Horse racing fading at the wire despite Triple Crown frenzy



Rose Mary Williams remembers the buzz that rippled across Waterford Park in Chester, W.Va., that sunny day in June 1978 when, about 400 miles east, Affirmed inched Alydar by a nose at the Belmont Stakes to become horse racing's 11th Triple Crown winner, following closely on the heels of Secretariat (1973) and Seattle Slew (1977).

It was her first year working as a pari-mutuel clerk at Waterford Park.

Thirty-six years later, Waterford Park is now Mountaineer Racetrack, where Ms. Williams is the senior director of racing, and horse racing still awaits its 12th Triple Crown winner.

Today, with California Chrome, the 3-year-old colt, poised to end the streak at the 1½-mile track at Belmont Park, N.Y., Ms. Williams hopes to capitalize on the frenzy. Mountaineer Racetrack will have its regular slate of nine races tonight, with a "Belmont at Mountaineer" T-shirt giveaway and Triple-themed incentives for bettors.

"There's a lot of hype out there about California Chrome, so that alone may entice somebody who has never been interested in horse racing to come over and watch," she said. "We're anticipating a big crowd. The Belmont night is usually a big night, but there's no doubt in my mind it'll be bigger now."

California Chrome's Triple Crown push has brought a welcome wave of positive media attention to a horse racing world that is facing a difficult reality as its popularity tumbles and as purse sizes and field sizes continue to decrease.

According to The Jockey Club, the number of foals born per year has dipped from 35,047 in 2005 to 21,275 in 2013, a drop of nearly 40 percent. U.S. pari-mutuel handle -- a measure of overall horse betting -- has sunk from $15.18 billion in 2003 to $10.88 billion in 2013.

In 2005, Mountaineer Racetrack paid $32.75 million in purses, according to The Jockey Club, and averaged 8.81 horses per race. By 2013, the numbers slipped to $26.46 million and 8.11 horses per race, which has fallen further to 7.27 in 2014.

In keeping with a national race-day reduction trend, Mountaineer management submitted a request to the West Virginia Racing Commission on May 20 for permission to drop 11 race days in December and have nine races per night instead of 10 in October and November.

The request comes in large part because of Penn National Gaming's decision to transfer its racing license from Beulah Park (Columbus) to the new Mahoning Valley Race Course in Austintown, Ohio, near Youngstown.

Mountaineer's 2014 schedule calls for 210 racing days from March 1 through Dec. 20, and Mahoning Valley will begin races Nov. 24. With only 45 miles separating the two tracks, they will be competing for the same horses -- and there are fewer of those, too.

"We're required to run 210 racing days per year," Ms. Williams said. "I think realistically that number is going to have to shrink a bit just because of the foal crop. There aren't as many horses out there to fill those fields.

"Racing has been around a long time, and I think it will continue. But what you're going to see, probably, is less racing days."

The Mountaineer Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association signed off on the racetrack management's request for fewer racing days.

"We don't have enough purse money," association president John Baird told BloodHorse.com. "We can't fill 10 races a day -- no one does anymore. If we don't cut these days, we would have to cut purses by 20 percent at the end of the year."

Not every horseman is pleased with shortening the racing season.

"It's gonna hurt me if we have to shut down and go [to Mahoning Valley]," said trainer/owner Bart Baird, who stables about 25 horses at Mountaineer Racetrack and lives nearby. "It's what I do for a living, so it would tickle me to death if we raced year-round again."

Mr. Baird, 49, is the son of late trainer Dale Baird, whose 9,445 career wins are the most in American thoroughbred racing history, and the nephew of John Baird. He sits atop the Mountaineer Racetrack trainer leader boards this year with $114,271 in earnings in 58 starts.

"I've seen [Mountaineer Racetrack] go from nothing to building up real high, and now we're starting to go on a downhill slide again," Bart Baird said. "I'm too young to quit and too old to start over. I'm not sure what's going to unfold."

Dale Baird is deeply embedded in the history of Mountaineer Racetrack, a small-track legend who stabled 100 horses there and was given the Eclipse Special Award by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association in 2005. He died in an auto accident Dec. 23, 2007.

"With him passing away, it really killed this area," his son said. "I can see it all going downhill from the day we buried him."

How can the industry overcome the shrinking purses and field sizes?

"Well, that's the million-dollar question," Bart Baird said. He's not sure he has answer. "I just hope it keeps going. It's looking sad, but I enjoy and love it. I'd just like it to keep prospering."

For Ms. Williams, the key is in being "smarter" about the number of race days and in bringing young minds aboard who can help market the old-school sport of horse racing in the modern day.

"With the younger generation, they want immediate results," Ms. Williams said. "I think we have some challenges there, to come up with some different ideas to generate interest. That's what racing needs: fresh ideas."

Another outreach opportunity, of course, is to take advantage of natural spikes in popularity such as the current Triple Crown hype. For administrators and trainers alike, it's hard not to root for California Chrome, for the attention he has brought the industry and for his story -- purchased for $8,000 by owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin.

"Here's two small guys with nothing, and they could have a million-dollar horse before it's all said and done," Bart Baird said. "I really like it. It shows any average Joe can get fortunate."


Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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