Clock is ticking on California horse racing

The clock is ticking on the future of horse racing, particularly in California, where the lack of leadership and new ideas is driving a great sport to ruins.

First there were the synthetic surfaces, mandated by the California Horse Racing Board in 2007. They were supposed to be maintenance free, lead to bigger fields and attract trainers from all over the country.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Now we have the advance deposit wagering companies and their sweet deals, a lack of rebates in California that most bettors from around the rest of the country receive and the terrible decision to raise takeout rates on exotic wagers that went into effect on opening day at Santa Anita.

We were told the increase in takeout would lead to bigger purses and larger field sizes, which in turn would lead to increased handle.

Well, I guess one out of three isn’t bad when you’re Albert Pujols, but it’s a terrible percentage when trying to fix the problems that ail horse racing. And who knows how long the bigger purses will be around at Santa Anita if the current numbers continue.

Larger field sizes?

Well, going into Thursday’s eight-race card at Santa Anita, field size was down from 8.01 horses per race a year ago to 7.73 through the first 28 days of the meet. Yep, a lot of six- and seven-horse fields even though we’re back to dirt now at Santa Anita.

Oh, and the increased handle?

Santa Anita’s overall handle was down $16.9 million, or 8.2 percent, through Sunday, according to figures I’ve received. Now those aren’t using the comparable dates that track officials like to use, i.e. Strub day 2010 compared to Strub day 2011, etc., but the numbers aren’t pretty no matter how you spin them.

According to my sources, the biggest losers in the handle game have been exactas, trifectas and pick threes, all of which were part of the increase in takeout.

Santa Anita drew a good crowd of more than 17,000 on Strub day this year, yet on-track handle was down, according to a Santa Anita official, despite the fact there were about 6,000 more fans on track than in 2010.

It’s painfully obvious something needs to be done. No one who holds a high position in the industry wants to admit it, but the horseplayers’ boycott because of the increased takeout has had an effect. How much, no one knows for sure, but it’s hurt business at a time when horse racing didn’t need the hit.

So who’s fault is it? Who’s to blame for the sport being in such disarray?

Well, it’s not such an easy answer, and there is no doubt the economy has played a big part in the slump. Very few businesses have managed to avoid declining numbers the past three years.

But it’s also true the sport’s decision makers, the CHRB and Thoroughbred Owners of California, groups that are supposed to lead the way toward sound decisions and prosperity, have let the industry down in a huge way.

Go out to Santa Anita on any Thursday or Friday now and you might see more people if you visited Calico Ghost Town.

“The current state we’re in is definitely scary, and I tend to be programmed to be on the optimistic side,” trainer Doug O’Neill said. “Realistically, you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to see (the problems). You go out there on Thursdays and Fridays and you basically know everyone by first name in the facility. And then you’re seeing some days the handle is under a million dollars on track.

“I just keep hoping and praying that they get some creative (guy), like a Lee Iacocca type of guy, to figure out a way. How you can’t sell legalized gambling, the chance to socialize, cocktails, beautiful scenery … how you can’t sell that is beyond me.”

Lee Iacocca?

Heck, I’d settle for someone with just two or three good ideas that would lift this sport up toward a revival that we may never see.

Here’s a great example of the leadership we’re dealing with in California: A group that’s been around since 2007, is 1,800 strong nationwide and calls itself the Horseplayers Assocation of North America, would like to sit down with members of the CHRB and TOC and lay out some ideas. But the two groups want nothing to do with HANA as far as face-to-face meetings involving decision makers.

Well excuse me, but if I was making decisions about a sport that was going down the tubes quicker than the final quarter miles Zenyatta used to run, I’d want to sit down with ANYBODY and exchange ideas in hopes that something positive would come out of the meeting. That’s how much trouble the sport of horse racing is in.

I e-mailed the CHRB last month and asked why they would not sit down with members of HANA. Here’s the reply I received from Executive Director Kirk Breed:

“The California Horse Racing Board appreciates input from HANA and other fans. In fact, the CHRB has an obligation to listen to the public at large. At the same time, we understand that at least one race track has met with HANA and will continue to do so. The CHRB encourages such dialogue.”

It’s called passing the buck. Are Breed, CHRB chairman Keith Brackpool and the six commissioners too good to sit down and meet with HANA president Jeff Platt and others from the organization themselves and hear their ideas?

I also sent a similar e-mail to TOC chairman Arnold Zetcher, who by the way is stepping down from his post effective next Wednesday, and received the following reply from TOC executive vice president Guy Lamothe: “TOC is open to meeting with parties that would like to discuss positive-minded suggestions for the betterment of horse racing.”

In his e-mail, Lamothe also added the TOC had already met with HANA representatives in October.

Well, yes and no. Some members of the TOC had held a teleconference with members of HANA, but it was hardly the sitdown between decision makers that HANA has been requesting for quite a while now. And maybe the TOC doesn’t consider instituting rebates for California bettors and lowering the takeout to be “positive-minded suggestions.”

Maybe that’s a big part of the problem right there. Perhaps some organizations want it all one way and are unwilling to compromise for the good of the sport.

“Everything the owners have wanted, the TOC has given to them. I don’t remember a thing the horse players wanted that the TOC’s given to them,” said Roger Way, HANA’s California representative. “We don’t want to make any enemies. We just want to see changes.”

But how can there be changes when the CHRB and TOC refuse to even meet with HANA members? What are they afraid of? At this stage, it certainly wouldn’t hurt. The more ideas thrown on the table, the better.

High-ranking officials from Santa Anita and Del Mar met separately with HANA a few weeks ago, and by all accounts the get-togethers went well. But again, the TOC refused to send one of their decision makers, instead choosing to have Aaron Vercruysse, hired recently to advise the horsemen on betting matters, attend the meeting and report back to them.

The California Thoroughbred Trainers are willing to sit down with HANA. Again, why won’t the CHRB and TOC do the exact same thing?

Rescinding the increase in takeout would not in itself right horse racing’s sinking ship, but it would be a start. It likely won’t happen, though, until Santa Anita is forced to cut its overnight purses, an announcement that could be coming soon if the handle doesn’t improve.

And how about those larger fields we were promised? There was a time when there were 4,000 horses stabled between Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. The number is now down to about 2,400, but Way believes that’s still enough horses to haver fuller fields than we see now.

“Other places have 1,500 horses and they jam the entry box,” Way said. “Out here, horses run once every three blue moons.”

Let’s talk about it. Let’s exchange some ideas. Let’s get these parties together, the powers that be, and work toward a solution. Forget the inflammatory mass e-mails that are sent out daily that only serve to further the bad blood. Let’s find a way to get the ADWs to contribute to higher purses.

We need ideas, we need meetings, and we need them now.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

6 thoughts on “Clock is ticking on California horse racing

  1. Thanks to Art Wilson for an accurate picture of what is happening to our great sport in S. California.

    I hope some of the mucky mucks are listening and decide the need to take action. Great article.

  2. Great article. No one wants to work together. The oldies think they are always right. Reduce that takeout, that was a nightmare. Give some comps to the whales, Some of the whales have boycotted South. Calif. If you treat everyone like dirt like the race tracks do. What do they expect ? Put those damn smokers in smoke rooms like New York does. I don’t go to the track because of the idiots smoking. All over the place. I’m sure others think the same.

  3. Mr. Wilson:

    Your article about the state of California racing was refreshing; some hardcore truths. I have been ringing bells and blowing whistles for a very long time. I appreciate the light you shine on the need for change. The attitudes of those in charge disgust me. What we watch at Santa Anita on a daily basis is like watching burlesque at Carnegie Hall. It reminds me of the classic spoiled brat who goes through a wealth of inheritance.

    Good Work,

  4. Making bets at a 20% takeout is suicidal! Sports bettors fail miserably at a 4.5% takeout. In this information age, bettors are going to venues that get them more bang for their buck.

    Have you ever invited a non-horse player to the track? Was it HARD to explain to them how to bet, how to read the Racing Form? It’s not as easy as picking the winner of the Super Bowl or pressing “Spin” on a slot machine.

    Why do horses in California only run “Once in a blur moon?” THEY ARE DRUGGED BY DRUG-DEALING TRAINERS. SoCal is home to the kings of undetected drugs. Look at all the violations Sadler, Baffert, O’Neil, Hollendorfer etc. have had? Human beings that take drugs miss more days of work than those that don’t. Horses are no different.

    Those in power of making decisions ARE NOT GAMBLERS. When was the last time Brackpool EVER had to pay $5 to park, $5 for admission or $6 for the Form. They get all this free every day. Then they don’t bet on horses so they have no idea what it’s like to lose day after day.


  5. Yes, the takeout needs to be reduced back to a level wherein the big bettors are going to want to bet the Cali circuit. But more importantly, MUCH MORE IMPORTANTLY, there needs to be consolidation of dates and races. Take a look at the Santa Anita card on Sunday and compare it to Gulfstream. Five and six horse fields at Santa Anita vs full field sizes at Gulfstream. No serious handicapper is going to want anything to do with the short fields! This first thing any business does in hard times – if they want to stay afloat – is trim, cut expenses and try to make better use of their assets. THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH HORSES; you just can’t make them appear out of the blue with popsicle sticks and rubber bands. This industry is in denial, the horsemen have too much power and the whole thing is circling the drain. California should go back to adopting a consolidated circuit. Run seperate dates at Santa Anita, Golden Gate and Del Mar with the fair circuit con-current for some of the summer dates. Full fields – granted with some cheaper racing but I submit the big bettors will not care. Give me a card with full fields of mid level claimers and we will bet! The only consistently full fields we see these days are unbettable maiden claiming races. No serious bettor is going to partake in this joke of an offering when other circuits are offering competetive racing with full fields. NONE. PERIOD. California racing is killing itself and it is sad to see.

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