Even though the North American foal crop seems to have stabilized, the decline in horses produced over the past several years will require racetracks to change how they do business, according to Martin Panza, senior vice president of racing operations for the New York Racing Association.
Panza spoke before industry leaders Aug. 10 during The Jockey Club's 62nd Annual Round Table Conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
"The days of carding 11, 12, or 13 races may be over," he said. "They should be; it's just not working. It is time to look at the equation from the other side. How many races can we card in a day and average eight, nine or even 10 horses per race. Set the standard from what we want the product to look like and then determine the number of races that can be offered to meet that standard."
What's driving the change is the supply of Thoroughbreds. The foal dropped 32% between its peak of 51,296 in 1986 through 2008, then fell another 37% though the Great Recession to the current 2015 projection of 22,000. These lower foal crops could mean North America will have 15,000 fewer starters per year by 2017.
"It seems to me with some thought and proper planning, we may have an opportunity to re-invent ourselves," Panza said.
One solution, particularly on the East Coast, he said, is for regional tracks in close proximity to create shorter, coordinated meets. Panza also said state breeding programs should also consider forming multi-state programs to support these "shared meets."
Another strategy Panza believes will work is the creation of "big event days," similar to what the NYRA created on Belmont Stakes (gr. I) day this year. The card featured eight other graded stakes in addition to the Belmont—Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I), Ogden Phipps Stakes (gr. I), Acorn Stakes (gr. I), Knob Creek Manhattan Stakes (gr. IT), Longines Just a Game Stakes (gr. I), Woody Stephens Stakes (gr. II), Brooklyn Invitational Stakes (gr. II), and the Jaipur Invitational Stakes (gr. IIIT).
"We know California Chrome had a lot to do with it, but I have to think race fans responded to the prominent stakes we bundled on that card," Panza said, referring the son of Lucky Pulpit who won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). "I believe we created a day people will want to attend, and not just when a Triple Crown is on the line."
As evidence of the appeal of "big event days," Panza noted that Belmont Park shattered its single-day all-sources handle record with $153.4 million in total wagering June 7. That surpassed the old Belmont Stakes record of $110 million and exceeding the Breeders' Cup single-day record of $124 million.
Panza said NYRA will continue looking for opportunities to create robust racing days, particularly at Saratoga Race Course.
"Saratoga is a unique and immensely powerful race meet," he said. "New York Racing Association can envision a Breeders' Cup-like day right here, maybe as soon as next year. Whether it is built around the Travers (gr. I) or the Whitney (gr. I), we believe there is tremendous potential to not only help racing in the state of New York but also American racing in general."
NYRA is also keen to build up international appeal for its races, as it hopes to do with the Stars and Stripes Festival on the Fourth of July weekend. This year, the centerpiece of the card was the $1.25 million Belmont Derby Invitational (gr. IT), formerly known as the Jamaica Handicap and run over 1 1/4 miles on the grass. Also run was the $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational (gr. IT), the Suburban Handicap (gr. II), the Belmont Sprint Championship (gr. III), and the Dwyer Stakes (gr. III).
"American racing and New York need to be part of the international scene," Panza said. With the exception of Breeders' Cup and the Arlington Million (gr. IT), "we have not done so in a meaningful way."