The list of challenges the sport of horse racing faces is long. Not appearing on that list of problems: "Field sizes are too big!"The correlation between field size and handle is proven. The more horses in a race, the higher the payoffs and the more attractive the betting propositions.
But that didn't deter the New York Racing Association from its upside-down world decision to limit field sizes in juvenile maiden races at the upcoming Saratoga meeting.
Juvenile maiden sprints will be limited to eight starters, and juvenile maiden routes will be limited to 10, according to a press release sent out while most people were focused on barbecue and fireworks.The timing of a press release is a good indicator of how the sender really feels about the message. This one screams, "Let's hope we can sneak this one by without too much scrutiny."
Here are the obligatory, lab-crafted quotes from the press release: “The catalyst behind limiting the field sizes in the maiden races for juveniles was two-fold,” said NYRA vice president and director of racing P. J. Campo. “The smaller fields are expected to produce more cleanly run events while also creating the opportunity to showcase more high-quality races during the meet and beyond. We expect this change will strengthen NYRA's juvenile stakes and allowance programs by helping horses gain the experience they need to compete successfully at higher levels.”
“Protecting our horses is an important mandate,” added New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association president and NYRA board member Rick Violette Jr. in a statement. “Larger fields of inexperienced, young horses often result in roughly run races. This approach will offer a kinder, gentler and, perhaps, wiser introduction to racing for young horses, and could, in fact, extend their careers. “Owners will have a better opportunity to fairly evaluate the performances of their horses in manageable fields,” he continued. “This also will increase the chance that young horses will improve mentally and physically from their first races, rather than having to recover from them."
Violette's assertion that owners were having trouble evaluating their young horses because of field size is laughable. And there is absolutely no statistical evidence that 9, 10, or 12-horse maiden fields are bad for horses. On the horse safety/future issue, NYRA has fixed a problem that did not exist.
As far as the clean trip issue goes, the only spot I have noticed even a hint of a problem is on the turf course, which is narrower and tighter than the main track. I would see nothing wrong with NYRA instituting different field size limits for turf vs. dirt based on track dimensions. That would make sense.
Speaking of the turf course, that brings me to an issue that NYRA should consider addressing. Turf sprints, particularly turf sprints restricted to New York-breds, have multiplied out of control on this circuit. When I think Churchill Downs, I think Kentucky Derby. When I think NYRA, I think turf sprint for New York-bred maiden claimers.NYRA should be thinking of ways to improve its entertainment/wagering product. The NYRA Board apparently thinks its racing is so good that it can afford to take a step backward in field size. (Large fields are the only thing that make the New York-bred races bettable at times!)
The eight-horse limit on juvenile maiden sprints is particularly troubling, because eight runners is the minimum number of horses I believe it takes to make an interesting pari-mutuel field. With these new field size limits, NYRA has put the ceiling where the floor should be.