The Belmont Stakes Is Now Just an Afterthought
By Evan Weiner
In 1950, baseball, boxing and horse racing were on top of the America's list of favorite sports. Thoroughbred racing was a huge deal back then with both jockeys and horses becoming household names. Eddie Arcaro and Johnny Longden were certified stars and so were the horses as there were six Triple Crown winners between 1935 and 1948. Arcaro was on the cover of Time magazine in May 1948.
Thoroughbred racing's popularity has been on a steep decline since the days of Arcaro and Longden and for the third time since 2000, Saturday’s Belmont Stakes lineup will not include the winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The combination of an erosion of thoroughbred racing's fan base and the lack of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners in the Belmont field will further drive home that point.
There isn’t very much interest in the Belmont or in thoroughbred racing on a day to day basis anymore and the sports field is far more crowded than it was in 1950. Belmont just had to keep with baseball and golf and tennis. This year, the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association championship finals are being played, there is baseball, golf, the French Open, a world championship boxing bout at Yankee Stadium that night and a build up to Soccer’s World Cup.
Even a crown jewel event like The Belmont cannot break through the logjam of sports events.
Thoroughbred racing has a long way to go before it captures the imagination of even the casual racing fan who just watches three races a year---the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes---and racing industry people aren't even certain that the fall of thoroughbred racing has hit rock bottom.
There are all sorts of reasons for the lack of interest in the ponies. The racetrack used to be the only place outside of Nevada where people could legally bet and that all changed in the 1960s with state sponsored gambling such as lotteries and the advent of Off Track Betting. The lure of betting in a local candy store brought in people who never went to the track and those who used to venture to the track. The track was embedded into the culture in the movies and on the TV shows.
Thoroughbred racing has an aging fan base and with casinos popping up everywhere there is no need to go to the track and that has not been lost on Charles Hayward, the President and CEO of the New York Racing Association (NYRA).
Hayward came pretty close to temporarily shutting down two of his tracks, Belmont and Saratoga, this summer and is only operating because of a New York State loan for about $15 million to cover expenses after New York's OTB stiffed NYRA. New York was once a major center of activity in the thoroughbred business, today there is a struggle to keep the sport relevant in the nation's biggest market.
"We since the start of the financial collapse in 2007, the industry has been sustaining declines in total wagering activity in the neighborhood of eight or nine percent. The horse population, the number of horses that have been sold at auction has been down fairly dramatically," said Hayward in the state of the union analysis of the industry. "I think we need to see a reduction in the number of live racing days, there is going to be a consolidation in ownership and in horse ownership.
"I think that we are transitioning in the way a lot of businesses are as a result of the changes in the economic climate. But I am still reasonably optimistic about quality races going forward."
The Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes draw spectators. They are championship races but the day to day health of the industry is not good.
"Listen, the Triple Crown is a great thing," said Hayward. "The Kentucky Derby is the biggest race in the country and always will be. The Triple Crown is safe for the foreseeable future."
There have been stories in the past suggesting that the Preakness would be moved from the Pimlico track in Baltimore. For the time being, Maryland officials are certain that the race will remain in Baltimore.
Consolidation of the industry might help but horse racing has a lot of different fiefdoms and getting state regulators together with horse owners, track owners and other groups is going to be an onerous task.
"I think, unfortunately, there is no common ground," said Hayward whose own fiefdom is NYRA. "The biggest problem we have, which you alluded to, is that we are regulated on a state basis. That's everything from racing days to medications to horse ownership, credentialing horse owners. It is one of the big problems we have in the business. I think, unfortunately, there is not going to be a smooth, seamless transition. It will be one that will be done on somewhat a regional basis depending on the economics in that environment.
"It is not going to be pretty, it is going to have some dislocations, you are going to have some racetracks closing but I wish there was a common way for that to happen but unfortunately there isn't, so."
For those who want to create another Federal bureau and create a United States Sports Ministry many like similar posts in governments globally, Hayward is not an advocate of racing being included in a group that would be overseen by a cabinet level post.
"I think, the Feds have talked about that from time to time, I think on horse safety, track safety, medications, the industry really has stepped up and made some improvements," Hayward stated. "I think adding another layer of regulation would not be helpful and I think the industry has demonstrated that they can take care of some of these Federal concerns that have come forward.
"I think the big problem with our sport is unlike baseball, basketball where they have commissioners and they have leagues, we really, our content is only valuable from a wagering perspective. The media rights are not worth a whole lot. The sponsorships are not worth a whole lot. We cannot sell ARod jerseys for our jockeys. So I think we are always, unfortunately, going to be a decentralized business. And you know as nice as it would be to have a league, I just think, there have been some attempts at that, it is not going to happen."
The racing industry has been somewhat revitalized by the introduction of "Video Lottery Terminals" or VLTs. States have given casino licenses to dying racetracks which have kept racing alive. Hayward is waiting for New York to give him a licensing partner to keep his NYRA franchise alive. There are a number of states who have given the go ahead to convert tracks into casinos and it has been a boost to harness tracks in New York, West Virginia and in Delaware.
"Thoroughbred racing could last on its own if we had a proper OTB operation but we don't, we have six regional OTBs (in New York State), we have some other constraints placed on us so there is no question that in the near term for the capital expenditure monies we are going to receive and for the purse supplements, we are going to need that (the VLTs or slot machines)," said Hayward. "I don't think we are on our heels quite the way the harness industry was and there is no question that has really rejuvenated that business. But I think we are looking forward to very much that money and we are starting to make some plans on the facility improvement we would do."
Hayward also talked about an unspoken benefit for New York if the slots go into his track. He would be able to give bigger purses in races and that has an economic domino effect which has occurred in Pennsylvania and Delaware.
"One of the things, New York racing drives historically has been a really strong New York breeding program. Unfortunately in the last couple of years it has been in decline for exactly the reason that Pennsylvania has been growing. They have had the same kind of transformation of their racing business that we have seen in the harness racing business here (in New York). People who have come here and opened farms and remember this legislation (allowing VLTs in NYRA tracks) was passed and since that time there has been eight harness tracks that have opened and one thoroughbred track in Finger Lakes (in New York) and we haven't opened," said Hayward.
"A lot of people have invested in farms upstate that have really closed down and have moved in some cases back to Kentucky and in some cases to Pennsylvania. As of a couple years ago, we had 400 farms in the breeding business here which was about 17,000 jobs and $1.2 billion of economic activity and those numbers have been diminished by about 30 percent. So we are hoping, part of the reason is about 30 percent of our races are state bred races, it is a program that allows Kentucky stallions and other state stallions to breed to New York mares, have them come back here so the quality of the state breds is really terrific. They run for about 30 percent of our races and $25 million in purses. It is a big economic driver for the state particularly in the upstate area where most of the farms are.
There is far more to the fan enjoyment or betting on The Belmont Stakes or any horse race for that matter. The thoroughbred industry is receding rapidly and other than putting slot machines in race tracks there seems to be no other way to save the sport from oblivion. In the end other forms of gambling will either kill horse racing entirely or prop it up where it will be little more than a few times a year curiosity. The days of the superstar horse and superstar jockeys are over and horse industry people know it.
The Triple Crown seems to be a lost slice of Americana and belongs to another age.
Evan Weiner is an author, radio-TV commentator and lecturer on "The Politics of the Business of Sports" and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org