2015 was the year the horse racing industry finally got what it was waiting for, the long sought after achievement of a Triple Crown winner.
Before that there were many people in sports saying that this is what horse racing needs to save itself, while on the other end of the spectrum there where more realistic people saying it would be good for the sport but not enough to radically alter it.
Like most things in life the reality the achievement falls somewhere in the middle between. The sport definitely enjoyed the main stage and can only benefit from what American Pharoah achieved. Last weeks controversy with Sports Illustrated may have seemed like a slight to American Pharoah, but as they say in media all publicity is good publicity.
So the question now becomes: what does the horse racing industry do with the gift it has been given this year?
There is no question that American Pharoah has captured the attention of a wave of new fans. So how does the racing industry use this to build a base rather than spending the next 37 years crossing their fingers and hoping another superstar comes along to save them?
Now is the chance that racing must address many of the problems it has while there is a seed to germinate. Thereby creating a product that is good enough to sustain it.
Perhaps the first problem may be to address the punitive takeout that has crippled many handicappers over the years. Handicapping horse racing on a consistent basis is hobby that requires the attention of working a second job. Whenever an old-school horse player writes about the failing of horse racing from a personal level they instantly attribute the penalty of the takeout as what has cause players to go to the casinos and sports betting.
What makes the takeout especially harsh to serious players is that they depend on the days when they make the big scores to sustain their bankroll. This means that their biggest hits will suffer a 20% tax by the IRS and an additional penalty by the track. The takeout on the more exotic bets like a pick 5 or pick 6 can be around 20%. At the end of the day the player is getting bitten twice for something that is in all honesty a real achievement beyond being your lucky day. Many novice players are not aware of the takeout, its not something a track is going to be advertising with flying colors. However when a new player realizes how difficult the game can be the takeout does nothing to entice them back.
The takeout is so engrained in racing that now tracks can use the reduction of payouts to their benefit as well. One of the most detrimental aspects to on track handle and bringing crowds to the track is the advent of online betting. Until tracks offer incentives to physically go to the track the crowds will continue to diminish. Of course there are the big stake days but they are too far apart to guarantee consistent turnout. Instead what tracks should do to deal with bettors who stay home and bet online is that they should offer takeout incentives. If you physically go to the track you get a voucher which when scanned at the window reduces your takeout penalty from players who stayed at home or bet on their phones. Say if a track charges 20% takeout for a pick 3; you go, scan the voucher, hit the pick 3 and you only get charged 10%.
Tracks should also consider consolidation of the racing week in order to create bigger and better fields. This is intended to work as a positive feedback loop. Years ago Monmouth addressed its problems by offering a 3-day race week with inflated purses. The result was very good. Instead of an average field size of 8 horses the fields that summer seamed to always be around 10-12. The purses were nice, the racing was competitive and the fans were given a good product. Then Chris Christie decided to cut funding to Monmouth. This left only the private sector to pick up the pieces. Even after hurricane Sandy when the shore needed attention the most for recovery, public funding was still absent. Nevertheless this experiment did show signs of interest and seams to be another element that tracks can work with in order to give the public a better product.
It has long been a controversy in New York whether to run the inner track at Aqueduct during the winter. The fields are reduced, there is no turf racing, the distances are limited, horses suffer unnecessary injuries, and the track has to compete with better racing that goes on down in Florida. Many people have suggested that NYRA close down for the months of January and February. Thereby saving money for purses in the spring meet. It will also give horses a much-needed rest and increase field sizes in the spring. Also the money that is saved can go into affording to reduce the takeout, increasing purses and providing a better facility in the spring.
The other side to that is that workers may get laid off or not receive pay during those months, which is a very real problem. However looking at the big picture if the track goes out of business then everyone gets laid off.
Finally and this may be the most difficult problem to address, and that is the issue of a unified body to bring the sport together as a single entity. Over the years fans of boxing have watched their sport dwindle in popularity. The average person on the street may say that has happened because of the emergence of MMA, which may be true to a degree. However in its heyday boxing competed with wrestling, kickboxing, and even the popularity of Bruce Lee and karate. Although MMA is a sport that is growing fast, that is not what has hurt boxing. What has hurt boxing is its reluctance to be guided by any one sanctioning body; instead it is run by a number of promotions. What this all adds up to is that fans will watch great boxers come and go without seeing the showdowns that they want to see.
This is the single most important factor in addressing sports popularity. People want to see the best compete against the best. They want no doubt about who at the end of there career is the best. That is why the UFC has been successful; it gets the best fighters and puts them up against each other.
At the beginning of this year, well before American Pharoah had run his first Derby prep race, there was an outlier of coverage for the showdown between last years Derby/Preakness winner California Chrome and almost undefeated super horse Shared Belief. There was an unusual amount of coverage and attention to this showdown. It is important to note is that this race didn’t have to happen. The connections of both horses didn’t have to run against each other at all, but they did and it was great for the sport.
The closest thing that has occurred to making sure that the best horses run against each other during the course of the year and are not isolated to the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup is the ‘Win and you’re Inn’ series that incentivizes the connections to guarantee free entry into the Breeders’ Cup. But the argument to that is if your horse is good enough to get into the Breeders’ Cup then they will earn entry regardless.
If there is a single sanctioning body then the racing schedule can become focused and not diluted. The best example I can give is from back in 2011. October 1st to be exact, Belmont Park was running the Grade 1 Beldame and Parx was running their Grade 1 Cotillion. Both of these races are great top quality races, however because of the scheduling clash both races only featured a field of six. So instead of one single great twelve-horse field, there were two very sparse fields of six.
As I write this my years of studying political science tell me this is not something that can easily be solved. The reason for this is that every state that offers horse racing runs it independently under a regulatory body. Meaning that there are years and years of political favor that is deeply woven into every states commission, and that in all likelihood no one state is willing to consent to a large independent body to oversee the sport, even if it is to the sports detriment and the governing bodies very own jobs. This is not something that can be put off to something that may or may not occur in the future. This problem is going on now, just look at the state or lack of in Texas, or Massachusetts.