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When less is more

As expected, the final year-end handle numbers for U.S. racing were pretty dismal. According to Equibase, people bet $1.35 billion less on horse racing in this country in 2009 than they did in 2008, for a 9.88 percent decline. The Daily Racing Form reports that the $12.3 billion wagered in 2009 was the lowest figure since 1996.

Reversing the trend won't be easy, and it might just be impossible. There's too much competition for the gambling dollar out there, racing is burying its remaining customers with outrageously high takeout levels and the game doesn't seem to attract any new blood as far as fans go.

Still, racing must adapt, and the only way to do so is to dramatically reduce the number of races run each year. Twelve billion is still a big number. Change the way the pie is sliced and you can change the economics of the game.

There's way too much racing out there. There were 5,934 race days or racing cards held in 2009. While that's a small reduction (2.61 percent) from 2008, it's not enough. At the very least, the number of race days should have been cut to reflect the decline in handle. Better yet, the amount of races run each year should be sliced by at least 25 percent.

It's unlikely that cutting the total amount of races run each year would have much of an impact on total handle. Not in the simulcasting era. Whether there are 12 or 20 signals available on a given day, the typical player is going to bet the same amount of money. It's just a matter of where and how the customers spread their money around. Every dollar bet at Track A is one less dollar bet at Track B.

Suppose there were a 25 percent reduction in the number of racing days; the pie would stay the same but the slices would be bigger. Tracks, particularly the major ones, would see a sizable increase in handle when they did race.

The other problem with having so much racing is that it affects field size, which, in turn, affects handle. The foal crop is getting smaller every year, which means fewer horses to fill fields. Without a commensurate decline in the number of races, there will be a lot more races with five and six horses, exactly the kind of races gamblers avoid.

In a normal situation, less handle would equal less racing. When there is less revenue, a reduction in the amount of product should typically follow. But there's nothing normal about the economics of horse racing in the era of slot machines. Racing has become a subsidized business and, in many cases, one that can't stand on its own. There are dozens of tracks running thousands of races every year that would now be out of business if they didn't have slot machines.

Yet tracks like Philadelphia Park and Mountaineer Park -- neither of which would necessarily still be around without slots -- run year-round, churning out race after race. That might be good for horsemen racing for inflated purses at those places, but it's not good for the overall health of the game.

Even the mere hope of getting slot machines is keeping some tracks open. Track owners who don't have slots aren't about to close down when there's a chance they can convince their local politicians that slots are the solution to everyone's problems. Their pot of gold might just be right around the corner, so why close down?

Don't expect anything to change. Horsemen's groups always fight reductions in racing dates, and the slots factor is going to continue to impact how much racing there is.

That's too bad. Imagine if only Gulfstream, Santa Anita, Fair Grounds and Tampa Bay Downs were running Saturday, a day that will feature racing at 16 tracks. They'd each do blockbuster business, with huge fields, great racing, phenomenal purses and with horse and track owners making piles of money. One can always dream.

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Lava Man's comeback is now over and the situation can best be summed up as "no harm, no foul." Considering how his owners, trainer Doug O'Neill and the vet who worked on him with stem cell therapy treatments were raving about his condition after he returned to the racetrack, it was disappointing that the old guy barely lifted a hoof in the San Gabriel Handicap.

The connections got a lot of grief for bringing Lava Man back in the first place, but they were true to their word when they said they would not continue with the experiment if the horse did not perform. Had they been as greedy as some made them out to be, they no doubt would have run the horse at least once more.

In the end, Lava Man had the final say. In the San Gabriel, he seemed to be telling everyone he didn't want to do this anymore. Fortunately, the people who mattered listened.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.