The racing industry here is plagued by many well-publicized problems. Attendance has been falling for years. Money has not been available for some desperately needed capital improvements (especially at Saratoga), and the state government is threatening to take over the tracks and put the nonprofit New York Racing Association out of business.
But amidst all of this gloom, there is one bit of bright news: the quality of the day-to-day racing here is wonderful--better than it has been in many years. It has improved perceptibly this season because the NYRA found a way to correct one of its oldest and most annoying problems.
Racing fans will tolerate plenty of indignities, but they universally detest small fields. When a track puts on a program (as Bowie did Wednesday) and the average field is seven horses, the races are boring to watch and usually boring to bet.
At some tracks, which don't have enough horses, small fields are unavoidable. But in New York the problem was more maddening then that. The NYRA had the horses, but trainers wouldn't run them. Rich men training for rich owners, they were under no economic pressure and they could baby their high-priced stock.
At this time of year especially, the prominent stables would have barns full of 2-year-olds who might not be ready to run for months. The problem was these horses belonged to the very patricians who comprised the NYRA's board of trustees.
Who would dare to tell Ogden Mills Phipps, former chairman of the board, member of The Jockey Club, patron of the turf, "Start running your horses more--or else!"
Lenny Hale, that's who. Hale is the racing secretary at the New York tracks, and he inherited the same difficult situation which had plagued all his predecessors.
"When I came here as an assistant in 1975," he said, "the issue was sort of a sticky wicket. The NYRA had taken over barns that some of the owners had built privately, and it was rather difficult to tell Marian duPont Scott, 'We know you built the barn, but we want you to get out so we can put in some claimers.'
"When I came, the attitude was, 'This is the way it's always been,' and we had to wait for the right time to change it."
With its business declining, with the development of head-on competition from the Meadowlands, the time had arrived for the NYRA to start paying more attention to the desires of its fans and less to those of wealthy owners.
So a member of Hale's staff undertook a computer study and found each horse stabled at Aqueduct and Belmont would start an average of 0.77 times per month. Hale put out the word: Trainers who exceeded this average would be granted more stall space. Trainers who fell below it would have their stall allocations reduced, although Hale would take into account the fact that high-class horses normally run less often than claimers.
One of the first things Hale did was to take six stalls away from the Phipps family. Darby Dan farm lost three stalls, and other illustrious names felt the axe, too. Surprisingly, Hale got few complaints from members of the Establishment. Instead, they changed their ways. Trainers with large numbers of 2-year-olds sent them to Saratoga, so they wouldn't bring down their average-starts-per-stall figure. Trainers knew they would pay a price for being too conservative and keeping their horses on the shelf too long.
As a result, the whole complexion of New York racing is changing. When a horseplayer picks up a Daily Racing Form and opens it to the past performances for Belmont Park, he will ordinarily find a rich, diverse, betable card with plenty of full-sized fields. What racing fan could ask for more?