Last Saturday, the Mother Goose Stakes, a prestigious race for fillies was contested at Belmont Park. At nearly the same time, the Hollywood Oaks, another prestigious race for fillies was contested at Hollywood Park. Between the two, there were a total of ten fillies entered—five in each race—despite purses of $300,000 and $200,000 respectively.
This is concerning and illustrates an ongoing problem with the sport of horse racing. Simply, there are many races with too few entrants. Of course, that leads to another question, the question of whether there are too many tracks and races to attract quality fields.
When the casual fan watches the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, he or she sees 20 horses and probably thinks that’s too many. Two weeks later, 10 more go in the Preakness, and three weeks later, 14 run in the Belmont Stakes. On the surface, it looks grand. The fields are full, the stands are packed and moreover, with so many runners, there is good betting and money making opportunities. Derby winner Orb was among the favorites, but at 5-1, a $2 win bet brought back at least $12. In the Mother Goose, Dreaming of Julia was made the 1 to 2 favorite, meaning a win pays back $3, a paltry profit of $1. Once again, should we be surprised when people head for VLTs and gambling tables to spend their dollars?
I’m not sure what can be done to get bigger and fuller fields, particularly for stakes races. In the claimers and allowance races, it may be tougher because there are fewer foals today than there were 25 years ago. Horse racing is an expensive game, and even with syndicates such as Dogwood Stables and West Point Thoroughbreds, the cost to play the game remains high.
I used to be of the belief that there should be a minimum of eight horses in each race, but have come down to six. When I see a field of five or even less, I cringe because in sum, that is not good for the sport. Harness racing, which we know is not the same, usually has eight horse fields in each race at most tracks.
One thing that the tracks could do is condense the number of races each day. Most tracks offer at least eight races on each card, with the majority holding nine. Who decided that was the magic number? And, why can’t that number vary? Why not take the total number of horses entered and divide by eight or even six? If you have 36 horses ready to run, why not have just six races with six in each race? Is this too simplistic? Yes, but I’m sure the topic has been discussed by those who run the tracks.
The upcoming Saratoga meet presents another problem with potential fields. The Spa races six days per week, with Tuesday being the dark day. We know that people come to the Spa for many more reasons than watching horse racing. If we compare the crowds at Saratoga with those at Aqueduct, it would be quite a contrast. But, six days will mean even thinner fields with fewer horses and even less chances to make big money at the betting windows.
Saratoga is a 40 day meet, so there is no way that NYRA would ever consider moving to a five day per week schedule, despite the fact that the quality of racing would be better. There is too much money to be made, and money is the king. We also know that Saratoga is an aberration; it’s almost insulated from the normal everyday racing circuits that exist around the country.
There has been talk of reducing the Aqueduct winter meet to four days and that is the smart thing to do. One less day, means one less day. It would make the fields fuller and hopefully more competitive. It would also give the race schedule makers more flexibility and make their job easier.
It will never be perfect. There could be nine horses entered in an allowance race and four could scratch that morning, reducing the field to five. Could you cancel the race if there were less than six entered? You could and perhaps should, but once again that won’t happen. There are so many—too many— race tracks around the country and that also thins the fields out, but because horse racing is state regulated, that won’t change either. In fact, New York State requires tracks to operate year round, counting on those revenues for budget and spending purposes. Parx Racing, formerly Philadelphia Park, begins its racing season on January 1 and ends it December 31 so the commonwealth can budget accordingly. Is there that much interest to mandate a 12 month season?
The Saratoga meet is unique. It’s quick and easy. There are 40 opportunities, 40 chances to get to the track, so plans have to be made. If you live near Philly, you can waive your hand and say I’ll go next weekend, then the next, and the next, until guess what? You never go. More tracks should operate like Saratoga and Keeneland. By limiting the calendar, you actually increase demand, the old supply and demand economic theory.
Think of the NFL, by far the most popular and in demand sport of them all. They play 16 games, three playoff rounds and the Super Bowl. The fans crave it, America craves it, and when the season ends, fans are sad. But, that’s where the NFL is smart. They know this is the case so they take seven months off before the serious games start anew. They know that by September the fans are salivating and for the next five months, the intensity will reign supreme.
Decreasing supply is good thinking, but it’s not practical. So, we will continue to see major stakes races like the Mother Goose with five fillies entered. Most people don’t care, but to those who love the sport, it’s not a good thing from a quality standpoint. Who wouldn’t want to see ten fine fillies running for the prestige and the purse, rather than five?
Until next time…