Message to Santa Anita owner Frank Stronach, who seems to think these magical quadruple quadfectas he talked about during last week’s California Horse Racing Board meeting at Hollywood Park and the free enterprise he covets will be the cure-all for what is a rapidly declining sport in California: Take a look at last Sunday’s card at Hollywood Park if you really want to know why horse racing is struggling.
There was an average of six horses per race for the nine-race card, including five-horse fields in the first two races and a four-horse lineup in the third. The largest field of the day? Five races had seven-horse fields. And this was a Sunday program, allegedly one of the premier days of the week.
What is so difficult to understand about this: Nobody wants to go to the track and bet on ridiculously short fields. There’s absolutely no value. The declining purse sizes are driving owners out of the game and until a solution is found for the problem, horse racing is going to continue to decline. It’s really a simple formula — lower purses are leading to fewer owners, which equates to smaller fields and a lot less handle.
“I’ve never seen it as bad as it is right now,” said Dr. Jack Robbins, the executive president and founding director of an Oak Tree Racing Association that was kicked in the gut by Stronach recently when he voided a lease that was scheduled to run through 2016. Stronach agreed to let Oak Tree race at Santa Anita one more year this fall, but reiterated at the CHRB meeting that it would be the final season because Santa Anita doesn’t want any tenants in its house.
Perhaps Stronach should worry more about the real problem — shrinking purse sizes — and not who’s renting his house.
“I don’t know where the horses are going to come from,” Robbins said. “It’s a whole lot different than days gone by. But we’ve got to face it. The economy is different, everything is different. The young people don’t seem to like the game like we used to when we were that age. Kids like action and they don’t want to wait 30 minutes (between races). They don’t understand the betting, it confuses them to some extent, the different exotics that they’ve got.”
Robbins is so pessimistic that he doesn’t even foresee larger purses saving the game.
“I don’t think that’s the savior,” he said. “Racing is in trouble all over the country. The breeders in Kentucky, the race tracks in New York and Chicago. I don’t know the answer.”
Neither do Stronach and his soldiers at Magna.
But despite his pessimism, Robbins isn’t part of the brigade that predicts the sport will cease to exist in California within five years.
“I’m not that pessimistic, but I don’t know what’s going to save it,” he said.
One of Robbins’ sons, Donald, used to run the show at Hollywood Park in the 1990s before leaving the sport in what has to rank as one of the all-time shrewdest moves in many years.
“He knew,” Robbins said of his son. “He could see the light coming. He knew that this thing was going downhill.”
Of course, Stronach could do us all a favor and just sell Santa Anita. How about it Frank? Time to cut your losses and run?
“I want to avoid that, because if I sell the thing, then it’s wasted,” Stronach told Pasadena Star-News reporter Brenda Gazzar after the June 22 CHRB meeting. “I really believe that if you work together, you can make a viable racetrack with a fair return.”
Even if he can’t change the current structure of the sport?
“I’m optimistic, not negative, with good common sense — there are thousands of jobs involved — I’m optimistic that changes will be made.”
Southern California fans and members of the CHRB are still waiting to hear what changes he has in store besides the quadruple quadfectas.