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Monday, August 15, 2011
Two races, one huge problem

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

They did it again. At the very instant the field for Saturday's Grade 1 Beverly D. at Arlington Park was crossing the finish line in Chicago the horses for the Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga were leaving the gate. These were two huge racing events and they happened virtually at the same time, forcing the horseplayer to concentrate on and, likely, bet on one but not both.

This was not good for the fans or for either track. No doubt Saratoga and Arlington both lost some betting handle on those races because they got in each other's way and competed for the attention of the simulcast players. Yet it happens all the time. And this is not one of those vexing problems in a sport filled with vexing problems that are so hard to fix. To fix it would take one or two phone calls and a simple willingness among major tracks to cooperate.

To fix it would take one or two phone calls and a simple willingness among major tracks to cooperate.

This is worth mentioning because conflicting post times were among the subjects touched upon Sunday in Saratoga in a report issued by the Jockey Club at its annual Round Table Conference of Matters Pertaining to Racing. The Jockey Club contracted with the consulting company McKinsey & Associates to put together a study of, basically, why racing's popularity keeps falling and what can be done about it.

McKinsey is a well respected company and its report was thorough and enlightening. There was enough in there to fill 10 columns, but nothing in there resonated more with this disgruntled horseplayer than the section on the insanity of a sport with a declining fan base running two major events at the exact same time.

The McKinsey researchers concluded that this is a serious problem for the sport. It found that 77 percent of races occur within five minutes of another race at tracks with large average purses. In a related statistic, it reported that only 28 percent of those surveyed said that it was easy to understand how racing works.

"I find it very difficult to figure out which races to watch," McKinsey quoted a fan as saying.

McKinsey showed just how much conflicting races are hurting the handle. On April 4, 2009, Keeneland, Oaklawn and Aqueduct each ran Grade 1 races within 22 minutes of one another. It estimated that had the races been spread out the end result would have been a 4 to 9 percent increase in betting.

It can't be that hard to get this right. NYRA should have called Arlington or Arlington should have called NYRA. Because of a national TV contract on NBC and Versus, it would have been hard to move the post time of the Sword Dancer. But Arlington could have easily switched its posts for its Grade 1 races Saturday. (The Secretariat went off just two minutes after the conclusion of the 9th at Saratoga). Had Arlington moved up or moved back its posts by 10 or 12 minutes the fans would have benefited and so would have both racetracks.

The McKinsey survey touched on many important subjects and that it was put together in the first place was another case of the Jockey Club stepping to the forefront and doing something positive for the sport. The industry has long been crying out for some smart leaders who are willing and able to get things done and the Jockey Club is doing an admirable job of filling the void.

"The Jockey Club is doing what it can to effect positive change in the industry," Ogden Mills Phipps, the Jockey Club's chairman, said at the Round Table, as reported by Matt Hegarty in the Racing Form. "Undertaking this study and making a firm commitment to implement its recommendations is evidence of that."

It announced at the Round Table that it will underwrite the production of a national television series in 2012 that will bring the sport badly needed exposure. That, it said, will be part of a multi-million dollar effort to implement the recommendations of the McKinsey Report.

There was lots of other good stuff in the report. The McKinsey people made it clear that racing's exhorbitant takeout rates are a major concern to its best customers. There is also a notable section on animal welfare issues that makes the case that the industry can no longer afford to sweep the problem under the rug. That horses die in races and thousands are sent off to be butchered in a slaughterhouse every year is a major turnoff for the sport. Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed said they would stop betting if they knew that the horses were being mistreated.

With these issues, don't get too excited. Racing is notoriously non pro-active when it comes to most of its problems and there have been dozens of surveys and reports over the years on racing ills that have been well received and then ignored.

So maybe they won't take better care of our horses or stop ripping off the fans with outrageous takeout rates like they have in California. Can we just stop running two graded stakes races at the same time? It's not much to ask.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.