Good news from American racing this fall

In recent times, bad news seems to have been more prevalent in American racing than good news. However, I think that U.S. racing has had a particularly good stretch this fall that is worth acknowledging

Good news item # 1: The success of Del Mar’s Inaugural “Bing Crosby Season”

When Hollywood Park in Los Angeles closed its doors for good on December 22, 2013, there were serious concerns among California racing constituents as to how the track’s racing days - especially the late fall dates after Santa Anita concluded - were going to be replaced. Any concerns about those dates have been forgotten as Del Mar’s inaugural four-week Bing Crosby Season was an unqualified success with substantial increases over Hollywood Park’s numbers for 2013. Average daily all-sources handle was $10.4 million, a 15 percent increase over 2013 Hollywood Park handle. Despite drawing upon a smaller population base in San Diego, Del Mar handled $13.9 million on track, a remarkable 84.9 percent increase over Hollywood Park in 2013.

Del Mar Thoroughbred President and CEO Joe Harper summed it up brilliantly: ”When we were approached about picking up these fall dates, we said we thought we could do a pretty good job with it. Well, we did that - and a whole lot more. We’re just tickled how well this week went for Del Mar, for our horsemen and for racing in general. We need all the positives we can muster in our business and I think Del Mar in the fall is a huge plus.” 

Del Mar’s fall meet for 2015 will stretch to five weeks between Oct. 29 and Nov. 29.

Good news item # 2: Gulfstream Park West revives Calder

Over the summer, a six-year agreement was reached between the Stronach Group, owners of Gulfstream Park, and Churchill Downs, owners of Calder Race Course, for The Stronach Group to operate Calder, which they began this fall, dubbing the new venture “Gulfstream Park West.” Churchill Downs, Inc. has been reducing their involvement and commitment to racing beyond the Kentucky Oaks and Derby, and Calder’s low position on the priority list was clearly reflected in the state of the facility.

Stronach Group COO and Gulfstream Park President Tim Ritvo and Stronach VP of Racing and recently appointed General Manager P.J. Campo moved decisively on a number of important fronts. Major improvements were made on the backside. All 15 barns in the stable area were repaired, cleaned, and painted, shedrows were upgraded, and new electrical outlets were installed. Significant improvements were also made to the grandstand, and the turf course was reconditioned and upgraded.

Campo did a brilliant job working with the trainers, and field size increased over the prior year when Gulfstream Park West opened its 40-day meet on Oct. 8. The meet featured 23 stakes totaling $1.78 million in purses. The wagering customers immediately responded to the Gulfstream Park West cards and daily handle regularly surpassed the total of Gulfstream and Calder when they were running head-to-head during the fall of 2013.

With strong racing programs at Gulfstream, Gulfstream Park West, and on the Florida west coast at Tampa Bay Downs, it will be interesting to see if trainers from northern states choose to race in Florida year round.

Good news item #3: Simulcast impasse between Stronach Group and Mid-Atlantic Cooperative

At first glance, one might not consider the trouble between Stronach’s Monarch Content Management and the collection of small Thoroughbred and Standardbred tracks that make up the Mid-Atlantic Cooperative to be good news. But it is good news, and it is important for the future of quality Thoroughbred racing in the U.S. As I wrote in an earlier commentary, higher-quality, net-exporting racetracks have long been shortchanged in commission when they sell their signal to simulcast locations.

Monarch represents Stronach tracks Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita, Pimlico, Golden Gate, Laurel, Pimlico and some other major tracks such as Tampa Bay Downs. The Mid-Atlanic Cooperative generally represents smaller tracks and negotiates a set fee for all of their member tracks. However, at least two Mid-Atlantic member tracks, Colonial Downs and Suffolk Downs no longer conduct Thoroughbred racing and at least five of their member tracks operate slot machine gaming businesses at their racetracks. The fact that these smaller tracks make more money on a Gulfstream Park simulcast race than Gulfstream Park and its horse owners is not in the best interest of the future of Thoroughbred racing. I congratulate Scott Daruty, the president of Monarch, for forcing this issue and not caving to the short term cash flow benefit. 

An anonymous commenter posted the following beneath a Dec. 1 Daily Racing Form article addressing the situation written by Matt Hegarty:

 “30 years ago the pittance that the simulcast sites paid to the tracks (content) was considered found money.

Now the content provider gets 3-5% depending on the track while the simulcast site gets 15-17%, the blended takeout being 20%. Why shouldn’t it be 10-10%. In fact if a site doesn’t provide live racing why not 15-5% to the content side. The fact is the larger tracks have been subsidizing  the smaller tracks by this split of the simulcast money.

Bottom line is Stronach is right….”

Anonymous, whoever you are, you have it absolutely correct.

Good news item #4: The Breeders’ Cup World Championships 

OK, we all know that the Breeders’ Cup is not a true world championship, but it is the best two days of Thoroughbred racing in the U.S., and it is getting better.

The good news that I am writing about here is not the 2014 event, but rather the foundational improvements that have been made in the program by President and CEO Craig Fravel and the Breeders’ Cup management team and Board. These changes/improvements include: 

  • Rationalizing and cutting back ill-conceived races such as the 2YO sprint races and the 1 ¾-mile Marathon run on dirt. Thinking back to my tenure at NYRA, I vividly recall a meeting in my office at Saratoga Race Course with a previous Breeders’ Cup president. I asked how a 1 ¾-mile dirt race – a distance/surface combination that is not run at any American racetrack - could warrant inclusion in a “World Championship” event. The response: “Are you crazy, it is one of our best races. We pay a small purse and they bet it like a regular Breeders’ Cup event.” Not exactly world championship material.
  • The Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series has been transformed into a legitimate program with the Breeders’ Cup paying entry and travel fees for race winners. Also, the program has been expanded significantly outside the U.S. with more than 25 “Win and You’re In”  races conducted outside the U.S. in 2014. 
  • Implemented significant changes in the horse nomination program to increase horse participation while maintaining financial contributions to purses. Clearly large purses are critical to the success of the event.
  • Site selection. Two of the best racetracks in the U.S., Keeneland and Del Mar, have been added to the rotation for hosting the Breeders’ Cup event for two of the next three years. While there are logistical issues associated with both tracks, their operators appear up to the challenge and committed to staging successful and memorable events.
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