Print and Go Back ESPN.com: HorseRacing [Print without images]

Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Addition by subtraction

By Paul Moran
Special to ESPN.com

Wednesday morning. After coffee, the first order of business is the week's first offering from Aqueduct. But, not today. Or, for that matter, not on any Wednesday morning until the middle of March.

It was almost amusing that the "Reorganization Board" that steers the NYRA ship under temporary state control said in a statement that the move was based on a concern for the safety of the competing horses …

On most recent Wednesdays, this exercise has been essentially without reward, so recent news that the New York Racing Association had been granted approval of a request to shorten the winter racing week to four days met with approval.

It was almost amusing that the "Reorganization Board" that steers the NYRA ship under temporary state control said in a statement that the move was based on a concern for the safety of the competing horses, which was an insult to the intelligence of every patron of racing in New York. The real reason, no less valid, is based in economics.

Nevertheless, the contraction of racing in New York went into effect this week with neither weeping nor gnashing of teeth. A Wednesday afternoon program at Aqueduct has never inspired widely shared anticipation even in relatively good weather. Lately, even while offering the most attractive purses in the nation with a wildly successful, three-level racino generating more money than any facility of its kind, the racing product has been in the main anemic, uninteresting and easily ignored.

Winter racing in New York is the bastard child of off-track betting and needy government. Its establishment more than 40 years ago made it economically advantageous to provide local product during a time of year in which New York's racetracks were traditionally dark. There was, at the time, no such thing as simulcasting.

This resulted in the installation of a winter track at Aqueduct and the rise of a second tier of horses, owners and trainers who in short order became dependent upon winter racing and were entrenched in a never ending racing season. In time, the lines between the seasonal populations became blurred but the winter stigma remained like an ugly, old tattoo forever regretted..

The racino at Aqueduct was supposed to change winter racing. Money talks and despite the administrative squalor that is the hallmark of the current, state-controlled New York Racing Association, there is plenty of money for purses that were originally envisioned as the fatted calf that would bolster the cold-weather version of the sport with large and competitive fields.

Rather than the anticipated milk-and-honey, NYRA has found itself at a turbulent confluence of a shortage of available animals and a tightening of medication policy, specifically a 14-day requirement for withdrawal of clenbuterol, which keeps potential participants in more lucrative Aqueduct races in Pennsylvania, Maryland and elsewhere, leaving horseplayers with an unappealing array of short fields and scant opportunity.

If an abbreviated winter racing schedule at Aqueduct is the unintended result, it is the unforeseen positive offspring of a marriage of unfavorable if not alarming situations that say much about the current state of racing.

It is not possible to view the decline of the thoroughbred population as a positive development. It is, however, no more than a product of supply and demand in a market that lags the wider economy by at least two years. But reaction to the adoption of medication measures originally proposed by the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association  is illustrative of something more deeply engrained on the collective backstretch outside the state..

Seemingly unrelated situations have conspired to force NYRA's hand.

In the absence of other pressures, leaders of nearby jurisdictions will not be moved to reconsider medication rules and, in effect, encourage trainers and owners to send their best horses New York in pursuit of greater monetary rewards.

Once a chorus, the call for the elimination of winter racing in New York has long been silent. It has evolved into an important segment of the industry and the participants now include most if not all of the sport's most prominent stables. Money always trumps weather. It can even be good at times, as was the case last Saturday, when a 10-race card headlined by the Withers Stakes, won by the promising Kentucky Derby prospect Revolutionary, included three other stakes. Still, NYRA's consistent inability to construct racing programs attractive to bettors in the current environment, which may in fact represent the new normal, supports the decision to race four days a week rather than five.

In the absence of other pressures, leaders of nearby jurisdictions will not be moved to reconsider medication rules and, in effect, encourage trainers and owners to send their best horses New York in pursuit of greater monetary rewards. Florida will always be an attractive winter option for Eastern horsemen. The market will determine the number of horses produced by breeders. Ultimately, reduction of racing dates is unavoidable.

Unless the subject is money, less can be -- and often is -- more.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at pmoran1686@aol.com.