MIAMI — At a time when much of the horse racing industry has been in decline, Tampa Bay Downs has been the sport’s shining success story. The Oldsmar, Fla., track attracted the attention of bettors from coast to coast by offering large, competitive fields with the potential for big payoffs, and its 2010-11 winter season produced record results. Long regarded as a minor league operation, Tampa averaged a stunning $4.57 million per day in wagers.
I have been a Tampa loyalist for years, and I was one of many horseplayers who eagerly anticipated the winter season that began in December. And I am one of many who have been disappointed and disillusioned by the decline of the track’s product. The fields aren’t as big. The races aren’t as competitive. The betting isn’t as interesting. Customers have responded accordingly. General Manager Peter Berube said that wagering has dropped by about $500,000 a day — an abrupt reversal after years of growth.
The decline is by no means a mysterious phenomenon. Two crucial issues are involved. One is a factor that every handicapper confronts virtually every day. Another is a more corrosive problem that is going to affect most of the U.S. racing industry.
Anyone who bets Tampa is keenly aware of Jamie Ness, who has dominated Tampa as few trainers have ever dominated a lengthy race meet, winning with 45 of the 98 horses he has saddled — an astonishing 46 percent. Ness trains a big, far-flung, professionally run stable, a distinct contrast with many of the shoestring operations against which he competes. Even the weakest of Ness’s runners go off at low odds, and handicappers ought to relish the prospect of playing against horses who are overbet, but we have all learned this lesson: Don’t. Ness wins regularly when logic suggests he shouldn’t — with horses like Escort.
Trainer Tom Proctor, a nationally respected horseman, gave up on the once-classy Escort and dropped him into a $10,000 claiming race, which he lost by seven lengths. His career as an effective racehorse appeared to be finished, but Ness nevertheless claimed him and entered him three weeks later. Escort was made the odds-on favorite solely because of his new trainer’s mystique, but betting against the mystique wouldn’t have been a smart idea. Escort promptly won by 15 lengths.
If Ness can improve so dramatically upon a trainer of Proctor’s stature, he can do anything. Accordingly, gamblers don’t want to bet against him and may prefer to avoid races where he is a presence. Rival trainers don’t want to run against him. Ness’s last three winners paid $2.60, $5.40 and $3.20 — all in fields of six. So much for the big fields and big payoffs that have made Tampa popular.
Yet if the Ness factor is frustrating, it will not necessarily be everlasting. Nobody wins at a 46 percent clip forever. But Tampa is also a victim of a problem that faces every track and can only get worse: the shortage of thoroughbred racehorses in the United States.
When the financial crisis struck the United States in 2008, the racing industry was hard-hit immediately. Gamblers bet less money; tracks’ business dropped sharply. Owners bought fewer horses; breeders suffered, bred fewer mares and in some cases went out of business.