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.
Before the crisis, the production of U.S. thoroughbreds had been fairly constant, averaging 34,800 foals per year. The number dropped in 2008 and 2009 to about 32,000, a decline now affecting the sport because those thousands of unborn horses would be 3- and 4-year racehorses this year. The real crisis, however, is yet to come: In 2011 the size of the U.S. foal crop plummeted to an estimated 24,900.
However, in Ocala, Fla., the heart of the state’s breeding industry, the real crisis has already arrived. The number of foals born in the Florida dropped sharply in 2008 and has continued to fall. “We’ve had a total collapse of the Ocala market,” Berube said. “Farms are closed or are in foreclosure. It’s a mess up there.” Roy Lerman, a breeder and a long-time Tampa Bay supporter, said, “When the Depression hit, the small breeder could no longer sell that ‘backyard horse’ for a decent price. They were producing the $10,000 to $25,000 horses that would be the backbone of Tampa Bay. Now the small breeders have disappeared.”
Berube said that 30 percent of the runners at Tampa used to come from farms and training centers in Ocala. That number has dropped by half. “We knew this was a ticking time bomb,” the general manager said, “but I thought we’d have a few more years before it impacted us. This year is the first time we’ve had difficulty getting race cards filled.”
Racetracks need to offer attractive purse money to compete for a dwindling supply of horses. However, Tampa’s purses are meager — particularly for its bread-and-butter claiming races. (They are lower, for example, than those at Laurel Park, even though the size of Tampa’s betting business dwarfs Laurel’s.) Good stables that have been Tampa fixtures are running at least some of their horses elsewhere this winter — mostly at tracks, such as Gulfstream Park, that offer purses augmented by slot-machine money.
One possible course of action for Tampa would be to cut back its schedule in an effort to bolster the size of its fields. But there aren’t going to be any easy remedies for the diminished quality of competition, because the small thoroughbred crops of 2010 and 2011 are certain to impact the sport. Most tracks in the country will also be grappling for answers to the problems that Tampa has begun to face this winter.
For Andrew Beyer’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/beyer.