Plain and Simple - By Evan Hammonds

We can beat around the bush all we want, but the way the Thoroughbred industry does business needs to change. Right now, precious few in the business are creating any real income to outpace their costs. We are burning through reserves. We’re slowly bleeding out.

The term “cashless society” is taking on a different meaning than it did a decade ago.

The great recession we are currently in has changed the business landscape in America. This economic downdraft has already done more to shake out big business since the computer revolution of the late 1980s and early ’90s…and there’s no end in sight.

Beyond the financial and auto industry poster boys, nearly every sector is struggling to survive.

Macy’s, the nation’s largest department store brand, is fast-tracking a restructure labeled “My Macy’s.” Its plan is to transform not only how the store looks, but how the supply chain and management are structured.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explained how the selection of certain products is shrinking on the shelves in Wal-Marts, Rite Aids, and other national retailers. This effect on the manufacturing sector may be yet to come.

The publishing industry is in near free-fall. While trying to maintain a “24/7” operation to keep content current on the Web (for free online), publishing operations are getting squeezed by a decline in their main revenue source: advertising.

Believe it, this hasn’t been avoided by employees of The Blood-Horse and other equine publications, nor have our readers escaped the pinch. The size of our weekly edition has shrunk dramatically while we attempt to retain some sort of sane ad-to-edit ratio.

In the Thoroughbred business, stud fees have been slashed. Racetracks are in foreclosure. Stakes races, and their purses, are disappearing around the country (except in “slots” states, but that’s another issue). Attendance and handle are anemic. The term “growth” has been mothballed.

How do we survive?

Pure and simple: We need to ban drugs from the sport, and we need to have less racing…a lot less racing.

Two key words in the recently released study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association lauding the “beneficial effects” of furosemide (Salix) were “enhance performance.”

Last year’s state-by-state push by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association to get steroids banned was a major accomplishment, but was hopefully just the first of many steps toward getting all race-day medication banned from the sport.

It’s been more than 25 years since Salix, formerly known as Lasix, was first allowed on race day in some states. The diuretic was hailed as a medication that would help lengthen the careers of horses and allow them more starts as the racing calendars of many states were expanded to year-round circuits.

The proof is in the pudding: Horses today start less—a lot less—than they used to, and another PowerPoint presentation is not necessary. The Jockey Club Fact Book reports that in 1980 (furosemide sparingly used), the average horse started 9.21 times a year and the average field size was 8.70 runners. In 2008, with most horses running on furosemide, the average runner made 6.20 starts and the average field size was 8.17.

And that’s not the biggest concern with Salix and other adjunct medications that are injected into our star athletes on race day. Only after Thoroughbred racing is free of the medication issue can it grow as a sport. We can only expect public opinion to favor horse racing if not only the perception but also the reality, is that it is on a level playing field.

And once on a level field, there needs to be fewer fields. The successful meets of our day are the smaller, boutique meets: Saratoga, Del Mar, Keeneland. Not every jurisdiction can offer that quality, but tracks need to create the anticipation that what’s to come is something special. Fans need to have their expectations met.
One recent success has been Churchill Downs’ experiment with night racing. Sure, dollar beers help, but Churchill Downs has gotten people through the turnstiles. Is there more demand for night racing? We’re not sure, but empty grandstands are proving there is less demand for tracks across the country to be running on weekday afternoons.

Less racing means less demand for racing stock on store shelves. A popular notion among “commercial manufacturers?” Probably not.

The marketplace may decide for us.

Evan Hammonds is the Executive Editor of The Blood-Horse.

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