Happy New Year. Not necessarily by definition, but by the nature of this magazine and this job, this column carries an optimistic tone. It can look forward, keep up with news other areas of the magazine cannot and comment on developments.
And it can also point out areas that need work.
Consider this a taking-of-the-pulse of the region’s Thoroughbred industry. You’ve got to ask the questions before you get any answers.
What’s going to happen in Pennsylvania? Once a week or so, something percolates to the surface about racetracks being forced to shut down because the state can’t fund a racing commission (it’s way more complex than that).
Then something else comes out and all looks good. I don’t see doomsday, but consider 2015 a warning. The state needs stability–fund the regulation/administration once and for all, put together a long-term agreement between tracks and horsemen, give breeders and stallion owners more input. Without stability, none of it works and you’ve lost ground to Maryland because of instability. While we’re here, how about a real day of races for horses bred and sired in the state?
Where does Maryland go from here? What a difference a few years can make. The tracks were falling apart, stallions were struggling, mares were going to Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Owners, trainers, breeders and farm owners paid the price. Now, Laurel Park looks new, farms are adding stallions and racing dates are increasing. A proactive racing commission responds and acts. Imagine how much healthier it will be when the foals born in 2015 and 2016 are racing. Keep the politicians in the loop. Tell them your stories, let them know what a healthy industry means. It’s not difficult to envision Maryland rivaling New York in terms of Thoroughbred impact outside of Kentucky.
What happens to Delaware Park? It’s still an oasis in a sea of residential and commercial development, and an amazing place. But it’s losing ground. The first track in the region to add slots thrived for a while, now everyone else has caught up. Delaware needs horses and participation. It needs to invest in its racing product. New turf course, anyone? It’s been discussed and it won’t be easy, but would a partnership with Maryland work? How about New Jersey
Can American jump racing really grow? The National Steeplechase Association created a committee to address promotion and growth, which is a start, but you’re never finished promoting. Like Delaware Park, the NSA needs horses and people. Numbers increased slightly in 2015 and need to rise again this year and the year after that. Progress should mean interest from regional (and national) owners from the flat side. Need a to-do list? Identify targets you want to participate (Ramsey, Repole, West Point, WinStar, Darley, Sagamore…), give them some incentives and get to work. Sell them on the idea. Jump racing really can be the first second career.
How does New Jersey survive? Some people say there’s no racetrack nicer than Monmouth Park, and some people aren’t wrong. But can New Jersey find running room in a crowded field? Much like Delaware, the state will never compete with Maryland or Pennsylvania when it comes to the breeding side but there’s enough Thoroughbred heritage there to preserve. And one of the nation’s great tracks. Don’t quit.
Can West Virginia find its place? It was inevitable that the state would lose some business (handle and horses) to Maryland, but work the niche and keep selling the business model to the politicians. You’re ensuring farms and jobs and open space, not just action on the racetrack. The study ordered by the racing commission can be the blueprint. Follow it.
What will become of Virginia racing? Is Colonial Downs the dodo bird, extinct? It’s sad, because it’s a cool little racetrack that really should host 20-ish days of racing a year. Nothing if not resilient, the state pressed on with Virginia-bred races at Laurel Park, flat racing at the Great Meadow steeplechase course and more. Good moves. Stick with them.
Shake the crystal ball and look ahead 15 years.
Georgia has racing, and is in the Mid-Atlantic mix. Maryland’s rebound is fully in place. There are New Jersey/Delaware-certified races and bonuses at Monmouth Park and Delaware Park. West Virginia’s empowered racing commission leads. Pennsylvania races fewer days, but with higher incentives for breeders and stallion owners. And, like West Virginia and Maryland, there’s a proactive racing commission steering the ship. Jump racing offers $10 million in purses, a streaming video show on the web every Saturday afternoon, pari-mutuel wagering at its major meets and a bonus program for owners/breeders. Laurel hosts a Breeders’ Cup. A Maryland-bred wins the Preakness. Fair Hill runs real turf races like Kentucky Downs, so does Great Meadow. Virginia finds a way to fund breeders’ bonuses at all Mid-Atlantic tracks. Fasig-Tipton holds a sale of horses bred exclusively in the region.
Or not. It all depends on how you look at it.