02/27/2015 3:30PM

Hovdey: Stakes bonuses – the gift that rarely gives


Coming up for air while binge-watching Season 3 of “House of Cards.” You won’t believe what President Frank is caught doing in hour five and the use to which he puts the White House gymnasium. Then again, maybe you would.

Apparently, it is still snowing somewhere east of here. Rain is on the horizon for Santa Anita over the weekend, which is no excuse for management’s failure to card any kind of stakes race Sunday, unless there is something to be gained by following the lead of every other Thoroughbred track around the country. Welcome to the herd.

There was a time that weekends were ripe for putting the game’s best foot forward, but the national trend seems now to treat Sunday programs as weak sisters of the big Saturday blowouts – the hangover after the orgy.

In fact, Sundays have been sacrificed to the philosophy that the best races will attract more betting handle if they are batched together on a single afternoon designed to plumb the depths of the horseplayers’ pockets. Also, it would be really, really hard to market two days instead of just one.

While on the subject of marketing – and who doesn’t love a good marketing angle? – hats off to Gulfstream Park and Fasig-Tipton for snagging a day’s worth of attention for their coupling of 2-year-old sales grads and the Florida Derby with a million-dollar bonus.

The bonus boondoggle is the modern marketing racing zombie that just won’t die, despite the mountain of rotting evidence that bonuses serve only to pervert the best interests of horse and game. Take your pick:

The $2 million Garden State bonus of 1985 won by Spend a Buck was highlighted by the ugly public squabble over where the jockey’s share would go. Angel Cordero rode the colt to victories in the first three steps of the process – including the Kentucky Derby – but then Laffit Pincay clinched the bonus in the Jersey Derby. Pincay got it all.

The short-lived Garden State bonus gave birth to the million-dollar Triple Crown bonus for participation in all three jewels (there was also a $5 million payday awaiting a Triple Crown winner, but ... hah!). Alysheba won two legs of the Crown in 1987 but lost the bonus when fourth to Bet Twice in the Belmont. Preakness winner Summer Squall had a shot at the bonus in 1990, but his people kept him out of the non-Lasix Belmont Stakes, leaving the bonus to Derby winner Unbridled for just barely showing up.

In explaining why he was leaving all that money on the table, Cot Campbell, speaking for Summer Squall’s ownership, said, “A million dollars is lovely, but running him would not be the right thing to do.”

What a concept.

My favorite was Paradise Creek’s loss of a shot at a multirace bonus in 1994 when a perfectly healthy horse was a last-minute scratch by Dickie Small out of the Dixie Stakes at Pimlico. The bonus’s fine print required a minimum field size. Ask Bill Mott, who was running Paradise Creek because of the bonus, how he felt about that. But first hide the children.

The bonus concept should have been buried once and for all after the 1996 MGM Grand Classic Crown attempted to lure reigning Horse of the Year Cigar to California for the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic. There was $2 million for a horse who could win all three and $500,000 worth of participation bonuses.

A quarter crack eliminated any chance that the champ would run at Santa Anita, so that was that. Still, the bonus lived on, and by the time the Pacific Classic came around, the only horse with a shot at that half-million-dollar consolation prize was Luthier Fever, a hopeless longshot who did not belong in the race. He ran anyway and was distanced at 78-1 odds, though $500,000 richer.

Bonus schemes should never impress anyone. Tracks or their sponsors buy insurance for the bonuses, which makes them only marginally invested. Better they should put the premium in the purse.

The most recent bonus bust came last year when Los Alamitos linked its newly crafted, early-summer Derby with the Pacific Classic and Breeders’ Cup Classic for a cool million to the horse who could win all three. That horse was almost Shared Belief, who, unlike the other 13 starters in the BC Classic, stood to win $3.75 million for a victory instead of $2.75 million. We know how that turned out.

Human nature, being exceedingly frail, does not need the temptation of marketing-driven bonuses stirred into the difficult mix of where and when to run. Furthermore, the idea of one horse with more at stake in terms of purse money than his opponents serves only to warp the idea of the level playing field. There will always be intangibles – a horse with a Triple Crown on the line or a possible championship – but they all should be running for the same pieces of the pot.

Fasig-Tipton has partnered with Gulfstream Park to use an established Grade 1 Kentucky Derby prep to hype its product and drive sales participation. Better that the company should have taken a page from the Magic Millions Sales company in Australia, which funds a rich series of stakes events to horses offered at a Magic Millions sale. The races are defined as restricted, but the money still spends, and crowds show up in big numbers, usually on a Saturday.