Some headlines seem to jump off the page. That was the case in the Nov. 24 edition of the Daily Racing Form,
with a story about New Mexico's Sunland Park topped by the following: Purses at $250K Daily as Signal Spreads.
First reaction was, "That cannot be true." This is, after all, the little track that was struggling to survive a few years ago. In 1993, Sunland Park purses were just $20,000 per day.
Now, instead of a bottom-level track with poor-quality horses, Sunland Park will be giving out more in purses each day than places like Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields in Northern California or Turfway Park and Ellis Park in Kentucky. Purse levels will be competitive with major circuit tracks like Oaklawn Park, Fair Grounds, Lone Star Park, Hawthorne, Calder, and Laurel Park. Places like Remington Park, Sam Houston Race Park, Turf Paradise, and many others have been left in the dust by Sunland's acceleration.
The difference can be told in one word: slots. Slot machines have divided the racetrack community into two groups: the "haves" and "have nots."
The haves include Sunland and other New Mexico tracks, along with Mountaineer and Charles Town in West Virginia, Delaware Park in Delaware, Woodbine in Canada, and Louisiana Downs and Delta Downs in Louisiana.
The "have nots" consist of tracks in nearly all of this sport's most important racing states: California, Florida, Illinois, Texas, and Kentucky. New York soon will switch from have not to have.
The haves and their one-armed bandits are gaining ground on their competitors, who have both hands tied behind their backs by state legislators who have yet to be convinced that the racing industry is a major business with an economic and agricultural infrastructure that goes far beyond the racetrack.
Sunland Park will have a $500,000 race for 3-year-olds sponsored by Kentucky-based WinStar Farm. On Dec. 5, Delta Downs is offering a $1-million pot to 2-year-olds in the Delta Jackpot, along with a $250,000 2-year-old filly race, the Delta Princess.
So far the growth in purses at tracks enriched with slot machine money has mostly attracted horses competing in overnight races. Rich purses like those for the Sunland Park and Delta Downs stakes sooner or later will have an impact on stakes programs at major tracks.
There is, of course, only one thing to do, and that is to join the haves. Unfortunately, there is no magic wand or genie's bottle to help make the transformation. Organized lobbying, individual political contributions, and grassroots efforts are all needed from those involved in the horse industry. Owners, breeders, and anyone making their living in the horse industry need to become active--writing letters to government officials, making campaign contributions, or attending meetings. The apathetic condition that permeates this business must be reversed.
Paying a lobbyist or sending a representative from your state organization is not enough. Kentucky Rep. Susan Westrom issued that warning during a September meeting of the legislature's Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Horse Farming. "Until we get the masses of people affected by the industry to come (to the state capitol), I'm not sure legislators will know what's going on," she said. "A face, a name--someone directly affected--means more to us than anything."
The track record for participation isn't very impressive, at least in Kentucky. When previous legislatures or committees have debated the merits of slot machines for Kentucky racetracks, visible interest from members of Kentucky's largest industry was almost nonexistent. Apathy ruled.
And that's just fine with racetrack owners in states like West Virginia, New Mexico, and Delaware, where the rich get richer.