12/08/2014 1:11PM

Symposium to address shrinking foal crop, field size

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TUCSON, Ariz. – The annual University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming opens on Tuesday at a mountainside resort in Tucson with the most pressing issue in racing first on the agenda – the need for racetracks around the world to begin cutting races to maintain field sizes that will be attractive to gamblers.

Pressure on racetracks to cut races is springing from declines in foal crops in many countries, including the U.S., where the foal crop from 2010-2012 contracted 25 percent. Those declines, in most cases, are related to drops in wagering, signaling a troubling worldwide loss of interest in a sport that, despite its long history, has often been criticized for failing to react to shifts in the marketplace.

“Declining Field Size: A Global Issue” will discuss those issues as the first panel on the three-day symposium agenda. Jay Privman, the national correspondent for the Daily Racing Form, is scheduled to moderate.

Though the symposium’s administrators emphasized in agenda materials that declining field sizes are a worldwide concern, the problem is most acute in North America, where widespread purse subsidies from casinos have dangerously skewed the economic incentives for live racing for the past 20 years. At many tracks in the U.S., subsidies from year-round casino operations provide a vast majority of the purse revenues, giving horsemen and tracks little incentive to cut races even if betting on their own product has weakened substantially.

In the U.S., the number of race dates fell 3 percent in 2013, according to data from Equibase, and through November, the number of races held at U.S. tracks is down another 3.8 percent this year. That trend has accelerated in recent months, and racing officials have predicted that the number of races held at U.S. tracks will need to decline by at least another 20 percent by the end of 2015 in order to allow for an average field size of eight horses per race. A contraction of that magnitude appears to be highly unlikely unless racetracks drastically change how they do business in 2015.

Issues related to the decline in breeding and wagering appear elsewhere on the symposium agenda. Immediately following the field-size panel will be a discussion of whether racing and racehorse owners would be better served by alternate ways of distributing purses. On Wednesday morning, a panel will explore the impacts of the strategies many racetracks are expected to employ to deal with the field-size declines, including race cards featuring far fewer races than in the past and a condition book that’s written to get more horses into individual races.

The unstoppable transition to the digital marketplace is also featured in a handful of panels on the symposium agenda. On Tuesday afternoon, a panel will explore how social media has changed “crisis management,” a topic familiar to any racetrack that has faced an outcry over animal-welfare issues. Immediately following is a panel exploring how technology is changing wagering on racing.

The Wednesday afternoon session is devoted to technology issues, with panels on digital marketing, account wagering, and “Making Everything Mobile.”

Absent this year from any prominent place on the symposium agenda are issues related to animal welfare, medication reform, and track safety, topics that have been front-and-center in the industry for the past five years. However, those issues are now getting prominent treatment at the annual Safety and Welfare of the Racehorse Conference, leading symposium organizers to focus the Tucson conference on the issues that are most pertinent to racetrack front offices.

For a detailed list of symposium panels and speakers, go here.