It often appears that some of the individuals and enterprises whose livelihood depends on a viable racing industry go out of their way to ignore what is best for their success in the long run.
Effective with the beginning of the spring meet on April 26, Churchill Downs intends to increase takeout percentages on straight wagers from 16% to 17.5% and on exotics from 19% to 22%. Management stated that the rationale is to maintain purse levels necessary for quality racing.
With the Kentucky Derby upcoming on May 3, this tactic will no doubt enhance profits in the near term because the vast majority of people who bet on the Derby card will do so irrespective of the takeout increases. Many amateurs, so to speak, bet on Derby Day and they are not concerned with takeout percentages.
However, once the Derby is over, Churchill Downs will have to attract and retain year-round handicappers, who are acutely aware of takeout percentages. In this regard, the Churchill decision is terribly myopic.
Pari-mutuel wagering in North America has been in a persistent downturn. Whenever demand is being so destroyed, price hikes are almost certain to accelerate the process. Rather than increasing takeout percentages, Churchill Downs should be experimenting with making their pari-mutuel products more attractive via price cuts.
On March 31, 2014, the Jockey Club released new statistics from the Equine Injury Database, covering the period 2009-2013. The data continue to confirm the vast superiority of synthetic racetrack surfaces. In 236,167 starts on synthetic surfaces, there were 289 racing-related fatalities, which translates into 1.22 fatalities per 1,000 starts. By comparison, in 1,383,690 starts on dirt surfaces, there were 2,882 fatalities, or 2.08 per 1,000 starts. Finally, there were 411 fatalities on turf surfaces from 251,665 starts, or 1.63 per 1,000 starts.
Elementary logic would lead one to conclude that races run on synthetic surfaces unquestionably and significantly reduce the physical risk to horse and jockey.
Yet, almost in concert with the release of the Jockey Club data for 2009-2013, two of racing’s premier racetracks, Del Mar and Keeneland, announced that their synthetic racing surfaces will be replaced with dirt. Whether intentional or not, they are sending a message to the public, PETA, and the New York Times, “We are choosing to race on the surface that results in the largest number of horse casualties.”
Moreover, the top executive of a prominent industry organization referred to the use of synthetic surfaces as a failed experiment. By what rationale is reducing horse deaths incurred while racing from 2.08 per 1,000 starts to 1.22 per 1,000 starts a failure? To the contrary, it is a resounding engineering success.
Synthetic surfaces at Del Mar and Keeneland are obviously being replaced because of reasons other than safety, so why not just say so and be honest that the safety of horse and rider is not the number one priority.
The collective racing industry seems intent on continually providing ammunition for its critics in the media and animal-rights organizations. This blundering is on its way to eviscerating a magnificent sport.
Why do some racetrack executives continue to ignore the lessons of history and make choices that are not in the best interests of concerned parties and send the wrong signals to the public?
“That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” the Gryphon remarked: “because they lessen from day to day.” (Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
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