The Week in Review: In 2024, the Sport Needs to Do Better

Cody's Wish | Sarah Andrew

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The remaining days in 2023 dwindled to a few last week, a welcome development considering the year that it was. Yes, there was some good news. Arcangelo (Arrogate) winning the GI Belmont S. for trainer Jena Antonucci was as good a story as we've seen in some time. The saga of Cody's Wish (Curlin) continued to tug at our heartstrings. The sales continue to post huge numbers. Purses have soared in Kentucky and at Oaklawn, with maidens running for pots in excess of $100,000.

But for every good story there seemed to be 10 bad ones.

With the animal rights community and some portions of the media putting unrelenting pressure on the sport, there's never a good time to go through a rash of breakdowns, but for it to happen surrounding the running of the GI Kentucky Derby was bad timing at its worst. There were 12 deaths at Churchill Downs crammed into just a few weeks and it got so bad that racetrack management decided to pull the plug on the remainder of the meet and move everything to Ellis Park.

Then Saratoga happened. When New York Thunder (Nyquist) broke down strides before the wire in the GI H. Allen Jerkens Memorial S. the number of horse fatalities at the meet had soared to 12. It was a horrible sight to behold for a national television audience and the 48,292 in attendance. And it was a ghastly reminder of what happened three weeks earlier to Maple Leaf Mel (Cross Traffic) in the GI Test S. She, too, broke down right before the wire in a spill that was as ugly as it gets.

The Breeders' Cup was not immune to tragedy. Though no one was seriously injured on the day of the races, Geaux Rocket Ride (Candy Ride {Arg}) and broke down and had to be euthanized and Practical Move (Practical Joke) suffered an apparent heart attack and died, both while training for the GI Breeders' Cup Classic.

The fatalities obviously caught the attention of 60 Minutes, which, in November, aired a story that focused on the breakdowns and the sport's doping problems while casting a brutally negative light on the sport. Then we learned that we will get more of the same sometime in 2024. In December, FX, a subsidiary of Disney Entertainment, announced that there would be an upcoming documentary, “The New York Times Presents: Broken Horses,” which it said would examine “systemic issues, questionable practices and urgent calls for change that have shaken horse racing to its core.”

When it comes to the economics of the sport, there was more troubling news. Through November, handle was down nearly $500 million on the year or 4.39%. That means we are on our way to seeing the steepest declines in handle, outside of the COVID year of 2020, since 2011. Does that have anything to do with the computer-assisted wagering (CAW) players? Probably. They have tilted the pari-mutuel pools to a point where the regular horseplayer is getting killed and getting out.

In July, 1/ST Racing announced that Golden Gate Fields would be shutting down for good at the end of the year, throwing the Northern California circuit into chaos. The track got a reprieve, but a brief one. It is now scheduled to cease operations on June 11. That's when it will join Arlington Park, Calder, Hollywood Park, Bay Meadows and others that couldn't make it to the finish line. Some wonder whether Santa Anita, which sits on property that is estimated to be worth $1 billion, will someday join them.

Racing can't afford to have another year like this. Things need to change. While there are no magic bullets, here are what I believe are some practical and common sense solutions to some of the problems.

The sport needs to fully embrace StrideSAFE. StrideSAFE is a biometric sensor mechanism that slips into the saddle cloth to detect minute changes in a horses' gait at high speed. Those changes can, and often do, signal that a horse is in the early stages of having a problem that could lead to a fatal injury. The technology has been around since 2011 and, while it has been experimented with here and there, it remains largely absent from the backstretch of America's racetracks. Why? There's no doubt that widespread employment of StrideSAFE will cut down on the number of horses that break down and there's no excuse for the sport to continue to drag its feet when it comes to embracing the concept.

The CAW factor is a major issue that's not going to go away, no matter what harm it might be doing to the overall health of the sport. It has become an unmanageable runaway train, with these players betting so much money that no track is going to turn away their business. But some guardrails would help. More tracks need to do what NYRA has done. They have effectively closed the CAW players out of the win pool by no longer allowing them to place bets at the very last second. They have also been excluded from NYRA's Late Pick 5 and the Cross Country Pick 5.

The betting product also needs to be better and more geared toward the booming market that is made up of sports bettors. The sport has not been nearly aggressive enough when it comes to getting the on-line sports betting websites to start accepting bets on racing. To date, the only one that has been signed up is FanDuel. That also means adopting fixed-odds wagers, which are what the sports bettors know. Only Monmouth Park has gone down this road and two years after it was implemented in New Jersey the concept is limping along. No other tracks or states have tried fixed-odds betting and, in New Jersey, only the second-level tracks are available to the fixed odds bettors.

The takeout remains too high. With betting on a horse race often involving a rake of around 20%, the game is always going to have a tough time competing with other forms of gambling, where the effective takeout rate is lower. We're seeing some progress in this area, with a number of tracks lowering the takeout on horizontal wagers like the Pick Four and Pick Five. In 2023, Hawthorne took a major step in the right direction by lowering its takeout on win, place and show wagers to 12%. But we need a lot more of the same. With so much of purse money now coming from alternative sources like slot machines, there's no reason why tracks in places like New York and Kentucky can't at least experiment with reduced takeout rates.

Fix the Triple Crown. It needs it. The GI Preakness S. is no longer coveted by the sport's major trainers and has become a weak link in the Triple Crown. Everyone wants to run in the Derby and then they scramble, some pointing for the GI Belmont S., some ready to put their horses on the shelf until the big summer races. The 2022 Derby winner, Rich Strike (Keen Ice) passed on the Preakness and, this year, Derby winner Mage (Good Magic) was the only horse to go in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The result is that the Preakness is less important than it has ever been and that only weakens the Triple Crown as a whole. When 1/ST floated the idea of running the Preakness four weeks after the Derby, NYRA reacted by announcing that it had no intention of moving the date of the Belmont. Yes, a Belmont run five weeks after the Derby works well for NYRA, but it needs to put its self interests aside and do what's best for the sport and shift the Belmont to late June or early July.

While we're at it, the purses for the Triple Crown races are too small. In this day and age, the $1.5-million purse for the Preakness is not going to motivate anyone to run. These are supposed to be the most important races in the sport and their purses should reflect as much. For all three races, the purses should be raised immediately to $3 million with the goal of eventually making them $5-million races.

These are things that can be done. Let's not let another year go by in which the sport embraces the status quo while the outlook for its future continues to get worse. The year 2024 is upon us, let it be the year where the sport takes much needed steps in the right direction.

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