By Bill Finley
Friday, NYRA announced a starter loyalty program which will pay bonus money to horses that have made at least five starts during the year at a NYRA track. Under the new program, horses can earn Silver- through Diamond-level purse bonuses between 5% and 15% on money earned in a qualifying race, based on their number of starts at NYRA tracks through Apr. 1, 2019.
NYRA also announced an “Under 20s Claiming Challenge” for modest-sized stables to compete for cash prizes during the upcoming 2018 Belmont spring/summer meet. The Under 20s Claiming Challenge is open to all trainers stabled at NYRA facilities with 20 or fewer horses in their care nationwide at the start of the contest on opening day, Friday, Apr. 27. Contestants will earn points based on their horses’ performances in all winners’ claiming races at Belmont through the close of the spring/summer meet on Sunday, July 15.
The TDN reached out to NYRA Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Martin Panza to find out more about the bonus program and the problems facing racing at all racetracks in their attempts to increase field size.
TDN: Is this program designed to get horses to run more often, period, to get them to race more often at NYRA tracks, or a little of both?
MP: It’s a little bit of both, but mainly driven by the idea of being loyal to people who are running in New York. We could have raised purses by, say $1,000 a race. This is little bit more specific in that it rewards people who are running their horses in New York. We know that 20% of the trainers are wining 85% of the purse money. This allows any New York trainer or any owner to get a purse increase, and the way they do that is by running their horses multiple times at NYRA racetracks. It doesn’t matter if you are Chad Brown or Todd Pletcher or Eddie Barker or Joe Parker. You’ve all got an equal opportunity here and you control your own fate. If the horse runs multiple times during the year at NYRA tracks, you are eligible for purses increases. I’ve got to give credit to Steven Duncker. He is on our board and he brought this up in one of our racing committee meetings. We went back and ran some numbers and it made sense that we try this program and see if it drives business more than, again, by raising every purse by $1,000.
TDN: One way to reduce field size is by racing less often. Why don’t tracks cut their racing dates? Besides reducing the amount of races, what else can be done to raise field size?
MP: Running less often probably would help. Obviously, there have already been a lot of racing dates cut, that is when you compare what we run now versus what we used to run. The foal crop has dropped below 20,000, which is very concerning. We need to work as an industry. We’ve gotten some tax laws passed and there are some really positive reasons from a tax standpoint for people to own horses. We need to get that message out there. We need to get it out there not only to our existing audience but to potential people who are thinking about getting into the business. If you can buy horses at 60 cents on the dollar and participate in the game at 60 cents on the dollar, we need to let people know they can do that. Why give the money to the federal government when you can participate in this game at a discounted rate? That said, we also need to have some meetings among horsemen. I don’t think any trainer is not running a horse that is ready to run, and there are times when we can’t get a race to go. But if horses, on average, just made one more start during the year, this industry would be significantly healthier than what it is today. If you are an owner looking to get into the game and your horse only runs six times a year, it’s pretty hard for that owner to even come close to breaking even. We need to get back to the old days when horses made significantly more starts during the year. We need to work with the horsemen and the owners and try to get them to understand, you’re not going to win every time you run but you can pick up checks and earn money and pay bills. When you do that it helps the tracks generate more handle, which, in turn, increases purses in the long run. We have to get that cycle turned in a different direction.
TDN: Much of this is about mindset. There was one mindset in the fifties, where a trainer had no problem running a horse once a week. There’s a new mindset now where most trainers believe it’s best to give a horse six or seven weeks off between races. How do you go about changing that mindset?
MP: That’s the $1-million question. Horses can run more often. Linda Rice ran Voodoo Song (English Channel) four times at Saratoga and won some significant races, including the GIII Saranac S. They can run more often. In the old days horses ran and they didn’t work. Now everyone needs three or four works in between races and everyone worries about the sheets and if their horse might bounce. When I was working at Hollywood Park, some guys worked their horses so fast that they were bouncing in their works. They might be running nines on the sheets, but they’re working elevens. It made no sense. At the same time you have to leave it up to the trainer to know their horse, which ones can get away with it and which ones can’t. We certainly don’t want horse running that has physical problems and might break down in the race. But, at the same time do they need five works in between races, when they could run every three weeks instead of every six weeks instead? Right now, horses are averaging 6.2 starts per year. If we can work as industry to get to that number up to 6.6 or 6.7 you would see drastic changes so far as business improving at all racetracks. The loyalty program is one way to do that. It’s an incentive for people to maybe make that one extra start and at the same time to reward people to run in New York. If a trainer is thinking of shipping to Delaware or Parx or Laurel to make a start they can still do that, but they will have lost a start in New York. If they had made that start instead in New York it would have gotten them to the next level in our bonus program and would increase their earnings capabilities because they were loyal to New York.
TDN: The magic bullet, so to speak, for many tracks, has been an increase in turf racing, which generally yields bigger fields. Is that a theory that NYRA also believes in?
MP: We have two turf courses at all three of our tracks, so we probably run more turf racing than anyone else during our turf season. It’s not that we want to do that, it’s that we struggle to fill dirt races. I think turf racing is probably kinder to the horses and I have read articles where trainers like Graham Motion and Wesley Ward have been quoted saying that. We handle more money on the turf races and we have larger field sizes. It’s not that we’re trying to kill dirt racing or don’t want dirt racing. We certainly do and it’s a major part of our racing program. But you go for races that will fill and go for field size and turf races are what trainers are entering in. If we wrote a New York-bred $40,000 maiden claimer at one mile on the dirt we’d probably get two entries. If you put the same race on the turf there would be 18 entered. More turf racing is the trend, whether that’s a good thing or not. A lot of our classic races are still on the dirt and we want to make sure dirt races go as well. Racing offices are at the mercy of where horsemen enter. We can offer races but if they don’t go they don’t go. It’s pretty hard to twist arms, especially these days with the limited amount of horses available on your backstretch. They’re going to run wherever they think they have the best chance of winning.
TDN: There was a time when even the biggest trainers in the business had one barn at one racetrack and a max of 30 horses or so. Now, we have the super trainers with 200 horses. Has this trend contributed to the problems we have been discussing?
MP: Certainly the super trainer situation has not been a positive for racing. It’s become more prevalent and more of a problem as the foal crop has dropped. I started in the late eighties out in California when the foal crop was 46,000, 48,000. Trainers were healthy. The middle trainers had a lot of horses because there were just a lot of horses around. The foal crop now is around 19,000-20,000 horses, so there aren’t a lot of horses to go around. With these bigger trainers having 100-200 horses it doesn’t leave a lot of horses for the rest of the group. It’s like when you have that gorgeous boat that you water ski with out on the lake and the lake is full of water. Everything is fine. But when the lake is only half full and there are rocks all over the place you better be careful where you are going. Right now, we’re at that half-full point and that’s exposing a lot of dangers. The super trainer situation: with so many horses in the hands of so few people, becomes a bigger problem as the foal crop continues to drop. You have to question what owners are thinking when they automatically go to these trainers. When you’re the tenth ‘one other than’ in that barn you’re not running more than three or four times a year. You look at the larger trainers and that’s the case with most of those horses. That’s stupidity on the part of an owner. There are plenty of guys that can train and you can pick a smaller trainer, and when I say smaller that doesn’t mean he can’t train, it means he doesn’t have the same numbers. You give that horse to him and that horse might run eight or nine times a year instead of four. And that’s proper management of your asset. A lot of it is self-inflicted wounds. There are plenty of good horsemen out there.