SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Last month in the Lake George Stakes, horse players were presented with a rare sure thing, even if was not going to be profitable: a horse trained by Chad Brown was going to win. In fact, it was better than that, Brown’s horses were a lock to run first, second and third.
The reason? His were the only three horses in the field, a startling occurrence considering the Lake George was a stakes race with a guaranteed purse of $150,000 for high-end three-year old fillies.
“It’s never happened before, and it’ll probably never happen again, so it was definitely unusual,” Brown said in the winner’s circle after Regal Glory beat her stable mates.
Some advice for Chad: Do not be so sure.
There is a horse shortage in thoroughbred racing, one that has contributed to the reduction of races and race days at Saratoga Race Course. The same shortage has cost Del Mar Turf Club in Southern California tens of millions of dollars in lost handle this summer.
Despite a robust field of 12 expected for the Travers Stakes on Saturday, the math is not pretty for a sport fighting for its future after a series of avoidable missteps. In 1990, more than 44,000 racehorses were foaled in North America, according to the Jockey Club, which keeps the thoroughbred registry. The figure was reduced to 20,500 in 2019.
After 30 horses were injured and euthanized at Santa Anita Park in a brutal stretch from January through April, horsemen and racetrack executives have scrambled to put in meaningful drug and safety reforms in response to the public outcry that threatens the sport’s existence. That is not an overstatement.
There were 20,000 news stories published since Jan. 1 on the racing industry’s struggles, according to a review by Xenophon Strategies, a crisis management company. David Fuscus, its chief executive, said the 27th fatality alone sparked 300 articles in three days, which appeared in publications accessing 90 percent of the American public.
“I am the most anti-alarmist person in the room; with that being said, this story is not going away,” he said at a recent Jockey Club conference. “You can’t wait it out, you can’t part the waters. This is the most critical time American horse racing has ever experienced.”
The loss of public confidence has complicated what was already a tough economic climate in the sport. Like most industries, the 2008 recession was rough on the horse business.
In 2007, more than 10,000 yearlings — or unraced 1-year-olds — went through the sales ring and fetched more than $561 million. In 2012, about 6,600 yearlings brought $348 million.
While the horse population was shrinking, second tier tracks from Louisiana to West Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania were adding more racing dates. The expansion was fueled by casino money that local legislators earmarked for the horse industry in exchange for helping to secure state approval of legalized gambling.
“It’s a simple numbers game, you either have the horses or you don’t,” said Martin Panza, who heads the New York Racing Association’s Racing Operation. “The bigger the field size the more money is bet. Six-horse fields are great for horsemen, but the public doesn’t want to play a small field with a 2 to 5 favorite.”
When that is the regular diet at racetracks across the country, bettors flee. In 2002, nearly $16 billion was bet on thoroughbreds compared to just under $12 billion in 2018.
In New York, where the sport is conducted at the top levels, especially at Saratoga, racing officials have adopted a less-is-more-strategy. This summer Saratoga went from six days of racing each week to five. NYRA often runs only four days a week at Belmont Park and three at Aqueduct.
“We are getting to close to where we want to be, but there’s more room to cut back,” said Panza. “We wouldn’t have been able to fill races at six days.”
So far it is paying off — more than $475 million has been bet through the first 29 days of the meet, an increase of nearly $42 million, or 9.7 percent, over last year.
In contrast, at Del Mar, where officials have chosen to stick to a five-day race week but have been offering fewer races on a card, the numbers have been disastrous. Through 25 days of racing, $289 million has been bet there, a decrease of nearly 14 percent — or $46 million from last year.
There is no doubt that there is a hangover effect in the wake of the Santa Anita fatalities, both from trainers and owners who have abandoned the California circuit to race elsewhere in the country, as well as fans turned off by the carnage.
There are some encouraging signs for horse racing, however, especially at the top end of the market. At the Fasig Tipton Saratoga Sale recently, some 135 yearlings sold for $55 million. When a son of Curlin ignited a frenzy of bidding, the sales crowd was abuzz, as it was in the good old days of the 1980s and 1990s. The gavel finally fell at $1.5 million.
It was a nice boost for a battered old industry, but for Panza it was another example of the “tail wagging the dog.”
His job turns on doing more with less.
“No one spends that much money on a horse unless they want to win stakes races,” he said.
Bill Mott, the Hall of Fame trainer, agrees. He is hopeful that the sport can turn itself around but acknowledges its greatest days may be behind them.
“In this day and age,” he said, “people discover quickly that a slow horse is just as expensive to care for as a fast one.”