U of A Symposium: Trying to Find a Way Forward Amid Track Closures

A former Symposium session | Veronica Branson


A panel about racetrack closures in the prime afternoon time slot on the first day of Tuesday's Global Symposium on Racing hosted by the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program (RTIP) in Tucson had the potential to be a somber and eulogistic affair, but it did yield some interesting back-and-forth when the discussion turned to how the industry might best stem the tide of Thoroughbred venues going dark for good.

The topic “Land For Sale. How Will Race Track Closures Impact the Industry's Long-Term Sustainability?” elicited some of the commonly debated plights facing the industry, such as the decline of the foal crop, the fierce competition for the thinning horse (and horse owner) population, how to shore up field sizes, and the emergence of so-called “super” trainers and multiple-owner partnerships.

The panelists largely agreed those practices are consolidating the remaining equine assets into the hands of too few entities, but each speaker had a slightly different take on how to best deal with those woes.

Bill Nader, the president and chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC), didn't shy from rhetorically asking what he termed as “the hard question” about racing in the state that he represents. California is facing outsized upheaval because of the planned 2024 closure of Golden Gate Fields, right on the heels of a 10-year span that also saw top in-state tracks Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows slide off the Thoroughbred grid.

“What's the best path forward, and can California support two circuits?” Nader postulated before following up with the TOC's perspective.

“We know we have the [Northern] fairs, that's a given,” Nader said. “And we have Southern California. But can we support two circuits, knowing what we know?” in terms of the above-referenced downward trends.

Nader continued: “One avenue would be to look at something new [as a flagship track] in the north. [Plus] there is no alternative [revenue stream from gaming to fund purses], which makes it really hard, because we're doing it the old-fashioned way, pari-mutuel wagering only, sort of one arm tied behind your back…

“If there's something in the north that we think is viable and can really form a good business case, that would be option one. If not, then we have to redirect to suitable opportunities in the south, and make use of our assets at our racetracks at not only Del Mar and Santa Anita, but also Los Alamitos.

“If the foal crop can rebound, and we can get some positive momentum, maybe we can stay a little bit close to even” in terms of nationwide track closures, Nader said.

“It's really important that California stay strong, that we keep supporting [it],” Nader said. “Our owners are big players at the Keeneland sale and many of the major yearling sales. [So] in terms of understanding the worth and the value of what everybody brings, less racing may not be the worst thing if we can improve the product and make it better for the people who bet on the races, because that triggers the handle, and that drives the engine.”

Nader explained that for Californians, it can be difficult to see other iconic, nationally important  tracks, like Belmont Park and Keeneland, planning substantial long-term facility upgrades while grand places like Santa Anita and Del Mar are more focused on the year-to-year survival of their underlying state circuit.

“That's great that they're leveraging that [financial] advantage to make their venues better, no problem with that,” Nader said. “But I want everybody to be reminded how important California is. California doesn't have those [secondary revenue] advantages…. In terms of expectation management, we're okay, but we still want to escalate to the next level…. I think for the rest of the country, everybody should recognize [how] important California is to the rest of the country: Racing, breeding, history, tradition.”

Smaller tracks weren't left out of the discussion. Phil Ziegler, the president of Emerald Downs in Washington, made the observation that all too often the big-name track closures get the headlines, while it is often the disappearance of the smaller venues, like county fair race meets, that quietly erode the sport from the bottom up.

Chris McErlean, the vice president of racing for Penn Entertainment, Inc., whose Thoroughbred track holdings include Penn National in Pennsylvania, spoke candidly about how well-intended racing executives in Penn's home region of the mid-Atlantic unintentionally contribute to the very problems they're trying to fix.

This includes, McErlean said, giving big-outfit trainers “unlimited” stall allotments or writing so many conditions that races either become hard to fill or go with too few entries to be appealing to bettors.

“We do that out of convenience, [and] that's kind of self-perpetuating. That's kind of what works, but it's probably not the right thing to do,” McErlean said.

McErlean talked about how difficult it can be for a racing executive to deny alleged “super” trainers stall space and dominance across race conditions knowing that if they clamp down, that trainer will just move on to the next track down the road that will be more accommodating.

“I think we've hurt ourselves that way, and it just becomes more difficult to bring that genie back into the bottle once you let it go,” McErlean said.

“I've been involved in the mid-Atlantic for maybe 25, 30 years,” McErlean  continued. “Tracks always work together very well there. But every year the discussion is, 'Let's coordinate race dates' or 'We need to coordinate race dates, it makes sense.' And it never happens. So, yeah, we're our own worst enemies.

“But at the end of the day, we run our individual businesses. We're not a league,” McErlean said. “We compete against each other [and] it's difficult to do those changes [because] we can step out and make the right choices, and then everybody else keeps doing what they're doing, and then we end up being the net loser. People want to cooperate. It's just very difficult to be able to actually pull the trigger…. In theory it sounds good. In practice, it's just much more difficult to execute.”

Craig Fravel, the executive vice chairman of 1/ST Racing and Gaming, whose portfolio of tracks includes Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park, and the to-be-closed Golden Gate, underscored a focus-on-owners mantra.

“We do have to make sure that owners are sustained in a more profound manner, that they're engaged, and that they have, you know, a fighting chance to make some money,” Fravel said. “It's a game of hope. We don't want to fool them into thinking that this is a [can't-miss] investment in Microsoft in 1978. But we do want to give them hope, and we want to make sure they're well-treated…

“If we're going to try to change things, we're going to have to try things,” Fravel said. “We're going to have to do things that are new and different and sometimes make us uncomfortable.”

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