For HorseRacing, 2015 was the year of years. For the first time in 37 years, the purists, and those who love the sport got their wish when American Pharoah won the Triple Crown. For 37 years, fans of horse racing have always tried to convince non-fans the qualities of the sport. In many ways, it reminded me of the soccer fan in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those who love soccer tried to convince the rest of us that soccer is a great game, a game of great skill and strategy. I always agreed with the soccer fanatic, but never tried to push the sport on others. I do the same for horse racing. As much as I love and enjoy the sport, I know that trying to convince those who don’t is a waste of time.
Soccer and Horse Racing do have one thing in common however, and that is something to unite, something that will bring the casual fan in at the appropriate time. For soccer, it’s the World Cup. In 2014, the World Cup recorded outstanding ratings, surpassing all sports but football. In Horse Racing, the Kentucky Derby usually draws well and this year, with the Triple Crown on the line, so too, did the Belmont. The other element for horse racing is…….the horse. Horses can capture the attention of America. In 1973, Secretariat did so, and in 2004 it was Smarty Jones. 2015 saw American Pharoah do the same. By the time he got to the Belmont Stakes, most Americans were convinced that he would be the one–the first one–to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. As we know, he didn’t disappoint.
Pharoah was the story of the year in the Sport of Kings and there isn’t much doubt that he will be voted Horse of the Year as well as Three-year-old Horse of the Year. Bob Baffert will win Trainer of the Year and Victor Espinoza will be voted Jockey of the Year. Espinoza won 89 races in 2015, well behind Javier Castellano, who finished with 344. Castellano had the better year–by far–but this award is one of magnitude and what Espinoza did (as well as Baffert and American Pharoah) will trump all the Grade 1 wins that Castellano had. Castellano dominated at Saratoga, winning the Whitney, Alabama, Travers and Woodward, but Espinoza won when everybody was watching. It’s like the tennis player who only wins five tournaments, but three are majors compared to the guy who wins one major and 12 other titles. In 1988, Mats Wilander won the Australian, French and U.S. Open titles. Ivan Lendl was the better player, but in 1988, Wilander was the man; the guy who won when people were watching.
There were other stories of 2015; naturally they were dwarfed by American Pharoah. Tonalist, the Belmont winner who spoiled California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid in 2013, defended his title in the Jockey Club Gold Club and then came from nowhere in the stretch to win the Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on Thanksgiving Saturday. After careful thought, the colt will be retiring to stud. The son of Tapit heads to retirement with seven firsts, four seconds and two thirds and $3,647,000 in earnings over 16 starts.
The interesting question for 2016 is can there be another Triple Crown winner? Now that the seal has been broken, it doesn’t seem impossible going forward does it? It took 25 years after Citation won the crown in 1948 before Secretariat captured it in 1973, and, there is precedence for back-to-back crowns. Seattle Slew won it in 1977 and the next year, so too, did Affirmed. The 1970s were the glory years of Triple Crown racing, three winners between 1973 and 1978.
The other question I have is do we want another Triple Crown winner so soon? America waited for a long time, making it a delightful experience on that sunny Saturday in June. If a horse wins the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2016, how much real buzz will there be come June 11? Will Americans want to see it again, or will they have a been-there, done-that mentality? Even the purists would be willing to debate this. Part of the charm of the Triple Crown was the frustration and the futility in not seeing it get done. There were 12 horses (13, but I’ll Have Another was scratched the day before the Belmont with injury on 2012) that won the first two legs and then failed in the Belmont. Some people agonized over the frustration, while others enjoyed seeing Belmont Park, aka Big Sandy, chop down the likes of Spectacular Bid, Real Quiet, Silver Charm, Smarty Jones and Big Brown.
I never thought the sport needed a Triple Crown winner and truth-be-told, I was one of those who enjoyed seeing the Derby and Preakness winner get chopped down by Big Sandy. That said, American Pharoah and his connections were a breath of fresh air to a sport that needed–a breath of fresh air.
American Pharoah winning the Triple Crown will not save horse racing. As we speak, Finger Lakes Racetrack in Farmington, NY has submitted to New York State a reduction of racing dates, from 155 to 126 for 2016. They claim that a soon-to-be-built casino 27 miles away will reduce their revenues and if the state doesn’t restore 2013 reimbursement standards, racing could be gone entirely by 2017. Suffolk Downs will double its racing days in 2016 from three to six. That’s right, six days of live racing. Parx Racing in suburban Philadelphia has also slashed its number of live racing dates.
Maybe less is more. One reason why Saratoga remains wildly successful and popular is that there are only 40 days to “get there.” With racing 12 months of the year, it’s easy to put off going and in the end, you never go.
States like New York have approved casinos and of course, these establishments will bite into the sport of horse racing. Casinos are just another option for gamblers and those who are just looking for a fun night out on the town. Playing roulette, slots and even Blackjack requires little thought. It’s nothing more than putting down your money and hoping. Horse Racing requires some thought. You have to look at the racing form, check the odds and strategize. Of course, you can just look at the names, colors, odds and jockeys and throw a few bucks down and hope, but horse racing doesn’t offer instant gratification like casinos do. In roulette, there are games every minute; in horse racing, there is at least 20 minutes between races. And, unless you play exotics, the payoffs aren’t great. A 6 to 1 horse pays $14 to win for a $2 bet. In order to win big, you have to bet big. People who go to casinos usually budget their monies. They come with $150 and when it’s gone, it’s gone. One could be there for 15 minutes or five hours; in horse racing a 9-race card can start at 1 pm with the final race near 5 pm.
New York is the home to four thoroughbred race tracks. Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga are owned by the NYRA, while Finger Lakes is owned by Delaware North. In addition, there are many harness tracks and most of them have VLTs attached to them. Now, there will be three full-fledged casinos in Schenectady, Seneca and Sullivan County, with another one in the works. How many places can there be to suck up one’s discretionary income? I’m of the belief that New York–and other states–will be disappointed in how much revenue these casinos will generate. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is giddy with the monies that casinos could provide, but my hunch says he will be disappointed and perhaps even frustrated.
What can horse racing do? One thing they can’t do is what Finger Lakes is doing. Complaining and bellyaching doesn’t do any good. There is a political angle of course, and hopefully, there will be some sort of compromise between the state, the casinos and the tracks over reimbursement figures. But, Finger Lakes needs to be aggressive and come out and make a concerted effort to get people to come to the track (they have VLTs) and have some fun. Too often, the old race tracks just sit back and rely on the old-timers to patron the track and spend money. The Finger Lakes Region has a lot going for it with Sonnenberg Gardens, the wineries, the lakes and the race track. Why not get collaborate and put some packages together to attract new visitors?
Horse Racing is a tough sell because the action is what it is. There is a race and then 20 to 30 minutes later, there is another. But baseball is also a slow moving sport but teams have done things to enhance the overall experience at the park. In the 1970s, games took 2 hours and 20 minutes to complete and drawing 1.5 million fans was considered good. Today, the games take three hours to complete and teams are drawing 2.5 million fans. Can’t horse racing do something creative to enhance the experience like baseball does? The game of baseball is the same, yet more fans come to see it. It’s something horse racing should, at the very least, look in to.
2016 is here and it will be exciting. The sport will survive because it always survives. When the first Saturday in May gets here, America will embrace the Kentucky Derby. Two weeks later, all eyes will focus on Baltimore to see if the Derby winner can win the Preakness. Despite its stature, there is always a reason to watch a big race and that’s something that the sport of horse racing does well. A major stakes race with a major purse still garners attention. We saw that at Belmont Park, at Monmouth for the Haskell, at Saratoga for the Travers, where we also saw 20,000 turn out the day before to see American Pharoah do his workout. When Keeneland hosted the Breeder’s Cup for the first time, we saw overflowing crowds and another dominant performance by American Pharoah. Horse racing is like the newspaper business. Newspapers may never see the glory days of yesteryear, but if something big happens, people still run out to buy them, just like people will still tune in to watch a major horse race. Newspapers aren’t going away and neither is horse racing.
Until next time.