08/08/2013 1:00PM

Incentives to start horses have their critics


As foal crops continue to decline in the United States, a handful of tracks are invigorating or implementing policies that reward trainers and owners for starting horses in races, sometimes regardless of where the horse finishes, introducing subtle concerns about the impact of the policies on other tracks and the safety of horses and riders.

The programs take a wide variety of forms, from a popular program in Del Mar awarding lucrative purse bonuses to out-of-state horses to one at the Sacramento State Fair that makes payments to trainers based on the numbers of horses started. While the Del Mar program is in its third year, many of the programs were launched in 2013, when acute drops in the foal crop in 2010 and 2011 began to take their heaviest toll on the ability of tracks to fill races.

The policies are designed to provide incentives to trainers to fill starting gates at a time when the total number of races at U.S. tracks has not fallen nearly enough to compensate for recent declines in the foal crop. Since 2007, the foal crop has declined 34.5 percent, from 34,352 to an estimated 22,500 in 2012, whereas total races at U.S. tracks have declined only 12.4 percent over the same period, from 56,361 in 2007 to 49,381 last year, according to Jockey Club figures.

Because wagering and purse revenues are highly dependent on field size, that imbalance has put enormous pressure on tracks to either cut back on racing dates, increase the size of their available horse population, or nudge local horsemen into starting their horses more frequently. Because horsemen have resisted steep cuts to race dates in nearly every racing jurisdiction, racing secretaries and track managements are increasingly turning to incentives to get horsemen to ship and start.

The incentives have drawbacks. For one, any horse who ships into a track is a horse who shipped out of another, making one track’s gain the other’s loss. And some racing officials have raised concerns that incentive programs providing rewards for simply starting a horse may lead horsemen to run horses who have either no chance of running respectably or an unacceptable chance of injuring themselves.

Nowhere is the pressure greater to lure horses into the starting gate than in south Florida, where Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course are running head to head for the first time this summer. Not surprisingly, one of the tracks is using an incentive program to bolster its field sizes.

That track would be Gulfstream, which has never raced in the summer months before this year. It started its meet July 1 by offering $1,000 starting bonuses for every horse. The bonus was recently reduced to $500 and restricted to horses who are already on the grounds at the track, with a limit of one bonus per trainer per race.

Timothy Ritvo, the track’s general manager, said the jury is still out on whether the bonuses are leading to any increases in field size, citing the lack of data for head-to-head summer racing that would allow a comparison (and the lack of any summer racing data for Gulfstream).

“I do believe it is at least mitigating any potential decline in field size right now,” he said. “We’re doing what we can.”

But don’t look for Calder to reciprocate. The track has held fast to a policy that denies any horse access to the grounds if the horse is shipped to Gulfstream to race, in line with a policy that its owner, Churchill Downs Inc., applies at all of its racetracks to protect their local horse populations. And most specific to the incentive program in place at Gulfstream, Calder’s vice president and general manager of racing, John Marshall, said the payments cross a line in an era in which racing’s critics are ready to pounce on any practice that could potentially endanger the welfare of a horse.

“This is a payment awarding a trainer for starting a horse, whether the horse is physically prepared or not,” Marshall said. “That’s an obvious animal-welfare issue. It’s the industry’s responsibility to accept an occasional small field rather than provide incentives that could endanger the safety of a horse or a rider.”

Ritvo responded that Gulfstream intends to monitor the performance of all horses at the meet to keep tabs on trainers who may be entering horses who aren’t racing-fit. He also said Gulfstream’s existing prerace examination procedures are more comprehensive than Calder’s because of a requirement that the horses jog before passing the examination.

“We’ve got great controls in place, we’ve got the right to refuse entry to anyone, and we’ll be keeping track and watching out for those things,” Ritvo said. “If anyone is over-running horses, we’ll have the final say.”

Similar programs that provide payments for starts also were implemented this year at the Sacramento State Fair meet, where in-house trainers are receiving $500 for each five starts and trainers who ship a horse in to race get $150. This year at Hastings in Vancouver, British Columbia, where five cards have already been canceled because of a lack of entries, the owner and trainer of a horse who starts three times during the meet will each receive a payment of $1,000.

Of course, other programs incentivizing starters have existed at some tracks for years, but under a different guise. The New York Racing Association and Keeneland Racecourse pay a portion of a race’s purse to every horse who finishes the race. The payments are often below $100 for a last-place horse, but it still allows a trainer and owner to pocket money from a race result without the horse finishing in the top five positions, which has been the standard at most racetracks for a decade. Critics have occasionally grumbled that paying to last place rewards mediocrity, but the paltry sums involved have usually quieted any long-term debate over the issue.

Del Mar’s program stands out among all others, largely because of the size of the bonus for eligible horses. Under the program, which was first launched in 2011, any horse whose last start was outside of California is eligible for a 33 percent bonus on purse earnings for its first race at the track, in addition to a $1,000 bonus regardless of where the horse finishes. The bonus, which started at 20 percent in 2011 and was upped to 25 percent in 2012, is co-funded by the track and the Thoroughbred Owners of California.

Tom Robbins, Del Mar’s racing secretary, said the track and TOC would not have increased the bonus if the program hadn’t been so successful in luring out-of-state horses to California, which, as far as horses go, exists largely as an island on the national racing landscape. According to Robbins, most horses who ship in to Del Mar to exploit the bonus rarely ship back out of state, and most important, many trainers and owners in California have scoured out-of-state claiming races for horses to import, boosting the size of the state’s horse population, even if that’s only one horse at a time.

“It’s important to remember that the bonus is triggered by the horse, not the human,” Robbins said. “It’s not rewarding the guys who are claiming here in California, because it doesn’t help anyone if a horse just goes from Trainer A to Trainer B.”

Dan Metzger, executive director of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, said discussions with members of TOBA over the last 15 years had convinced him that owners by and large support incentive payments, especially when considering the addition of a horse to a race typically generates a 10 percent bump in wagering revenue for the track. Viewed in that context, Metzger said starting incentives make sense because trainers and owners should be rewarded for generating business for a track and making races more appealing to bettors.

Metzger also said concerns over horsemen starting unsound horses to exploit the incentive programs are being mitigated by prerace inspection procedures that have become more stringent over the past several years. While that renewed focus is hardly uniform across the industry, many racing jurisdictions have put in place new procedures for prerace inspections because of two recent developments: the release of a report last year examining an unprecedented spate of deaths at Aqueduct’s 2011-12 winter meet, and the results gleaned from an ongoing project to collect injury data at tracks.

The Aqueduct report contended many horsemen were entering horses who may not have been ready to race or had soundness problems in order to capitalize on huge increases in purses at Aqueduct because of new slot-machine subsidies, especially at the low end of the racing program. Meanwhile, the injury data has allowed regulators to quietly identify horsemen whose starters have high injury rates, resulting in more scrutiny of the trainer’s runners from the entry box to post time.

“If there are some people abusing the system, starting horses just to get the incentive payment, it’s up to the stewards and the racing regulators and commissions to handle that,” Metzger said. “We’ve seen a lot of movement in that area over the past several years to keep people from starting unsound horses.”

The growth in incentive payments raises concerns about horsemen starting unsound horses, said Mike Ziegler, executive director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety and Integrity Alliance, which accredits racetracks on the basis of their safety and welfare policies. However, Ziegler said the alliance has not yet discussed a requirement for accreditation that would consider the award of incentive payments.

“I can see both sides of it, because obviously you want to help owners who don’t run well and earn purse money, but it’s a fair topic for discussion,” Ziegler said, noting that racetracks in Northern California awarded purses down to eighth place as a way to defray increases in workers’ compensation costs when he worked at the area’s two tracks a decade ago. “The majority of owners will say it’s a good thing, and most of the time it is, but as we’ve seen in the past, sometimes there are unintended consequences to policies like these.”

North American racing statistics (2003-2012)

Year Starters Races Starts Avg. field Avg. starts/runners
2012 61,863 49,381 389,568 7.89 6.3
2011 64,625 49,794 400,408 8.04 6.2
2010 68,235 50,918 417,192 8.19 6.11
2009 71,662 54,121 446,196 8.24 6.23
2008 72,638 55,069 450,095 8.17 6.2
2007 72,966 56,361 460,492 8.17 6.31
2006 72,729 56,902 462,937 8.14 6.37
2005 72,780 57,495 469,644 8.17 6.45
2004 74,206 58,858 487,428 8.28 6.57
2003 73,918 59,001 489,503 8.3 6.62

North American registered foal crop (2003-2012)

Year U.S. Pct. change Canada Puerto Rico Total N. American Pct. Change
2012 22,500* -2.8 1,950* 250* 24,700* -3.1
2011 23,150* -10.3 2,050* 300* 25,500* -9.8
2010 25,808 -12.7 2,105 347 28,260 -12.5
2009 29,556 -8.5 2,319 429 32,304 -8.4
2008 32,310 -5.9 2,381 559 35,250 -6
2007 34,352 -1.6 2,546 595 37,493 -1.6
2006 34,901 -0.4 2,643 556 38,100 -0.7
2005 35,046 0.7 2,788 527 38,361 1.1
2004 34,800 2.4 2,614 534 37,948 2.4
2003 33,975 3 2,576 515 37,066 3

*Estimated figure
Source: The Jockey Club