Looking at the Future

THE MYSTIC WINDOW© by Henna DattaRemember when the sport could stand up to anything? The races would fill to the brim, and the “also eligible list” was off the page. We used to have so many horses and the purse coffers brimming, we could offer a double-header cards. According to Archie Bunker, “those were the days.” Things have changed a bit, and the future we were waiting for has arrived.

Who would have thought Churchill Downs would have 5-horse fields on a regular basis? How about tracks dropping marquee days, and others losing racing dates all together. It is happening all around, and after the smoke has cleared. It may be for the best.

When it was first brought up in conversation, I fought like a cornered cat. I didn’t want to lose any dates, races, or purses. We thought this was the beginning of the end; or was it? Thoroughbred racing has stood tall since the beginning of time. As the game wears on, we may have to drop back and punt. It may be time we examine the old adage of “less is more.” If you love racing, maybe you better take two aspirins and lay down.

How about watching Australian racing, or get up early and take a peek at racing in the U.K. They have it down like clockwork, and nobody steps on each others feet. There is one race going on, and a central handicapping station takes you from one track to the next.  There are well informed handicappers who talk about track conditions, local connections, and the physical look of the runners. This allows me to drink my orange juice, and watch Royal Ascot with more info than I used to have at the track. This enables tracks to put one race at a time on deck, and we get to enjoy the races instead of having an endless buffet. We still get all of the action, and we’re guided through the day versus running on top of each other. This allows players to skip a race, concentrate on later races, or just have a better understanding of what is going on. We could take a lesson or ten on how to conduct racing in current times.

Thoroughbred racing in the states feels like a “royal rumble,’ and we’re fighting each other for pennies that hit the floor. How about a keeping the sport on a schedule? The “A” tracks such as New York, Florida, Kentucky, Illinois, and other seasonal circuits could be kept on time schedule, and there would be constant communication. When one track has finished, we move right to the next and minutes-to-post could be added or taken away to keep the tempo. The results and commentary could come from a group of central handicapping locations that talk about racing at specific tracks. No more dancing on others toes, and I’ll bet we’ll see an upswing in handle. Before you talk about multi-track giants who flex their muscles. If this is successful, they’ll jump on board. You could argue that CDI or Magna would balk, and demand to drive the train. No more leaders or dictators, as the sport needs continuity. Racing needs change, and it is not one big multi-corporate giant or a casino entity who takes charge. My great-grandmother lived to be 103-years-old, and she saw many things in her life. When things were tough she used to say, “we better hang together, or we’ll all hang separately.”

As far as the “B” level and smaller tracks, they would be grouped together and would fit into the mix. The smaller tracks could make-up a Sunday – Wednesday schedule, and for the first time they would not have to compete against every track at once. Tracks could showcase their best races, and players could have stakes races and big events everyday of the week. They could drop back in number of races and overall racing dates, and this would lead to bigger purses to begin. Owners, trainers, and jockeys would raise their hand for that, and players could have fuller fields which yield better payouts. So far so good. Now, tracks could have their own commentators on deck who would cover their product, and who better to hear from than the people who know the connections and what is happening in their corner of the world.

We hated the idea of change. Tracks thought alternative gaming would carry the load. But after a few years, we are back at square one, or in worse shape. Then came the idea of boutique meets, but you have to offer a quality product before anyone pays attention. We prayed and begged casinos to come in and buy up our problems, and replace them with the glitz and glamour of the slot infused world. But if you have been watching, you’ll see that racing is not anywhere near the top priority.

The game has changed in a big way, and we can’t put it back in the box. As the world heard the news of polytrack being tossed to the wind at Keeneland, there was a little more on the table. The little track that flew the flag of “racing how it was meant to be” has taken the reins and is now in the driver’s seat. Once upon a time there were eight races, no exotics, and no announcer to describe the action. Keeneland was pristine, and wouldn’t allow the problems of the racing world to enter the grounds. They stood on the world-class Thoroughbred sales and watched as the other tracks fought over nickels as they banked away the gold. In 2015, the Breeders’ Cup will showcase in Lexington, Kentucky instead of going back to Churchill Downs. When Churchill Downs “took” away the dates from lagging Turfway Park in 2012, Keeneland began to plan. As CD enjoyed Kentucky Derby week, they knew the sport was getting too heavy to carry. Even the home of the Twin Spires can’t make it anymore. The sport comes limping along, and gaining ground like a down-bound train was the Lexington, Kentucky track with the perfect setting. They are bringing in a world-class dirt course, and the turf course may be one of the best in the nation. Keeneland has clout, and plays well with others. We could all take a cue from their efforts and planning, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts that they would be glad to take the lead in getting everyone to sit down at the table. So what’s it going to be? A shot at the title, or a seat by the band?”