Forget about drugs, breakdowns and negative media coverage, horse racing is about to get hammered by a problem that, if not handled right, could be more crippling than those issues combined. It's a horse shortage that is right around the corner and threatens to make racing a deadly, dreary betting game that would turn off even the most committed horseplayers.
When done right, horse racing can still be extremely successful. Combine quality racing, big fields and a nice venue and you get what they had at Saratoga Saturday. With 111 horses competing on the 11-race card (10.09 horses per race), they handled $21.5 million and 21,948 attended the races. That's not a dying sport, even a struggling sport.
There needed to be a correction in the thoroughbred market anyway, though no one expected it would come via an international economic meltdown.
”-- Bill Oppenheim, breeding market analyst
But how long can Saratoga keep this up? How long can any track continue to offer a product that is at least somewhat appealing to the consumer?
The horses competing at Saratoga were primarily born from 2007 to 2009. The average foal crop over that three-year period was 32,018 per year.
Even at those levels, small fields have been a consistent problem for the sport. Handle rises and falls in direct correlation with the number of horses in a race and nothing wrecks business quicker than a steady diet of five and six-horse fields, which the game already has far too many of.
In 2014, horses from the 2012 foal crop will begin to race at Saratoga and elsewhere. The Jockey Club estimates that 22,500 horses were born this year, a 29.7 percent decline from the numbers being recorded just a few years ago. The class of 2012 is the smallest foal crop since 1967.
"After the world economic collapse in 2008, there has simply been far less money available for luxury items," explained Bill Oppenheim, a breeding market analyst. "There are fewer high end users, pinhookers can't get credit, and Sheikh Mohammed quit dueling with Coolmore for the top prospects by the top Coolmore sires at the top end. Thoroughbreds in North America were suddenly worth half of what they had been 12 or 24 months previously, when they were born and stud fees paid. Breeders lost fortunes. Moreover, the market had been bloated by no-hoper pedigrees after almost 15 years of an upward trend line. There needed to be a correction in the thoroughbred market anyway, though no one expected it would come via an international economic meltdown."
It remains to be seen if more horses will be born in the ensuing years, but for now a 29.7 percent decrease in the size of the foal crop would, on the surface, equal a 29.7 percent reduction in average field. If that were to happen the consequences would be devastating.
The solution is obvious: there needs to be a lot less racing. A 29.7 percent reduction in the number of races offered annually would offset the reduction in the foal crop and solve the problem. Tracks need to offer reduced schedules and work with others to form circuits.
You're going to have to look at less racing at some venues. You cannot ignore 5,000 to 10,000 fewer foals.
”-- Rick Violette Jr., President NYTHA
"Basically, everything has to be on the table," said Rick Violette Jr., the president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "You're going to have to look at less racing at some venues. You cannot ignore 5,000 to 10,000 fewer foals. With the way it accumulates, that's like losing an entire foal crop every three to four years. It is a real issue."
But Violette may be more agreeable to signing off on reduced racing schedules than some of his colleagues at other horsemen's groups. Traditionally, horsemen have fought for as much racing as possible, figuring it's a lot easier to win or pick up a check in a four-horse race than it is in a 12-horse race. Already, New York has too much racing and, particularly in the winter and early spring, the product is too often a bleak collection of cheap races with small fields. Reducing the amount of races in New York seems like a no-brainer, but it doesn't happen.
The other roadblock may be track management at the so-called racino tracks. At most of those places, everything revolves around slot machines and the casino. When racing doesn't matter, it's difficult to imagine management taking bold steps to correct racing's problems.
Since 2006, the number of races offered has gone down by 12 percent, but that's not keeping pace with the reduction in the foal crop. Twelve percent is a good start, but just a start. The worry is that the sport will not be proactive. It never is. This is one area where bold action isn't just important, it's imperative.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.