Saturday, February 27, 2010

New Jersey's Brave Initiative

To those of us inured to the tortoise-like pace with which anything relating to racing moves through the New York state government, New Jersey may be a revelation. After less than two months in office, incoming NJ Governor Chris Christie has apparently pulled together a plan that radically reshapes racing in the Garden State and that might even work.

According to press reports, a seven-member commission appointed by Christie has a plan that will end thoroughbred racing at the Meadowlands, and refocus racing at Monmouth, with three-day racing weeks and hugely improved purses -- as much as $1 million a day, topping even stakes-heavy Saratoga's daily average of more than $700,000. The plan, which is reportedly ready to be introduced next week, already has the approval of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, the agency that runs the two tracks. There are conflicting reports as to whether the New Jersey horsemen agree. According to Dave Grening in the Daily Racing Form, they're considerably less than enthusiastic.

Under the plan, Monmouth would run a 50-day meet, spread out from May 22nd through Labor Day, with racing only on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and holiday Mondays. That would be a high-level meet with $1 million on the table in purses every day. Then there would be a second, regional-level meet, also at Monmouth, from late September until Thanksgiving, with racing only on Fridays and Saturdays (apparently it's too tough to compete with pro football on Sunday) and daily purses of $250,000-$300,000, or about what Aqueduct offers. The Meadowlands would continue to operate, but for harness racing only.

The plan is not a certainty to be implemented. The horsemen's agreement with the NJSEA calls for 141 racing days a year, and the Governor's plan would cut that in half. If the horsemen don't agree, they have the power to cut off Monmouth's simulcast signal, which would certainly doom the whole enterprise. And the plan appears to need approval from the New Jersey legislature as well. One can understand the opposition from horsemen, especially the men and women who have mostly claiming horses and who are just scraping by on the current schedule. Cutting the number of racing days in half -- even with a planned expansion of each of the remaining days to 12 races -- would reduce the total number of races by something like 40%. And the NJ-based trainers already have to move somewhere -- Aqueduct, Tampa, Gulfstream or Laurel -- for the winter, so the three-day racing week at Monmouth would complicate their lives even further. Ship to Philadelphia or New York on Wednesday and Thursday? Would a racing secretary who wanted full fields for the weekend even let them do that?

But New Jersey racing needs to do something. The NJSEA lost about $13 million last year, after taking into account some $9 million in simulcast profits, and the purse subsidy from the Atlantic City casinos expires soon. Without radical change, the bloodletting would just continue, and so the Governor's commission deserves a lot of credit for trying something different.

Will it work? Maybe. If horsemen cooperate and are willing either to stable at Monmouth and ship their lower-level horses out to other mid-Atlantic tracks or to stable elsewhere and ship in to Monmouth on the weekends. The track isn't that far from Fair Hill in Maryland and other off-track training facilities in the mid-Atlantic, so some trainers with good stock could well be lured to compete for the higher purses. Michael Matz, Graham Motion, Steve Klesaris, Mike Pino and Mike Trombetta, for example, all have training bases at Fair Hill, and all have horses that they routinely ship as far as New York in search of the right race.

Will a high purse structure lure some owners and trainers away from Saratoga? Perhaps, but it won't happen in a year. There's so much built into the Saratoga season -- summer houses, charity benefits, racing organization meetings, endless fund-raisers for Albany pols -- that it'll take more than a nice purse structure somewhere else to destroy the magic that's been created over the past century and a half. And I haven't seen the financial analysis backing up the New Jersey plan, so I'm not at all sure that the proposed $1 million daily purse structure is realistic. But, if Jersey could run 12 races a day with 12-horse fields, they'd attract a huge handle, and that might just work. Tough job for a racing secretary, though, trying to make sure that those big fields actually go to the gate.

Both NYRA's continuing expansion of the Saratoga meet -- it'll be nearly seven weeks this year -- and the New Jersey three-day weekend plan are attempts to deal with the fact that no one goes to race tracks during the week anymore. The boutique tracks -- Saratoga, Del Mar and Keeneland -- thrive, or at least survive, by offering a scarce product. Offer too much of that scarce product, as I fear NYRA is doing at Saratoga, and there's a good chance that its scarcity value will cease to have the same appeal. Repackage the product into a weekend getaway, as New Jersey seems to be proposing, takes a different approach. The Jersey Shore isn't a bad destination at all for long summer weekends, and it's a lot easier for people to say that they'll take a couple of holiday-weekend trips, and maybe even visit the race track, than it is to commit to a summer house for two or three months.

A third option, so far untried by any major track, is to scale back dramatically, so that each track has its own spot on the calendar. Shorten Saratoga back to four or five weeks in August (which would let the local kids get back in the homes their parents rented out before school starts in the fall). Run a month of six-day racing weeks at Monmouth in July instead of stretching the season out over the whole summer. Pack up and take the horses to the super turf racing at Colonial Downs for June. Fix up Pimlico enough so you could have a really great meet their for the month of May, not just for Preakness weekend.

You see the problem. To get from here to there requires collective action, or an order from an as-yet-nonexistent national authority. If just one track tries to scale back, the others are likely to move in and try to steal its racing days and its horsemen. Not to mention that there's definitely an advantage, both economic and psychological, in horsemen's being able to stay put at a single track for a significant period of time. All that loading up the stable and shipping to a new track every few weeks may have been fine for Bing Crosby movies, but it really is hard on trainers, their employees and families, and, probably, on the horses. (Though no one doubts that the best way to train is somewhere away from the race track, if only we could all afford it.)

But, as one of the most perspicacious blogs on racing notes, if we don't make drastic changes, there will be nothing left to change. My own feeling is that we need to downsize substantially -- fewer racing days, shorter meets, many fewer mares bred each year -- in order to have a viable industry that can support some people, rather than what we have now, a non-viable, too-big industry in which almost everyone, from the trainer with three horses at Suffolk Downs to Ahmed Zayat, is in trouble. New Jersey's plan may not work, or even get off the ground, but it's good to see some innovative thinking.

No comments: