On Monday, Delaware Park presented a program that no horseplayer could love: there was only one field with as many as nine horses, and most of the races had only six or seven entrants. This uninspiring card lured a total of 3,367 customers, who bet $351,121, the sort of figures usually associated with minor-league tracks.
A few days earlier, Laurel put on a racing program that started with a $5,000 maiden claiming race, a $7,500 maiden claiming race and a $12,500 maiden claiming race. The opportunity to see the dregs of horsedom evidently didn't excite local racing fans, and a pitiful crowd of 5,193 showed up for the occasion.
This is the summer of discontent for horseplayers and for people who own and operate thoroughbred tracks in the Middle Atlantic states. It has offered a vivid demonstration of the economic and political problems that trouble the sport; it has proved that there can be too much of a good thing.
Once this section of the country had a sensible racing schedule, which allowed every track to operate free of destructive competition. But when Maryland tracks started to run year-round, they came into conflict with Delaware's season. Last year, Monmouth Park opened on May 1 (instead of Memorial Day) and operated in conflict with Keystone for a month. This year, the irate officials of Keystone said that, because their gentleman's agreement with Monmouth had been broken, their track would stay open year-round.
And so five major tracks now are operating in the Middle Atlantic region: Laurel, Delaware, Keystone, Monmouth and Atlantic City. Because they are all taking customers away from each other, the results have been predictable: everybody is hurting. Monmouth's business is down. Atlantic City's handle has plummeted more than $200,000 a day. Delaware's average daily handle has dropped from last year's woeful $700,000 level to a disastrous $550,000.
Not only are the tracks drawing from the same broad population of horseplayers, they are drawing from the same population of horses, and there are not enough decent thoroughbreds to go around. So the tracks are forced to offer too many small fields, cheap races and uncompetitive races. A bettor trying to decide whether to attend Delaware or Laurel might pick up the Daily Racing Form, see an array of six-horse fields at both places and decide to stay home.
If this were a rational world, representatives of the parties involved in this destructive conflict would sit down together and try to fashion a rational summer racing schedule. In fact, this is unlikely to happen because state governments don't want to give up revenue from racing. (The legislators in Annapolis, for example, would not want to give up the tax money generated by summer racing in order to help a track in Delaware.)
Instead of reducing the schedule, the tracks are likely to respond to their present woes by running more races. Officials at Atlantic City have been talking about a longer meeting. Delaware, which has a 73-day meeting this year, might expand to a 125-day season.
"Delaware never wanted to go to a long meeting," said General Manager Austin Brown. "But a track has huge fixed expenses--insurance, depreciation, year-round salaries, property taxes--and that's a big chunk to offset in a 73-day meeting. With a longer meeting, you can survive on lower average attendance and handle figures."
Brown acknowledged that this is a bit like saying, "The building's on fire! Pass me a can of gasoline!" But the tracks will very likely try to solve the problems caused by too many racing dates with even more racing dates, giving horseplayers an even greater array of races they won't want to watch or bet.