Watching the Wheels – August 2022

by Mike Tanner, USTA Executive Vice President and CEO

You’ve Just Got the Symptoms; You Haven’t Got the Whole Disease

Is there a national horse shortage, or an imbalance of supply and demand?

It was a small item on the USTA website, but one that caught my attention nonetheless. Tioga Downs on June 3 canceled its scheduled racing program due to lack of entries. Management there referred to a horse shortage that was “wreaking havoc on the entry boxes in our sport.”

A week or so later, in a statement posted on the track’s website, Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural similarly decried a lack of entries that has led to the carding of an inordinate number of amateur races over the past few months at the Big M, something that he found necessary but not preferable.

The entry box problems facing Tioga and the Meadowlands are very real. Those tracks, surrounded by competition in a tri-state region teeming with rival venues offering slot-fueled purses, are, indeed, struggling to fill races. We’ll take a look at some of the reasons why in a few paragraphs. But is there a horse shortage nationally? It depends on how you look at it.

 

The North American foal crop number hit its nadir in 2016, when just 8,115 Standardbred foals were born in the United States and Canada. Since then, however, the foal crop number has increased year over year, and in 2021 was 9,778, a jump of 20.4 percent in just five years.

So while the industry still hasn’t gotten back to the crop numbers seen prior to the recession of 2008, the trend is a positive one that will be felt well into the current decade. USTA membership numbers have even jumped by more than 7 percent during that time frame.

Concurrently, total North American racing dates decreased by 14 percent from 2016 to 2021 (although that figure is slightly inflated by the truncated Canadian season last year). Despite that decline, the Standardbred remains as robust and durable as ever, making on average 17.8 starts per year, a figure that has remained more or less constant for the past 30 years. Our horses may be getting faster (see Bulldog Hanover on page 16 for more about that), but they’re far from fragile.

 

So if the USTA is, however modestly, growing and the industry is producing more horses to compete in fewer races and those horses continue to tick along with metronomic frequency, why are some tracks having trouble filling races? Seasonality, competition, and, as with seemingly everything else in business, money all play central roles.

More tracks race during the warmer spring and summer months than during the chill of autumn and winter. In the Mid-Atlantic, that’s especially true, where the Meadowlands each summer has to contend with Harrah’s Philadelphia to the south, The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono to the west, and Yonkers Raceway just over the George Washington Bridge to the east. All are gunning for the same horses and horsemen as the Meadowlands, and each enjoys the benefits of purses enhanced by gaming revenues, a luxury not afforded the Big M.

Other tracks face similar challenges, but not to the same extent. Northfield Park benefits at the entry box when Northville Downs closes in June and Sires Stakes season begins. Harrah’s Philadelphia sees entries swell later in the year when Pocono concludes its meet, but still cards 14 races per day during the summer months, the same as Pocono. Like the Meadowlands, both of those tracks have started occasionally scheduling amateur races.

Hawthorne hasn’t experienced any shortage of entries this season, owing to a shortened racing season in Illinois, the revival of the state’s Standardbred breeding program, and optimism about potential gaming revenues.

Even Illinois’ fair racing seems resurgent. Similarly, Ohio’s Scioto Downs, which enjoys an advantageous geographic location, an afternoon post time favored by horsemen, and more than $200,000 per day in daily purses, is carding upwards of 15- 17 races per day while emphasizing a condition sheet heavy on late closers for young horses.

 

Horsemen, like most businesspersons, are self-interested actors who make rational choices based upon the information available to them, but the harness racing universe is not a true free market economy. States and horsemen’s contracts often stipulate a minimum number of race dates, so supply does not necessarily match up with demand. And when demand exceeds supply, a shortage results. That’s something to monitor.

So, what can be done to boost the foal crop? It’s sadly not as easy as adding a third shift of workers, investing in the plant’s machinery, and paying overtime to manufacture more widgets. But there are a few ideas floating around that, while not necessarily mainstream, are worthy of consideration and discussion. I’ll explore some of those in next month’s column.

 

Mike Tanner

 

The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association. To comment on this column, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

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