Less means more for racing

On an otherwise mundane afternoon, on a day when Saratoga, Belmont, Del Mar, Santa Anita and Keeneland were all closed, it was an extraordinary day for the bettor Monday.

Outside of perhaps the Breeders' Cup days, there might not be a better wagering card this year than the one offered Monday at Kentucky Downs. On a program that had to be rescheduled because the turf course was too wet to race over Saturday, there were 10 races with 124 horses entered for an average field size of 12.4 per race. There were four stakes races worth a combined $1.5 million and even the maiden races were going for $120,000.

While players were waiting for the first at Kentucky Downs they could whet they're appetite by playing a terrific card at Parx. Their 10-race card averaged 10.7 horses per race and the cheapest purse on the day was $25,000. The best was an $88,000 allowance race.

Neither card would have been possible if management and horsemen at the two tracks didn't subscribe to a theory that should be obvious to everyone in the sport, that there is way too much racing out there. They apparently didn't get that memo at Delaware Park, where, yesterday, they had a nine-race card with small fields and cheap horses. It was even worse at Presque Isle Downs, where there were eight races and four of them had seven starters or less. At every track that raced Monday but Parx and Kentucky Downs, they gave the players exactly what they keep telling them they don't want bad racing and small fields.

Kentucky Downs is the most unique track in the country. Not only is it a grass-only track but they typically race just five days a year. With revenue coming in all year long from Instant Racing machines and by offering just five annual racing cards, they are able to offer the biggest purses in the sport. At a track that very easily could have been a non-entity if things were handled differently, they not only stand out from the crowd they have become a track that players love to wager on.

The Kentucky Downs model would not be feasible at most any other track. It is just one part of the racing scene in Kentucky and the ultimate niche track. No matter how big the purses might be, horsemen can't race just five days a year but, with Keeneland, Churchill, Ellis and Turfway, also operating, they have no shortage of places to race in Kentucky.

Parx could not possibly race just five days a year. But that doesn't mean that it had to be what it was, the ultimate racing factory where they grind away 52 weeks a year and where quality takes a backseat to quantity.

Parx is another one of those places where the purse money largely comes from something other than pari-mutuel wagering. It comes from racing's cut from the highly successful casino there. There's a huge pie when it comes to purses and the bigger you make the slices the more money you can pay out when you are racing. So the horsemen and management got together and decided to cut out several days from the winter racing schedule and apply that money to a seven-week "Racing Festival" where purses were essentially doubled. With as much money as they are paying out through the Festival they are guaranteed huge fields.

The one drawback at Parx is that Pennsylvania has one of the highest takeout structures in the sport and some players won't play any Pennsylvania tracks no matter how good the racing is. Here's hoping that next year management and the horsemen get together and work out a way to slash the takeout, even if it is just for the festival period.

The key to making the Racing Festival a reality at Parx was that it was the horsemen who not only supported the idea but initiated it. They realized this was a win-win for everyone. Not only would they help raise the profile of the track with horseplayers but they would give trainers and owners a chance to run for huge money. In an effort to keep out-of-town trainers from picking off all the big pots, preference is given to local trainers, and they get first preference if a race is over subscribed.

You won't find a more enlightened horseman's group than the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. At most tracks, the horsemen fight and claw for as much racing as possible, paying no heed to the wishes of the customers or the need to put on a good betting show. What they don't see is that they are driving the customer away in droves by offering a horrible product. Give them five-horse fields and 2-5 favorites and all the horsemen see is easy money for the membership. With the foal crop steadily declining those five-horse fields are about to become four and three-horse fields.

The irony is that horsemen everywhere would be the biggest winners if tracks, especially the casino-funded tracks, cut back on the amount of racing they offer. Reducing racing dates means bigger purses when you do race. And when you aren't racing you still have the opportunity to ship to another track that is open. The PTHA made Parx guarantee that it would keep the stable area open when the track is closed, which will allow the Philly trainers to make the easy ship to Aqueduct or Laurel to run.

At Kentucky Downs and Parx, they get it. Too bad those two tracks are in the minority. This sport too often serves up a bad product to its customers, and that's why there are fewer customers all the time. Drastically reducing the number of racing dates in the U.S. is not only the answer it's a no-brainer.