I’ll Have Another might have come within one day of winning the Triple Crown, but he never came close to being the savior of horse racing.
Twelve times in the past 34 years, we’ve seen a horse head to Belmont Park with a chance to become the 12th Triple Crown winner. Each time, the chorus has sung a bit louder: "This is just what the sport needs."
Save it. To paraphrase Rick Pitino (a racehorse owner, for what it’s worth): Secretariat is not walking through that door, fans.
A victory by I’ll Have Another on Saturday surely would have been a nice shot in the arm for a sport that too often plays out in front of empty grandstands and is lucky to find a spot on the agate pages of newspapers. The spike in TV ratings and increased headlines would have been welcomed.
But the benefits would have been fleeting. Champion racehorses simply don’t run often enough to provide a tangible, permanent uplift in business. Yes, it’s good to have buzz. But buzz alone does not pay the bills.
The sport is too fragmented to return to health simply because of a popular horse, or even a historic achievement. Zenyatta was popular. She made history. Did she save the sport? Did Rachel Alexandra? Did Cigar? No, they merely provided distraction from the unrelenting downward slide of the sport.
The fact of the matter is horse racing is not really in competition with the NFL, NASCAR, MLB or the NBA for the sports entertainment dollar. It’s more in competition for the gambling dollar with the local poker room, the riverboat or tribal casino nearby, online poker (legal or not) and offshore sports betting.
What drives the health of the horse racing industry is still what it was when Seabiscuit was running: a good bet. Large, competitive fields of racehorses day after day, week after week, year after year are what sustain the sport. When the racegoers have a fighting chance to fatten their wallets, they keep coming back.
It might be easier to pick a winner in a five-horse field, but the economics of the sport make it just about impossible for horseplayers to show a profit trying to grind it out with short-priced winners. The 15 percent to 25 percent off the top of the betting pool — the track takeout — ensures that.
Bigger fields offer greater opportunity for the big score. Anyone who’s ever gone home from the racetrack with a week’s salary in the wallet thanks to a clever pick or dumb luck is likely to come back again, ever hopeful of a similar score.
In 2011, total betting handle in North America was about $11.4 billion, according to The Jockey Club statistics. Sound like a lot? Well, that’s down 26 percent from only four years earlier, when tracks raked in $15.4 billion in bets. When you’re not keeping up with inflation, that’s bad. When you’re in reverse on the raw numbers, that’s awful.
Wagering money drives purse money. Purse money drives field size. Field size drives wagering money. See the vicious cycle at work?
As recently as 1985, races averaged more than nine starters. That’s anything from the Kentucky Derby to a $5,000 claimer on a Thursday afternoon. In 2011, it had shrunk to 8.04 horses per race. In 1960, the average racehorse made 11.3 starts. Now, it’s 6.2.
Bottom line? The total foal crop has declined from 45,258 in 1988 to 24,900 last year. There were 71,014 races run in 1988, compared with 45,418 last year. The sport is literally vanishing before our eyes.
And I’ll Have Another was going to change that? Then he was assigned considerably more than 126 pounds for the Belmont. No wonder he buckled under that burden.
There are a couple of pockets of success in the sport. Del Mar and Saratoga have buzz-worthy summer meets that benefit from their relatively short duration and undeniably attractive locales. More common are the states that subsidize horse racing by allowing slot machines on racetrack property.
Without such subsidies, horse racing’s only hope is to repopulate its fields, to make it an attractive gamble again. It will have to keep horses healthy, something it seems to realize with recent attempts to use all-weather surfaces to reduce injuries and fatalities. The jury is very much out on that attempt.
There’s a movement afoot to turn back the clock on permissive drug regulations, to go 100 percent clean on race day. That won’t come easy, and field sizes would figure to plummet during any transition period. Heck, the recent declines could be related to outlawing anabolic steroids. Can a sport that can’t seem to think past the next post time really stick to a long-range plan to make horses run clean?