Commentary

Small fields, big problem

Too much of a good thing is not always a good thing

Updated: June 24, 2013, 12:22 AM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

The gates opened to just a field of 5 in the Grade 1, $300,000 Mother Goose at Belmont Park.NYRA/Adam CoglianeseThe gates opened to just a field of 5 in the Grade 1, $300,000 Mother Goose at Belmont Park.

The entire card at Hollywood Park Friday consisted of 52 starters. The winners included a $3.40 horse, a $4 horse, a $3.80 horse and a $5 horse. Favorites won four of the eight races on the card.

This isn't meant to pick on Hollywood Park or the racing department there. The following day Belmont had five starters in the Grade 1 Mother Goose and a 1-5 favorite. (Dreaming of Julia, who lost). The feature the next day at Belmont, the Open Mind, also drew five starters. Monmouth Park put on a two-year-old maiden race Saturday with the ridiculously inflated purse of $40,000 and could only get six starters. The winner paid $2.60. Back at Hollywood, the Grade 2 Hollywood Oaks on Saturday attracted a field of five. It was won by 4-5 shot Doinghardtime, who topped a $6.80 exacta and a $15.80 trifecta. She was part of a Pick Three that paid $18.60, actually not that bad when you consider that the winners paid $2.80, $3.60 and $4.40 and there were just 20 horses combined in those three races.

That was the case the last few days at Hollywood, Belmont, Monmouth, but it's not just those tracks. Everywhere you go, the fields are pathetically small and the favorites dominate. The problem is particularly bad in stakes races, especially stakes races on the dirt.

By and large, the sport of horse racing is putting out a product on a daily basis that its customers despise, and that's a huge problem. Bettors don't want to wager on five-horse fields, they don't want to bet on 2-5 shots and they don't want to play exactas that pay $6.20. Yet more and more that's exactly what the sport keeps giving them. Horse racing is not unlike any other business: try to sell a lousy product and your business will soon be in the toilet.

And it's only going to get worse. The foal crop keeps getting smaller every year. We may not be too far from the point where a six-horse race is celebrated as a big field.

There may be more than one way to solve this problem, but the most obvious is to reduce the number of racing dates.

That's one reason we are seeing so many short fields, the other is the reluctance of trainers to run their horses back if they haven't had five or six-weeks of rest. Perhaps it's the way they are bred, perhaps it's that this country allows its race horses to be pumped full of myriad drugs which makes recovering from a race a lengthy task; whatever it is when horses don't run fields are going to be small.

It's not that the industry isn't worried about this problem, but it's not worried nearly enough. This is an issue that is crippling the sport and something has to be done and it has to be done now. The product is everything and the product has to be improved.

There may be more than one way to solve this problem, but the most obvious is to reduce the number of racing dates. The norm in Southern California is now four days a week and NYRA cut back to four days a week during a part of the winter season at Aqueduct. Monmouth only races three days a week. But the cuts in racing schedules have to go way beyond what has happened so far. NYRA should run four days a week year-round, with the exception of Saratoga. But Saratoga doesn't need a six-day-a-week schedule like it has when five would work much better.

You cannot justify racing four days a week in Southern California when you have a Friday card at Hollywood that attracts just 52 horses.

Give the fans what they want -- good betting races, good racing -- and they will support you. Give them garbage and they'll find something else to spend their money on.

NYRA CEO underpaid: New NYRA CEO Christopher Kay will have a base salary of $300,000 and his package includes a possible bonus of $250,000 if he meets certain goals. That's not OK with New York Assemblyman Micah Kellner, the co-sponsor of a bill that would cap the salary of NYRA's CEO at $199,000.

"I think it's a bit obscene when we've identified a not-for-profit that has literally been caught lying, cheating and stealing in the last few years, and its top executive has been making close to half a million dollars," Kellner said. "It offends my sensibilities."

This guy needs to go away.

Kellner must have been living under a rock the last 20 years. CEOs make huge money and you'd be hard pressed to find the head of a major company or organization that makes less than Kay does. To handcuff NYRA and all but ensure that it can't spend what it takes to attract talented executives is absurd. You get what you pay for and a CEO willing to work for $199,000 is a CEO who is not going to get it done.

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