Field Size Up, But Don't Let It Fool You

Though the numbers certainly can't be considered robust, average field size at racetracks in five states in the Mid-Atlantic region and neighboring New York is up from the comparable period in 2014.

It's a surprise given the continued impact from smaller Thoroughbred foal crops and a glut of racing dates in a compact region in which shipping from track to track isn't a major project outside of traffic congestion in a major travel corridor.

The following is a look at average field size for nine racetracks through June 25, and their 2014 numbers for the comparable period last year, based on statistics from The Jockey Club Information Systems. The tracks are ranked from highest average field size to lowest for 2015.

Charles Town 8.32 7.87
Monmouth Park 8.17 7.74
Belmont Park 7.63 7.50
Parx Racing 7.51 7.15
Penn National 7.50 6.98
Delaware Park 7.00 7.24
Presque Isle Downs 6.95 6.83
Finger Lakes 6.73 6.63
Mountaineer 6.52 7.30

Thus far, only Delaware Park and Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort show a drop in average field size from the comparable period last year.

At Delaware Park, where the overall quality of racing programs appears to have improved—a subjective assessment—from 2014, the decline most likely is related to races that have come off the turf given frequent heavy rain in the area in the past month. Most overnight sheets there have shown grass races with also-eligible horses.

The product at Mountaineer has been greatly impacted by a substantial purse reduction brought about by state government's shift of purse revenue from video lottery terminals to other programs, as well as competition from a new Ohio racetrack in March and April.

What's bad for Virginia probably has been good for other Mid-Atlantic tracks; Colonial Downs, which was heavy on grass racing, didn't race in 2014 and isn't racing again this year. Surely that has played a role in regional field size for races that have remained on the turf.

The same can be said for Massachusetts, where Suffolk Downs, after losing its bid for a gaming license, ended live racing last October. Some of those horsemen have ended up at tracks in the Mid-Atlantic region and New York but hope Massachusetts in the near future rebuilds its racing program.

On July 3 Laurel Park in Maryland will begin racing three days a week with a heavy emphasis on turf racing. So it remains to be seen how long the increases in average field size will last given the general small-percentage increases.

Talks among Mid-Atlantic track officials in recent years about working together to coordinate schedules to improve horse inventory and make races more attractive to bettors haven't amounted to much—and that probably played some role in Maryland's decision to add summer days and use the quality turf course at Laurel. The lack of cooperation is unfortunate, because the field size numbers show there's plenty of potential to make an important racing region much stronger through consolidation.

That's not to say some tracks and horsemen's groups haven't made adjustments. It shouldn't be forgotten that Delaware Park now has 81-day meets, down from almost 140 when only Delaware and New Jersey offered casino gambling. Monmouth's meet of roughly 60 days has been almost cut in half from about five years ago, when purses were supported by casino revenue supplements.

In West Virginia, Charles Town and Mountaineer have reduced dates to preserve purses at a level considered acceptable. That realignment will continue there in the future.

As for Pennsylvania, does it need three tracks—two of which have turf courses and one a synthetic surface—racing from mid-May through the end of September? Shouldn't the advantages of the three facilities be maximized, which in turn will help the region's racing product overall?

It's past time to take action in the Mid-Atlantic. Yes, average field size is up slightly in the region and New York, but it's probably a blip on the screen. And besides, having only two of nine racetracks with eight or more horses per race, and three with less than seven, isn't a sign of a healthy industry that in large part relies on large fields to drive pari-mutuel wagering.

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