04/11/2016 8:52AM

Zoccali: The standardbred horse shortage is a reality

Derick Giwner
Mountain Of Love is one of just 86 rookie male trotters eligible to the Peter Haughton Memorial at the Meadowlands this year.

There is little argument that the current state of the standardbred industry in terms of breeding is one that warrants deep concern.  The numbers are indisputable.  In 2004, over 15,000 foals were born.  In 2015, that number was cut in half.

While a select few states seem to be prospering, Ohio being one of the very few to see its foal crop ascending with each year, the overall health of the breeding industry has reached critical status.

Last year, while working at The Meadowlands, I used the current trends of the declining foal crops to project outward in an effort to determine when a horse shortage crisis would be upon us as an industry.

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In 2014, there were 20,136 horses that were classified as “starters” in a pari-mutuel race.  From that figure, 13,654 of those starters (68%) were ages 2 through 5.  They make up a strong majority of the horses currently racing.  That same group of horses came from 41,545 foals from 2009 through 2012.  The next four years (2013-2016) will result in approximately 30,000 foals, a decrease of 28-percent from the previous four years.  Therefore, in order for the troublesome projections I worked out to prove accurate, the first sign would be a sharp decrease in 2-year-olds nominated to stakes races this year.

Using just the 2-year-old trotting stakes at The Meadowlands as an early indicator, it appears we are indeed headed for major trouble.  In 2015 there were 123 fillies nominated to the Jim Doherty Memorial, while in 2016 that number was 83, a decrease of 33-percent.  The Peter Haughton saw 128 colts and geldings nominated last year and only 86 this year, a decrease again of 33-percent.  It is not a coincidence that these decreases are strikingly similar to the decreases we are seeing as a whole in the foal crop over the past several years.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, unfortunately.  The same group of horses that made up 13,654 starters in 2014, will only equate to 10,500 horses in 2017.  By 2018, the number drops below 10,000 and by 2020, which is only four years away, the number of starters from ages 2 through 5 will be just 8,500, a decline of nearly 40-percent from 2014. In 2017 there will be a total of 15,800 horses racing and in 2020 that number becomes 13,000.

There is very little that can be done right now to improve these numbers, as some of these foal crops that will impact the figures already exist.  While the potential of a casino at The Meadowlands has positive implications moving forward to the breeding industry, that cannot be viewed as the one thing that will help.  After all, the foal crops have been declining each year while slot-enhanced purse structures, which include breeder and owner incentives, have existed.

To be candid, it’s time for racetracks to circle the wagons.  They can longer pretend to exist in a bubble that is immune from this problem.  For The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono and Harrah’s Philadelphia to not only start their meets within weeks of one another, but race simultaneous to one another over a seven month period, is completely counter-productive.  Factor in The Meadowlands and Yonkers, and their simply won’t be enough horses to go around.  Not only will the number of races decline, but field size will diminish as well.

If Harrah’s Philadelphia races an average of four days per week, with 13 races per day, that equates to 416 horses per week to fill their cards. If Pocono also averages four days per week with 14 races per day, that results in 504 horses per week to fill their programs.  Therefore in 2017, of the 15,800 standardbreds racing in the United States, every week nearly 1,000 of those horses will be needed by Pocono and Philadelphia alone.  Add in the 250 horses The Meadowlands needs and the 500 horses that Yonkers needs, and the math simply doesn’t work.

While I am not asking all of the racetracks to get together and sing “kumbaya,” ignoring the problem will prove to be disastrous for the industry.  I understand that in the northeast, the majority of standardbred tracks are funded predominantly by alternative-gaming revenue, with The Meadowlands as the notable exception.  But, that doesn’t mean that the racetracks should ignore the betting public by allowing their racing cards to get stripped down by this imminent horse shortage.  It sounds like a cliché, but these racetracks, most notably The Meadowlands, Yonkers, Pocono and Harrah’s Philadelphia, and others as well, need to sit in a room together, crunch the numbers and not leave until they come up with a schedule that maximizes each track’s ability to fill cards.  Sacrifices will need to be made by every track involved, but with the alternative being an inability to fill racing cards, what choice do they have?

A circuit needs to be formed that includes a rotation amongst the racetracks with the focus on providing the best betting product, while maximizing field size for the wagering public.  If not, the bettors will respond simply by keeping their money in their pockets.  If you think that doesn’t matter because handle doesn’t matter to the racetracks with casino-enhanced purse structures, then your naivety is only surpassed by your short-sightedness.

Picture this scenario . . . a state legislator suggests that racing should no longer receive any revenue from casinos because of their inability to help themselves or appear to even care to address problems that will obviously be detrimental to their business.  The legislator proposes the law should be changed with that funding being re-allocated to help the school system, firefighters or police offers, or the state pension program.  It’s already on the verge in Florida.  The time to act is right now, before it is too late.

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