10/08/2013 1:49PM

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?”

Marie Jost More than 1 year ago
When you look at this entire article and match it up to recent dynamics and changes to the current state of racing, the classic handicapper ends up saying things things like "WTF". How much more greed and stupidity can we endure? Shorter fields Shorter Racing Forms Shorter Camera Shots Shorter live attendance So, executives want exchange wagering all the while not being able to see the entire race field. How's that for integrity towards the game. Something the industry is not "long" on
JoeyB More than 1 year ago
The problem is too many tracks, too many races and race meets that are too long. Why is Gulfstream and Calder going head to head? Why does Delaware and Maryland race against each other? Why does Parx run almost all year? If I were king and controlled racing I would mandate these changes: 1. No track can have a race meet longer than three months. 2. Tracks can only race three days per week. 3. Tracks can only run nine races per day. 4. Tracks in the same state cannot have their meets run against each other. I know what i'm mandating will never happen because track operators are greedy and they have no problem running 5 and 6 horse fields and the betting public be damned. Think about it what if Florida raced Tampa, Calder and Gulfstream at different times of the year the fields would be giant.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Patrick Cummings is dead wrong. Whenever NBC or any California Breeders Cup network starts getting artsy or self-consciously "innovative" with camera angles, the races instantly become more difficult to follow. For a sport looking to get more new blood into the game, that's a help? He also calls to eliminate graphics...except of course for his precious Trakus. Again, if you want new blood to get involved in the sport, you want to take away the one thing that makes it possible for a newbie to follow? It makes no sense, and it has nothing to do with "conservative" horseplayers, I'm pretty young myself but covering baseball or football is different than covering horse racing: you can't use fancy graphics and cutting-edge editing to make races different, because racing at its core is the same. If you make it impossible for a new fan to follow the action, they won't. Period.
Dee Englehart More than 1 year ago
Here's a suggestion; encourage owners to keep their horses here in the US when their racing career is over instead of sending them to other countries like Japan and South Korea. Why are they sending them overseas to other countries when the US racing industry needs help.
Ray Manley More than 1 year ago
We are going to see more tracks fade into the sunset. The foal crops of the last few years will guarantee it happens.
Eddie Smith More than 1 year ago
Here's a perfect way to eliminate several hundred races beginning in 2014: ditch Aqueduct inner track racing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's also a way to start the elimination of racing in New York. It's a non-starter.
Bill Opalka More than 1 year ago
Well, let's see. The centerfield camera has been around forever to see balls and strikes, so maybe we should retire that for a more artistic overhead shot. You know, because it's new and different. Do you think that would get anywhere in a production meeting? Should we change camera angles just because we can? Have these guys ever bet a race, or tried to follow a particular horse when itchy fingers in the truck make 20 camera cuts in a 2-minute race? Of course not. So why abuse what fans you have, or confuse newcomers, just to pretend you're innovative?
Ray Manley More than 1 year ago
Well said.
Warren Eves More than 1 year ago
U R oh so right Bill Opalka. How about the stupid artsy shots these production companies give you on some big races. Not even the most talented veteran of watching tapes can follow his or her horse. How about the dumb up close shots of a horse coming to the wire? The last time I looked exotic wagering is carrying the game and the bettor wants to see the pan shot to see who might be coming. Oh well, they just call me a grouchy old horseplayer. Try, for instance, to tell the once good folks at CD something constructive? Do you think they will take it and run with it. How about take it and look at it? No to both of those questions. The fan? Who cares, they want luxury boxes to put those once a year customers in. And now you know why those of us who are foolish enough to still love and bet the game, go to smaller venues to get in our action. Confuse the newcomers Bill? How about confusing the veterans as well? There have been shots on Ky Derby Day when I have had to actually go to the blimp shot in order to figure out what in the hell has taken place in the opening quarter mile of the biggest race on the planet. But try and tell these yo-yo's(especially the ones at Churchill Downs) anything, and they won't even answer your valid complaint.
Walter More than 1 year ago
Just because something is the same after 40 years doesn't mean it's a bad thing. The pan shot give you the best look at racing. Combined with the ability to view a head on, what other angle do you need? Remember, the folks at Coca Cola tried to change things in the early 80's and it was a disaster. TVG uses a cut in, track level view on the backstretch at Del Mar which is nice. But goes right back to the pan after the horses pass that point. Lesson here... If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Ray Manley More than 1 year ago
I hate that cut in during the race. Use it after the race if they must.
wolves More than 1 year ago
I couldn't disagree more with Patrick Cummins.....he obviously isn't a bettor or someone with the slightest understanding of trip handicapping. As far as the pan shot being old-fashioned, it's about as old-fashioned as driving with your eyes open. If you want to see what this guy is suggesting, go watch some video replays from the following UK race tracks: Wolverhampton, Kempton, Lingfield or Southwell. These are all standard ovals, similar to what we have in the US.....but they use the "clever camera angles" Cummings advocates. After you watch a race, you'll wonder what just happened.
Drew More than 1 year ago
We need a better view of horses running down the backstretch
wolves More than 1 year ago
nothing in this world is perfect, drew....if they want to tighten the shot a bit, ok, or they can do the split screen, as some tracks do..... a wide pan view split with a tight shot of the leaders. NEVER DISTURB THE FLOW OF THE RACE by switching shots. as I suggested, check out a few races from Wolverhampton, Kempton, Lingfield or Southwell if you want to get a glimpse of this dystopian future....attheraces.com
rdickey249 More than 1 year ago
You have every right to disagree with Pat Cummings. But saying he "obviously isn't a 'bettor or someone with the slightest understanding of trip handicapping' is WAY off. He's actually a respected International horse racing authority. Do you think this conference just pulled some clown off the street to speak here? As this article states, horseplayers are very conservative. Not ALL change is bad.
wolves More than 1 year ago
well respected authority?....on what part of the racing industry?....How much does he make per year betting on horse races? I couldn't care less what his credentials are or how many PhDs and Nobel Prizes he has.....show me the bottom line on his betting ledger....As it's been said, those that can, do....those that can't, lecture. I stand firmly by my first statement....the man doesn't bet and he doesn't know the first thing about trip handicapping.
Penguin ymous More than 1 year ago
As a trip handicapper, I never want to lose the ability to see the entire pan shot at a later date. I like the innovations of the live overhead shot and Trakus" overhead shot and I do agree that some other shots can give casual fans an appreciation for the horses and jockeys. But a camera "shoooting nearly head on to capture the entire field" sounds like it will lose perspective for a trip handicapper. What I am "incensed" with 2 second cuts, is that in that amount of time I can't find my horse or any of the others and I have 40 years of closely watching races. I will end this as I started. As a trip handicapper, I never want to lose the ability to see the entire pan shot at a later date and preferably as the replay at the worst. RonZuercher