Friday, 11 August 2017 10:18

Kentucky Derby Winners Fail to Shine Bright

By Brendan O’Meara | Sports

Inside this bubble are stakes races every day, pageantry the likes you see only in Keeneland and the most regal of bloodlines running day after day after day.

The city lights up and becomes a six-week long carnival. Even dark days in Saratoga feel sunny. A Curlin colt sold for over a $1 million in the sales ring at the Fasig-Tipton Yearling Sale. If you looked solely at Saratoga, you’d think there’s nothing wrong, that horse racing is vibrant and on the brink of mainstream acceptance and that North Korea will soon be accepting cruise liners.

It’s a nice, warm, fuzzy bubble full of sushi boats, racing forms and thrilling finishes.

But elsewhere, the story is far grimmer. Look at Arizona. Look at Illinois. 

The state agency in charge of overseeing the integrity of the sport in Arizona is quickly running out of money. Without the agency oversight, racing would be forced to stop at Turf Paradise in Phoenix and Rillito Racetrack in Tuscan. 

Few people outside of the Saratoga bubble are rushing to the windows and hustling to the simulcast of these tracks. 

Arizona fuels its oversight fund based on pari-mutuel wagering along with contributions from track owners and horse owners. Arizona lawmakers slashed the regulatory assessment package by one third and, as if that wasn’t enough, decided a $250,000 Breeders’ Cup award must be paid out by that same percentage of betting proceeds, the regulatory wagering assessment (RWA). 

According to The Republic, the Racing Division budget totaled $2.9 million. Once lawmakers cut the RWA percentage, it dropped the available funds for oversight to $1.5 million. 

“This is essentially a 50 percent reduction to the racing budget,” division Director Rudy Casillas told State Racing Commission members during a meeting, per Dennis Wagner’s Republic story. “We have a structural deficit. There is no way, from my estimation, that we can get through the rest of the fiscal year.”

Which, for people directly or tangentially related to these smaller satellite tracks, is a wicked bummer.

Meanwhile in the Hoosier State, though not bleeding out from a meat hook (yet), Illinois boasts some of the best turf races in the world. Problem is turf racing isn’t a big sell in North American unless you’re Chad Brown, Bill Mott or the Frenchman Christophe Clement. Grass and North American racing are like oil and water. 

Arlington hosts the Arlington Million and the Secretariat Stakes and while it’s great that a track like this values great grass racing, it’s like opening a vegetarian kiosk in Five Guys. 

Barry Rozner of the Daily Herald writes, “What was once a billion-dollar industry in Illinois—encompassing the tracks, breeders, horsemen and agribusiness that supports racing in so many ways—is shrinking by the day as neighboring states take advantage of the disaster that is Illinois politics.”

This prompts maximum worry from Arlington Park GM Tony Petrillo saying that Illinois racing is very, very fragile and, “It’s on the brink of destruction.”

It doesn’t get bleaker than that. The Avengers would avoid this dumpster fire.

The culprit? Gaming and table games from neighboring states. We see it everywhere. Why run a nickel claimer for a nickel, when you can run a nickel claimer for $15,000? You hear everyone from capitalists to whistleblowers saying, “Follow the money.” 

Illinois horse racing is circling the drain as it approaches its 35th running of the Million. 

What’s the solution? To keep pace, to keep horses in the state, horses breeding in the state, etc., there needs to be somewhat of a level playing field. 

It’s the same adage with Lasix. Few horses need it, but since everyone else in America runs on it, it forces other trainers to administer the diuretic merely to keep pace and keep the playing field level. Same with the gaming. If every neighboring state can offer something that Illinois can’t, the horseman will take their business elsewhere for obvious reasons.

I’ve always maintained that less is more in horse racing. Fewer races, fewer race dates, but that fails to look at the ripple effect that running fewer races has on the people beyond the racetrack. Fewer people can make a living, hard as that seems to be these days in any line of work.

Saratoga is lucky. It’s insulated from much of these messes we’re seeing in Illinois and Arizona and since we’re on the brink of nuclear war, much of this feels trivial.

But looking around the Saratoga Bubble reveals the dire situations many racing jurisdictions are in. 

There’s no simple solution, but it could be like the swing back to eating locally grown food from the farmer’s market vs. Big Agro. 

Support your locally grown horse racing.

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