Sometimes it seems inconceivable that the thoroughbred racing industry--with its hard-core base of fans and its widespread appeal--could be plagued by so many financial problems. But anyone wishing to understand this phenomenon need only contemplate a decision made by the Pennsylvania Racing Commission last week.
That board authorized Keystone Race Track in Philadelphia to conduct year-round racing in 1982, instead of shutting down in the summer as it has in the past. The decision may sound innocuous, but it epitomizes the greed and shortsightedness that have plagued the industry; it had so many ramifications that Austin Brown, general manager of Delaware Park, said, "It's like a nuclear war. If everybody gets killed, who's the winner?"
The combatants in this warfare are the Middle Atlantic racing states: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. Their tracks rely, in many cases, on the same broad population of horses to fill their races and the same fans to attend them. But unlike racing circuits like those in California and Florida, which are contained within a single state's borders, the Middle Atlantic circuit is governed by many conflicting political entities.
The conflicts have been mounting for years. At one time, the Maryland tracks shut down at the end of May, and their horses would go to Delaware Park for the summer. Then the state of Maryland, looking after its own interests, adopted year-round racing, giving its fans a summer meeting of mediocre quality while diluting Delaware's.
Monmouth Park, in New Jersey, traditionally opened around Memorial Day, just when Keystone closed. But last year the New Jersey legislature gave Monmouth some tax incentives to open May 1, creating a conflict with Keystone and diluting both meetings. That change "broke any gentleman's agreement" between the two tracks, a Keystone executive told the Daily Racing Form. So this summer Keystone will be operating simultaneously with Monmouth, Atlantic City, Delaware and Laurel. This addition to an already crowded schedule is going to devastate both Atlantic City and Delaware.
Even without this competition, the racing at Delaware has been a sorry spectacle in recent years. Many a Maryland horseplayer has contemplated making a trip to the lovely track, picked up the Racing Form to find a program consisting of dreary six- and seven-horse fields, and has canceled his plans.
"The shortage of horses has affected us desperately," Brown acknowledged. "Short fields are the biggest crusher to our industry. And we were getting 25 percent of our horses from Keystone. Where we are going to get them now is a big question."
Atlantic City has also been plagued by small fields, and it will suffer as much as Delaware this year. The problems of these tracks will eventually spill over onto the others. "Keystone won't have any direct effect on us," said Lou Raffetto Jr., racing secretary at Monmouth. "But the situation will put so much pressure on Atlantic City that it will force them to try to get horses from us."
Horseplayers ordinarily don't shed any tears over the problems of the racing industry, but this is a problem that affects them as much as anybody. It is a deprivation not to be able to go to an otherwise pleasant place like Delaware, Atlantic City or Monmouth and not to be able to enjoy a decent, competitive, bettable card. It will be even more of a deprivation if one or more of the tracks in the region ceases to exist.
Given the nature of state legislatures and state racing commissions, it seems unlikely that any of the tracks will reduce their racing schedules. Brown talks wistfully of a regional racing commission that would regulate all the tracks, but that is fantasy: what is more likely to happen is what happened in New England in the 1970s.
Once, Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts, Rockingham Park in New Hampshire, Lincoln Downs and Narragansett Park in Rhode Island each took its fair share of the region's racing schedule. Horses and fans moved from track to track, and the whole industry was healthy.
But then each state tried to take a slightly larger share of the total pie for itself. Conflicts ensued, the quality of competition declined, the tracks' attendance dropped, their physical facilities deteriorated, their business dropped further. Today, there is one thoroughbred track in New England.