Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Please, Please Don't Go

It seems a constant point of debate. How do we keep the stars of our sport racing beyond their 3yo seasons? All sorts of options have been suggested.

Abolish 2yo racing, get rid of graded stakes altogether, do not allow any horse under the age of 5 to breed and of course an idea most recently championed by Bill Finley is to make G-1 races to restricted to horses who sires were over a certain age at the time of conception.

All of these ideas probably would have the desired effect if they were ever implemented. The problem is that none of them ever will, so what is the point of random theorizing?

A lot of people enjoy activism, they take up far out causes and shout it from the rooftops and get no change from the stodgy old guard. Mostly because they're turned off by the radical nature of the suggested changes. It is basically too difficult and the only way to have most of these suggestions implemented is to get support from the breeders, who are the very people these rules are meant to stymie.

I prefer to stick to suggestions that are perhaps not as theoretically effective but at least possible and plausible.

I think a blueprint already exists for keeping more star racehorses in training. In Europe a few years back they had a problem, every fall virtually all of their best 3yo fillies would either be relocated to America or retired to start breeding. The reason was because there really was not any structure to their division. There were just a handful of races for them to point for all year long. So they made a conscious decision to start creating races for older mares. They gave the races grades and made the purses competitive. The change was not immediate but over the last few years the results have been undeniably beneficial. It does not really force owners to race their horses beyond their 3yo season (which is what so many people are looking for) rather it simply dangles an incentive to keep them around. Would it keep Street Sense, Hard Spun and Curlin in training next year? Probably not, there will always be owners who want to retire their horses, but would it would reclaim some. Money motivates people, so if you want to change the way people operate change the way that you give them money.

What would this idea mean? Basically it requires racetracks to take the initiative and decide that their business will do better if they can attract more stars. The longer stars stay around the more fan following they will likely get and more fans hopefully would translate into more people attending the races and more money bet on the races.

As it stands the race and purse structure are bent towards success early on. The Kentucky Derby is worth $2 million, that is more than both of Churchill's G-1 for dirt males combined. The Preakness is a million dollar race, the Pimlico Special was cancelled because of lack of funds. The Belmont is worth as much as the Suburban and Met Mile put together. The Florida Derby is another million dollar race, an older horse would have to win the Donn H, Gulfstream Park H and the Skip Away H in order to earn as much. I could go on but I think the point is made. Racetracks give more money to 3yo's in the big stakes races than they do to older horses. They are clearly telling connections that there is very little to be gained financially by staying in training. I personally think racetracks should reverse the structure, give the big money in the races for older horses. Instead of the Donn being $500k and the Florida Derby $1 million, switch the amounts they get. If racetracks all over the nation decided to do this it would represent a monumental shift in the way purses are distributed and it would increase the likelihood of 3yo's sticking around for another year.

Racetracks don't need to stop there, they should also go about creating something the media can get a hold of. Perhaps like a Triple Crown that mirrors the one for 3yo's.

Another idea is creating an appearance fee reward structure. Many sports give appearance fees and Monmouth I believe already has give fees to attract horses like Point Given and War Emblem to the Haskell. Why not decide that any horse who won a G-1 as a 3yo is entitled to a certain appearance fee wherever he runs as an older horse? Dual G-1 winners or Classic winners or even 3yo Champions might command a higher appearance fee. Or even just give them free entry into stakes races. Entry fees can add up and it might be a significant savings for owners.

Racing does not have a commissioner or a governing body that has the power to implement radical change. But racetracks have the power to help themselves by getting creative and making it financially attractive to keep horses in training. That is the only realistic hope I'm afraid.

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