10/08/2013 12:49PM

Simulcast conference: Field shrinkage at tipping point


LEXINGTON, Ky. – There is a storm on racing’s horizon. And it doesn’t appear as if the sport is preparing for it.

The storm is a serious contraction in the number of horses of racing age, a decline that has already started. The contraction is expected to accelerate significantly over the next two years because of the dramatic decline in the foal crop from 2009-11, with serious repercussions on the ability of racetracks to card races with full, competitive fields.

The contraction has become a pressing issue already for many tracks, and on Tuesday at the annual Simulcast Conference, held this year at a downtown Lexington hotel, representatives of Equibase, the racing industry’s official data supplier, presented the starkest numbers yet of what the industry will face.

Hank Zeitlin, chief operating officer of Equibase, said that if current trends are maintained, the average field size of a U.S. horse race in 2015 will be 6.2 horses per race. Racing officials and racetracks strive to maintain an average field size of at least eight; Zeitlin said that if the industry wanted to hit that figure in 2015, it would need to trim its annual number of races by 25 percent.

From 2007 to 2012, the annual U.S. foal crop has dropped from 34,325 to 21,725, according to the Jockey Club, which is a part owner of Equibase. According to Zeitlin, that has led to a projected decline in the number of horses in racing age from an estimated 150,000 in 2010 to 100,000 in 2015, a drop of 33 percent.

Yet despite these declines, the number of races in the United States only dropped from 51,304 in 2007 to 45,806 to 2012, according to the Jockey Club. Over that same time period, handle has declined from $14.7 billion to $10.9 billion.

Horsemen’s groups in states that use subsidies from casinos to prop up purses and the states’ breeding industries have steadfastly resisted cuts in racing dates despite anemic handle totals. In addition, many statutes in racing-subsidized states mandate a certain number of racing dates, complicating efforts to trim races, and horsemen have no reason to support fields with more horses, since earning a share of the purse is more difficult in a more competitive field.

Yet the cuts will have to come if racing is to survive, considering that bettors overwhelmingly prefer fields with eight or more horses. But don’t hold your breath: Zeitlin said that a recent survey performed by Equibase staff to prepare its 2014 racing calendar indicates that race dates will be flat next year, even as the number of available horses plummets.

The Thoroughbred Racing Associations, which administers the simulcast conference and is a part-owner of Equibase, has been studying the data for two years, according to Chris Scherf, its executive vice president. A breakout session later Tuesday morning was put together to study the issue, but Scherf and other racing officials have said that while everyone supports cuts in someone else’s jurisdiction, no one supports cuts in their own.

New angles for TV production

Horseplayers are a notoriously conservative lot, and woe be to anyone who dares to suggest that racetracks abandon the single long pan shot to broadcast a race. A mention of change on social media sites can flame out the Internet, and the inboxes at NBC Sports are overflowing with missives from customers incensed at a 2-second cut to a ground-level camera during the running of a 1 1/2-mile race.

Haters, meet Patrick Cummings.

Cummings, director of racing information for Trakus, devoted 20 minutes and approximately 120 slides to a sober, concise, and informative presentation arguing for racetracks to abandon the pan shot, at least for portions of the race in which the shot fails to give bettors an adequate look at the entrants in the race or its dynamics.

Cummings spent a portion of the presentation showing nearly identical still shots from races 40 years ago compared to races held this year. He also showed the dramatic changes that have taken place in the production of broadcasts for other sports like football and baseball and argued that racetracks need to adapt to the changing times.

“The way we experience televised sports has changed dramatically,” Cummings said. “Racing hasn’t changed at all.”

One change has been the adoption of Trakus’s technology at many racetracks. The technology uses radio antennas to determine horses’ locations on the track during a race, with graphics displaying the race order on the television screen. The technology is almost universally praised by horseplayers.

But racetracks could and should do much more, Cummings said. The pan shots of the horses in the backstretch need to be replaced by a camera shooting nearly head-on to capture the entire field, Cummings said. And there’s no crime in using a quick rail shot to capture the speed and power of the Thoroughbred horse.

“We have to ask ourselves,” Cummings said. “Are we capturing races in the best light possible?”