Pipe dreams of a racing circuit

When I was eight, I dreamt of being Mario Andretti. Now I drive like a grandpa twice my age and cuss those whizzing by on the interstate at anything more than 7 mph over the speed limit.

So I understand pipe dreams as well as the next guy, and also recognize reality. It's with great caution and minimal optimism that I present this pipe dream of a roadmap. But it's also with purpose.

Those tied to horse racing almost universally agree that there's too much racing. Not enough healthy and sound horses, not enough fans, not enough oomph in the gas tank to fuel the show. I don't pretend to have the magic wand, but I do know enough about the racing landscape to put pen to paper and start the thought process.

Racing desperately needs to trim the excess. Go into any racetrack or OTB, or point your browser to a number of wagering websites, and you'll see upwards of 20-30 tracks offered on any given race day. You don't need me to tell you that is too much of a good thing -- much less too much of a bad product in many cases.

I wholeheartedly believe that there should be no more than two or three racing signals presented at any one time during the day. And while that sounds preposterous to some numerically, the schedule actually can be inked out. I'll show you in a moment. Now, getting the entities involved to agree on a national schedule is where the pipe dream comes into play.

Too many racetrack executives are narrow-minded and worried about the wrong things. They fear moving traditional schedules that might upset their on-track fan base. But the reality is that 85 percent of their betting handle comes from fans off-track. While they scratch and claw to lay claim to those popcorn and parking receipts, they fail to embrace the low-overhead, solid return they get in the simulcasting game.

Further, horsemen simply don't want to budge. Whether we're talking finances, drug policies or race days, horsemen remain a group firmly against change. They love long race meetings with short fields, reducing travel expenses and increasing their chance to pick up a piece of the purse with few rivals in the starting gate. They assume the game will always be here and that what provides their benefit trumps the fact that it's a death knell for the track operators and fans.

But we can still dream for a successful industry we love to follow, right? The benefits are as follows:

  • Reduced daily competition will direct wagering dollars to fewer racetracks, thus increasing handle by huge percentages at each track racing.

  • Reduced racing days will limit the overhead expenses at racetracks, improving the bottom line and providing more money to fuel the industry's economy.

  • Every track in America should realize massive increases in purse monies offered for each race, as well as massive increases in field size due to the more limited opportunities to race.

  • No track closures are required to lessen the racing load. It's a matter of reworking the calendar, not boarding up windows. Year-round employees will be needed to keep a 10-month simulcast operation going around the live racing meet. Beefed up seasonal employee payrolls already are part of the accounting landscape at most tracks, while racing office employees often are migratory in nature anyway.

With that backdrop, I provide the following national circuit that encompasses most every racetrack in America today, from the big leagues to the minor leagues. The schedule attempts to hold onto some traditional, marquee timeslots for race meetings; gives consideration to weather factors; takes into account existing tracks' ability to race under the lights; and provides a fairly consistent regional "circuit" without interruption for horsemen to shuffle their cast of players onto the next town.

The schedule is broken down into three daily segments: early post times (three tracks), middle post times (two) and night post times (three). The days of the week could also be staggered to give more exclusive time placement, given that tracks likely would not be running seven days per week. That would make it much more likely to see only two tracks in each timeslot, even where three are possibly scheduled. Each track is given two months to conduct live racing.

Here's my dream schedule mapped out for America's racetracks for a calendar year:

Of course, nothing is perfect and you can't please everyone. But this schedule does provide live racing in natural circuits as follows:

  • New York racing opens in March with Aqueduct and continues through August consecutively. The circuit runners can then easily move across the bridge to Meadowlands in Sept.-Oct. before a necessary winter break. When January rolls around, top NYRA barns can compete at Gulfstream as per usual, while lesser runners can compete for huge slots purses at nearby Philadelphia Park.

  • California racing runs January to October at the major Southern California venues, but gets a much-needed, two-month break in Nov.-Dec. when the western scene shifts to Northern California and Turf Paradise in Arizona.

  • Florida racing kicks off in September and runs through February in succession, going from Calder to Tampa to Gulfstream.

  • The Kentucky scene opens with Churchill Downs in May and makes a huge splash with its biggest event first, ala NASCAR opening its season with the Daytona 500. Kentucky racing then continues uninterrupted through December, meanwhile Keeneland would be able to keep its traditional fall dates in October in this plan.

  • In the Mid-South, Fair Grounds kicks off the season in January, followed by Oaklawn, Lone Star, Remington, Louisiana Downs and Sam Houston in a natural circuit of two-month intervals. Traditional Fair Grounds/Oaklawn horsemen who frequent Kentucky and Arlington would not overlap.

  • In the Mid-Atlantic, where tracks trip over one another like dominoes, you have Philly Park (day) and Mountaineer Park (night) opening the season in January, followed by the day-night duo of Delaware Park and Penn National, then Pimlico preserves its Triple Crown slot in May-June, then Monmouth keeps its shoreline summer tradition and Colonial Downs provides its summer turf program at nights, then Laurel moves into play for Sept.-Oct. The region goes dormant in Nov.-Dec for a much-needed break, while Boston's Suffolk Downs could be a big benefactor of migrating horseflesh.

  • The Chicago circuit runs May-August non-stop during its best weather as Hawthorne and Arlington go back-to-back.

Imagine how wonderful it would be to have two signals working in harmony. Post times staggered by 30 minutes for the early tracks, overlapping only for a few races late with the mid-day tracks, who would also put 30 minutes between their posts. Even with delays and broken schedules, you'd still have a healthy 10-20 minute gap between races, helping simulcast outlets better handle the wagering public and opening up huge possibilities for intrigue. Imagine a mid-day twin trifecta between the fourth races at both Santa Anita and Oaklawn, for instance.

Maybe, just maybe, by starting the dialogue and thought process with some logical ideas penned out, the powers-that-be might start seeing some portion of this concept to be achievable. I know it's only a dream, and the longest of longshots. Admittedly, Arcangues looks like a 1-to-9 shot compared to this proposal seeing a real calendar anytime soon.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.