owners should really want to campaign a horse who can run a route of ground.

There were 27,389 races in 2015 – 65 percent of the total – at less than a mile, and they offered an average purse of $22,623, about 83 percent of the overall average.

Races at more than a mile offered an average purse of $46,239, more than twice as much as races at less than a mile. And the competition decreases as distances increase: There were only 7,053, 16.8 percent of the total, of those rich races at more than a mile.

Races at the American classic distance of 1 1/4 miles offered an average purse of $276,960, the distance including such rich ones as the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The demarcation distance for average purse is one mile, which composed 18.1 percent of all races and provided an average purse of $26,646, 97.5 percent of the overall average.

Sprint races dominate the landscape in North America, with races at six furlongs the most commonly run, one in every four races. Almost exactly half – 49.8 percent – of all races were at six furlongs or less, and they offered a below-average purse of $20,914.

Table 4 provides information on the composition of all purses for the year by level. At the upper end, there were 1,043 races, 2.8 percent of the total of 42,220, that offered purses of $100,000 or more, and they distributed 21.1 percent of all purse money. Those rich purses are stakes, which is why stakes winners can earn so much.

The advantage of having horses who can run for rich purses, which are generally stakes races or those races held in the major racing centers of New York, Southern California, Kentucky, and south Florida, is supported by the purse distribution that shows that 25.3 percent of all races had a purse of $30,000 or more, and those 10,667 races distributed 61.4 percent of all purses for the year.

Besides needing a horse who runs in rich races, and preferably at a distance, Table 5 illustrates that the most important factor for an owner in earning purse money is that the horse must win a race.

Put simply, horses who failed to win a race in 2015 earned an average of $5,356. Horses who were able to win a race earned an average of $39,292. To show how hard it is to just win a race, more than half of all starters – 27,770 – failed to win a race last year. The figure of 52 percent non-winners is fairly typical year to year.

Each victory is worth a lot, on average. Winning two races is worth $19,060 more than one win; winners of three earn an additional $25,368 more than those who win two; and so on up the ladder. Horses who win five races earn an average of $116,074, and there were 314 winners in that category.

Also included in this article is a summary of sire statistics for 2015. There were 3,525 sires represented by a starter, and 30 percent of them failed to sire a winner. Some of those sires, of course, were foreign-based and had a limited number of starters in North America. The average number of starters per sire was 15.1.