From Belmont to Breeders' Cup: Horse Racing's Interim Story

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From Belmont to Breeders' Cup: Horse Racing's Interim Story

Insert cliché. Does it really matter which one I use?

Horse racing is at a crossroads…

Horse racing is hoping that any publicity is good publicity…

Horse racing is down to its final strike…


I could go on, but that would become just a wee bit tedious.

You get the drift. You know the stories. Barbaro, George Washington, Eight Belles, and those are just the champions to go down in the past two years on national television. And god willing, it sickens you. How could it not?

Even if you are a fan, it cannot help but sicken you. These fragile animals on legs thinner than yours or mine carrying eight or nine times the weight at three times the speed.

You saw how devastating Derek Redmond’s break down at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in the semifinals of the 400-meter sprint was. Now imagine if his legs were thinner and he weighed 10 times what he did and he was running thrice as fast. You get my point?

But I’m not here to bash horse racing. I love horse racing. But I also can’t deny that it’s at a crossroads, hoping for any publicity while facing an 0-2 count. There, I picked my cliché. I’m not blind.

Here we are, two days until Breeders’ Cup XXV and nobody knows where to go next.

While you slept since the Belmont Stakes, almost every racing jurisdiction has banned steroids, some effective immediately, some January 1.

New York banned them barely a week ago. Kentucky last month. California over the summer. The Breeders’ Cup did the same.

But the positives end there. The good news is non-existent.

Besides dual-classic Big Brown suffering a career-ending injury in a workout; besides top-sprinter Benny the Bull suffering the same; besides Perfect Drift and Evening Attire also retiring due to injury–I could go on–horse racing has been on the brink of destruction.

Almost every major track posted substantial decreases in handle, largely because of the economic downturn.

Sure, medium-sized tracks like Harrah’s Louisiana Downs posted 2 percent gains, but overall, gambling was down 10 percent nationwide in the third fiscal quarter over the same quarter in 2007. Year-to-date numbers show a nearly 6 percent fall.

Numerous tracks have announced major purse cuts as a result.

Calder Race Course in Florida slashed overnight purses 30 percent in April, largely due to a dispute with horsemen over the interstate wagering outfits. But even once the dispute was settled, the track kept overnight purses down 17 percent and cancelled five stakes races and significantly reduced the purses of four others.

Churchill Downs cut the purses of 11 stakes races for its fall meet and cancelled two others, totaling $975,000 in reductions.

Laurel Park in Maryland cancelled every open stakes race in its fall meet, including the Grade I Frank J. De Francis Dash, one of the most prestigious sprint races in the country and the third-most prestigious race in the state. Only the Preakness, the second leg of North America’s Triple Crown, and the Pimlico Special, site of the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race, are bigger races today.

And on Monday, Beulah Park in Ohio cut overnight purses 50 percent while going through the same dispute that Calder went through with its horsemen. Additionally, the Columbus suburb facility has not requested thoroughbred race dates for 2009.

The loss of purse money hurts horsemen, many of whom live day-to-day. Imagine if your boss took away half your salary overnight?

On the same lines as Beulah, tracks have chose to close instead of slashing purses.

The Woodlands in Kansas City, Kan. shut its doors in August after two decades of horse and dog racing.

Bay Meadows, California’s oldest continuous racing facility, finally closed in mid-August after the San Mateo County Fair in San Mateo, a suburb of San Francisco. It’s owners, Bay Meadows Land Company, plan to develop the 83-acre site into 1250 apartments and 1.25 million square feet of office space.

Many believe that Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif., which is also owned by Bay Meadows Land Company, is expected to meet a similar fate sometime in 2009 or 2010.

Still, I could keep going.

Concurrently, Magna Entertainment, which owns nearly a dozen horse racing properties, has teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.

Among its properties are the aforementioned Laurel Park and its sister track, Pimlico, as well as Santa Anita, which hosts the Breeders’ Cup this year and Gulfstream Park, site of the Florida Derby.

Magna has accumulated $571 million in debt over the past three years and is supported through loans by MI Developments, a real estate company out of which Magna was formed.

In July, Magna Entertainment underwent a 1-20 reverse split of its stock to get it back over $1 and remain on the NASDAQ exchange. In barely three months, it has dropped back towards the $1 plateau.

On September 30, a day in which the market as a whole went up, Magna posted the largest drop of any NASDAQ company, falling 56.3 percent from an open of just under $4.00 to $1.75 at close.

Additionally, major investors are now suing MI Developments for granting the loans, as all those loans do are prop up an otherwise dead company.

Furthermore, breeding is suffering.

Nearly every sale in the past month has posted double-digit declines. Those that did not only avoided the declines by canceling the sale altogether.

Over the first two days of the three-day Fasig-Tipton Yearling Sale in Lexington, Ky., there has been a 40.7 percent decline in the overall sales and a 40 percent decline in the median sale price from the first two days in 2007.

A yearling is a horse that had been foaled in the previous calendar year. No thoroughbred can race before his two-year old year.

The Fasig-Tipton sale is the oldest in the United States.

Keeneland’s September yearling sale, also in Lexington, saw 15 percent declines from 2007. The buy-back rate for not meeting the reserve price in the auction also hit record highs.

Ocala Breeders’ mix sale in Ocala, Fla. two weeks ago posted nearly 50 percent declines from 2007 across the board.

Adena Springs canceled all of its sales this year, including its prominent two-year old and broodmare sales.

Again, I could keep going.

The decline in sales has led to a decline in breeding.

Nationwide, there are 4000 less mares in foal in 2008 than in 2007, a 7.7 percent plummet. Even Kentucky, which has had an increase all but once since 1993, saw a 1.9 percent, or 400 mare, drop.

Only Pennsylvania, which has seen purses more than doubled in the past half-decade due to the addition of slot parlors at the state’s three thoroughbred tracks, saw substantial gains among major states in the number of mares in foal.

Why would anyone pay money to get a stallion to cover his mare if no one is buying the offspring? In many cases, it’s not worth the risk anymore.

And this is just a snippet of what you missed while you slept on horse racing. This is what you did not have to hear about.

It is only two days until the Breeders’ Cup and everyone in the sport is holding his breath. Not another casualty, not this time. It’s the same breath that was held during the Preakness and Belmont this year because of the media frenzy surrounding Eight Belles’s death.

And they know how important that breath is. They know their sport, their industry won’t live without it. Horse racing needs to win back the audience that provides its sustenance.

If people don’t come back, neither might the sport. Its legs are as fragile as the horses.

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