12/10/2014 2:39PM

Industry tries to balance field size and bottom line

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TUCSON, Ariz. – Solutions to the racing industry’s worsening field-size problems do not seem easy to come by, according to participants on panels at the University of Arizona’s Symposium on Racing and Gaming on Wednesday.

The industry would seem to have several paths to address the field-size problems, which are threatening to worsen significantly over the next two years due to precipitous declines in the foal crop from 2010-12. Racetracks could accelerate the cuts they have recently made to their programs or coordinate better with regional rivals to avoid overlapping dates or scheduling races with the same conditions at the same time. Alternately or simultaneously, horsemen could start horses more often or keep horses in training longer.

But those developments face stiff resistance, either from long-standing industry trends or new industry pressures, including the weak economic footing of many tracks and horse owners and the industry’s more focused approach to equine welfare. Those factors severely complicate getting an industry-wide consensus on how to stave off further declines in field size, which have become one of the most significant factors contributing to drops in betting, according to most industry officials.

Rick Baedeker, the executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, appeared on a panel Wednesday at the symposium that examined how the industry could tackle the problem. Baedeker initially gave a very politically correct answer – at least to racing’s betting customers – when asked by the moderator, Daily Racing Form national correspondent Jay Privman, how the California circuit should be remodeled to address the field-size declines.

“I don’t think it should be defined by the simple economics of the trainer or the owner or the [racetrack],” Baedeker said. “I think we always have to look first at what works best for the player.”

But when asked specifically for what would work best, Baedeker admitted that he was stumped. “The short answer is that I just don’t know,” he said.

No panelists this week could give a short answer to the question. Some ideas were bandied about, such as further reductions in the number of races or race dates. On the California circuit, after recent cuts, Santa Anita is now running four days a week, and Del Mar is running five. James Cassidy, a leading trainer and the president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, was asked if horsemen would support further reductions in dates or races.

“We are really doing pretty good right now compared to the rest of the country,” Cassidy said. “I think the status quo is working all right.”

Appearing on the same panel, Georganne Hale, the director of racing at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course in Maryland, said tracks in the Mid-Atlantic region have recently had discussions to coordinate their schedules and racing programs in an effort to maximize the use of the local horse population. But those discussions are complicated by the glut of racetracks in the region – including Laurel and Pimlico – that receive subsidies from slot machines that have pushed purses to record heights.

Those subsidies often have served to obscure the poor health of the racing product at the tracks because the subsidies have allowed purses to rise even as betting at some of the tracks has cratered. Similar dynamics affect racetracks in states across the U.S., from New Mexico to Ohio, with minimum racing dates often protected in contractual agreements between horsemen’s groups and tracks.

Hale said she thinks the discussions with regional tracks could produce fruit in several years.

“Eventually, it will happen,” she said. “I don’t know about this year or next year.”

Both Hale and Cassidy said that a recent industry effort to adopt uniform medication rules was greatly easing the ability of horsemen to ship to other states. But those new, stricter rules have also had short-term effects at the entry box as horsemen adjust to new treatment regimens, officials have said. At the same time, many regulatory veterinarians have become far more aggressive in scratching horses who appear lame in pre-race exams. While no one in the industry is arguing that those developments are hurting the game, they are affecting field size.

Lisa Hanelt, the state veterinarian at Finger Lakes racetrack in upstate New York, said on the panel that she has focused her efforts in the past several years on educating horsemen about how to keep horses healthy and sound, a discussion that often leads to recommendations to give a horse additional rest. “We have to remember that the health of the horse is our first priority,” Hanelt said.

Baedeker outlined a litany of problems facing the industry, including high takeout rates, which have been raised in California recently to increase purses.

“It’s like sitting at a poker table and the house says we’re raising the ante,” Baedeker said. “All we’re going to be left with is empty chairs.”