The Week in Review: California Racing’s ‘Other’ Problem is Purses

|

Del Mar | Benoit

By Bill Finley

Like most every other week over the last 10 months or so, the problems plaguing California racing made news. A horse broke down during training hours Saturday at Del Mar and racing’s critics were howling. The new CHRB Chairman, Dr. Greg Ferraro, talked about a seismic shift in racing regulations whereby all race-day medication may be outlawed in the state within the next 18 months. Trainer Doug O’Neill made it known that he may soon take 17 horses out of California and send them to race in Dubai, 17 horses Santa Anita can’t afford to lose.

The issues of horse welfare are rightly the top concern among everyone who has anything to do with California racing, but they have also overshadowed what is also a very real and serious problem for racing in the Golden State. The purses at the Southern California tracks have fallen so far behind those at other top racing jurisdictions that what has been a trickle of horses leaving the state to race elsewhere could soon increase to a steady flow.

Saturday’s card at Del Mar included what is a staple at every racetrack, the first-level allowance/optional claiming race. The purse was $53,000, the same purse they run for at Santa Anita. Ten years ago, the purses paid out in California were right up there with those offered at any track. The ensuing years have seen the opening of a casino at Aqueduct, the growing popularity of the gaming at Oaklawn and the explosion of historical racing machines in Kentucky. That same $53,000 allowance race at Del Mar and Santa Anita is now worth $77,000 at Belmont, $73,000 at Aqueduct and $92,000 at Saratoga. The first-level allowance races goes for a staggering $97,000 at Churchill and a healthy $73,000 at Keeneland. When Oaklawn wrapped up its season earlier this year, their allowance races were going for $84,000. Even Turfway Park belongs in the equation. Their first-level allowance at the upcoming meet will go for $48,000, just $5,000 less than at Del Mar.

None of the rich purses at these tracks would be nearly what they are if not for the money coming in from casinos.

Making the problem even more worrisome is that there’s no reason to believe that help is on the way. Native American tribes have a monopoly on the casino industry in California and that’s not going to change any time soon. The racetracks in Texas and New Jersey also have to do without casino money, but both have filled at least some of the void with subsidies from the government. With all the negativity surrounding California racing, the sport’s managers would be laughed out of the room if they went to Sacramento with a hand out asking for money.

California racing is fortunate that it has selling points that go beyond money. Trainers can race there year-round and Santa Anita and Del Mar are both spectacular facilities. A lot of horsemen are entrenched in communities there, having put down deep roots. Those are factors that will keep people in California, but money usually wins out at the end of the day. The industry in California can only hope that this one of the few examples where that won’t turn out to be the case.

Don’t Let the Facts…

Normally, I find it counterproductive to go after the media every time an anti-racing story appears in print or on your television screen. Blaming the messenger does no one any good and oftentimes the mainstream media has made good points about how the sport has not done nearly enough to right the ship.

But when the media misconstrues its facts it deserves to be called out and challenged. That’s the case after the New York Times ran an editorial Saturday written by Sally Eckhoff entitled “These Horses are Too Young to Die.”

Eckhoff is a self-described horse lover and her article wasn’t nearly as strident as some of the anti-racing pieces that have appeared in the Times of late. She touches on familiar subjects, the breakdowns at Santa Anita and the death of Mongolian Groom (Hightail) in the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic, and concludes that one of the reasons these problems exist is that horses are rushed into racing at an inappropriately young age.

“People need to know what horses are capable of, given the right conditions. And the right conditions include a fair crack at life, starting with a chance to grow up,” she writes. She backs up her premise by claiming that Mongolian Groom was three, apparently, in her mind, too young to be out there running in a race as demanding as the Classic.

You probably already know that Mongolian Groom was four when he was euthanized after suffering an injury in the Breeders’ Cup. You probably also know that studies have shown that it is actually beneficial to a horse to start its career during the 2-year-old year.

In 2013, the University of Sydney released the results of a study that included 115,000 thoroughbreds to see if there was any correlation between when they began their careers and their longevity once they began racing. There was: “The survival analysis showed the risk of retirement from racing decreased the younger the horse was when it ran its first race,” wrote Dr. Natasha Hamilton, the supervising author at the University’s Faculty of Veterinary Science.

Eckhoff makes another flub when bringing up the early retirement of Justify (Scat Daddy), writing that he raced only five times. He ran six times.

That last point may seem like nit-picking, but when the New York Times goes after racing, it has a responsibility to come armed with facts, not factual errors.

Gulfstream Park West Meet Has Perfect Safety Record

The Gulfstream Park West meet may be overshadowed by what goes on across town at Gulstream, but there was reason to cheer for what transpired this year at the racetrack formerly knows as Calder. During the 40 days of racing, there was not one fatality during the afternoons.

Mike Lakow, the vice president of racing operations at Gulfstream and Gulfstream West, believes that the safety record is a testament to the abilities of the track crew at the South Florida tracks.

“No. 1 is the track superintendent,” Lakow said when asked what can be done to make racing as safe as possible in Florida. “Tony Martinez, who we’ve had for about a year, is a perfectionist. The horsemen like him and I have faith in him. We just finished the Gulfstream Park West meet with zero fatalities and that says a lot for Tony and his crew and for Glenn Ferguson, who works on our turf courses. With caring for the tracks and the turf the way they do, that’s the No. 1 step.”

Lakow believes that the injury situation is largely under control in Florida.

“There are protocols and we have more vets than ever checking the horses,” he said. “We have stepped things up and there is more to come, but I don’t believe there is an issue in Florida. Things are good and we’re very comfortable with what we are doing.”

Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes Recap

With every development and race it looks more and more like the 2020 GI Kentucky Derby is going to go down as one of the most undecipherable Triple Crown races ever. After the

GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile left everyone scratching their heads, many felt that Tiz the Law (Constitution) would emerge as the clear leader of the division and a solid early Derby favorite.

That didn’t happen in Saturday’s GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. at Churchill Downs. Tiz the Law was bet down to 3-5, but had to settle for third behind the Steve Asmussen-trained Silver Prospector (Declaration of War). Tiz the Law did not have a good trip. Under Manny Franco, he was bottled up behind horses for much of the way. But Franco did find an opening in deep stretch and Tiz the Law had every chance to go by the leaders. He couldn’t, and was beaten about a length.

It was not a bad race from Tiz the Law, but did nothing to move him forward when it comes to the overall Derby picture. The defeat probably didn’t sit well with some bettors in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. After the “all others” option, Tiz the Law was the favorite in the betting at 8-1, as of 3 p.m. Saturday. Then again, anyone who doesn’t wait for the results of a Derby prep before making their wager should have their sanity checked.

Saturday Was Paco Day at Del Mar

Because he doesn’t ride on a regular basis in California, New York and Kentucky, Paco Lopez isn’t normally mentioned in the same breath as the sport’s top riders. But racing fans in California found out Saturday what people in Florida and in New Jersey already know, that Lopez is as good as anyone out there.

Lopez had what may have been the biggest day of his career Saturday when he made a rare appearance at Del Mar. There were four stakes on the card and Lopez won three of them. The lists includes an improbable victory aboard Zuzanna (Wilburn), who paid $48 when winning the GIII Red Carpet H.

Lopez is winning with 27% of his mounts on the year.

Not a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the daily PDF or alerts.