The following is a history of horse racing as viewed from the 21st century. Fact, fiction, speculation, or pure fantasy? All of these are possibilities. But, if racing plays its cards right, this could be a glimpse into the crystal ball.
Out-of-state “satellite” wagering began. Major tracks had been simulcasting races into Nevada racebooks for several years. However, this was the first time wagers taken in Nevada were actually part of the race track mutuel pools. The initial experiment included Northern and Southern California tracks, and quickly expanded to the Louisiana circuit. By the end of the year, Florida and Maryland racing was also pari-mutuel in some Nevada books. In addition, many small tracks across the nation were handling major tracks during their off-season. In Minnesota, for example, one could play Santa Anita from Canterbury Downs. Birmingham, a small race track in Alabama, replaced “live” racing with simulcasting only and experienced favorable results from a track management point of view.
More simulcasting expansion. Pennsylvania and New Jersey tracks join the “satellite circuit.” Philadelphia Park becomes the first “21st century” track, offering simulcasts to cable television subscribers. Coupled with telephone wagering, the Philadelphia Park player could now play from the comfort of is living room,. Several other circuits have announced plans for telephone wagering systems similar to those available in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Many small tracks were looking to simulcasting as the answer to their financial woes. A major battle began regarding the control of simulcasting. Proponents said simulcasting would save racing, while opponents said it would destroy it.
The NYRA approved simulcasting both to and from New York. A well-known cable television magnate said that “racing should get its act together. There’s money to be made.”
By the end of 1992 many of the small tracks were hurting. Sixteen rural tracks from coast-to-coast have failed within the past 18 months. Five others that began simulcasting during the same period have announced that they will reduce their “live” racing card to only five or six races, while carrying feature races from major tracks.
Meanwhile, trainers at two of these tracks threatened a boycott if full cards and higher purses were not provided. Citing the inability to support their stables with less purse dollars and less races, they asked for the national support of owners, trainers, and jockeys.
In a related story, the increased revenues at Santa Anita resulted in a drastic increase in purses. Three Southern California jockeys exceeded the previous national record for purses earned in a single year, as did two New York jockeys.
This could have been called the “year of change” for thoroughbred racing. The idea of creating a national body to organize and regulate racing evolved into what is now known as the North American Racing Federation. It was not originally designed to be a business unto itself, but that was the end result.
The Federation, or NARF as it has come to be called, set up its headquarters in New York in September and announced that it would be selling franchises the following spring. In order to qualify for a franchise the track had to meet requirements addressing everything from purse structures to track maintenance and amenities. In addition, NARF’s “Stewards School” graduated its first class. The 120-hour class, which was held in December at Gulfstream Park, became an annual event. All NARF tracks were required to provide certified stewards as of January, 1995.
NARF’s President, Barry Kane, announced that a rules committee had been formed to create a “Horse Racing Rule Book.” This rule book addressed all facets of racing including drug use and penalties for breaking the rules. “It is time for the horse racing industry to come out of the dark ages. Illegal drug use must be stopped as must the other cheating. The days of jockey room wheeling-and-dealing are over,” said Kane in a Breeder’s Cup Day interview.
The Federation printed its first rule book. The book was 42 pages in length, and, by its directness was very controversial. Section VI, entitled, simply, ” Penalties,” contained several sub-sections which address the penalties for specific rule infringements. For example, consider the penalty for “not trying” to win a race:
“…shall be suspended for a period of two years for a first offense. The penalty for a second offense within a ten-year period shall be disbarment for life.”
The Horsemen’s Coalition, a group comprised of owners, trainers, and jockeys that protested the reorganization of racing, began gaining power. Don Rice, leader of the movement, said “Now that many of the small tracks have discontinued live racing, there just aren’t as many horses needed. That puts a lot of people out of their careers. Now, they are going to hold this rule book over our heads and threaten even the most successful participants with banishment. It’s absurd.”
On a positive note, Racing Fans California Coalition spokesman Jerry Rehmann offered a rebuttal by saying, “NARF is the best thing that ever happened to racing. The fans, the top personnel, even the horses are going to benefit over the coming years. This guy (Kane) is demanding that the game become honest and all I can say is that it’s about time.”
The year began with a bang when Pimlico announced that the track was unable to qualify for a NARF franchise. Owners cited ongoing financial problems as the major reason the franchise fees could not be met. From New York, Barry Kane said that the franchise fee was not really the issue. Rather it was the park improvements necessary to make Pimlico a major league facility. The 1994 Preakness was held at Pimlico, but was not a sanctioned NARF event.
Pimlico officials have said that major league racing will come to Pimlico, one way or another. “Maryland racing has been a part of the backbone of thoroughbred racing in this country. We must survive.”
The following list represents the franchises that were licensed to operate under North American Racing Federation colors in 1995:
New York – Belmont Park
New Jersey – Meadowlands, Monmouth Park*
Pennsylvania – Philadelphia Park, Penn National*
Maryland – Laurel
Florida – Gulfstream Park, Calder Race Course
Illinois – Arlington Park
Kentucky – Churchill Downs
Louisiana – Fair Grounds, Louisiana Downs*
Arkansas – Oaklawn Park
California – Santa Anita Park, Hollywood Park, Del Mar*,
Golden Gate Fields, Bay Meadows*
The tracks marked with an asterisk are on probationary status, pending necessary track improvements by September, 1995. In addition, two Texas Tracks, Dallas Downs and Houston Race Course, were scheduled to open in 1995 under the Federation banner.
Many smaller race tracks paid limited franchise fees for the rights to take wagers on NARF races. Seven more tracks completely shut down racing operations while maintaining NARF betting facilities, and at least ten more were expected in 1995. Under NARF’s ” Head Start” program, only previously licensed track owners were permitted to participate in simulcasting prior to 1996. “This will give existing race track management an opportunity to assess their individual situations and make the best decision for them. If they decide to become involved in our program, it will give them a competitive edge in their local market place.”
In a move which promised to be nothing but positive for racing, three cable companies announced they would compete in he upcoming “bidding war” for the rights to broadcast Federation-track racing cards on a daily basis. Two companies that had been simulcasting races by satellite into Nevada race books for several years, announced that they would not compete on other than a satellite basis. One of the requirements in the bid was that the cable company must be able to support “ICS” (Interactive Cable System), an interactive communication system which allows subscribers to make live bets at any track on the system.
When the smoke eventually cleared, SVN (SportsVision Network) was awarded an exclusive ten-year contract to simulcast all Federation horse races except the World Series of Racing, a monthly racing event scheduled to begin in 1995. The races will also be available to ESPN subscribers (without ICS). The anticipated subscription fee ( with ICS) was estimated at about $30 per month for one track and $90 per month for all race tracks.
In July the Elias Sports Bureau was retained by the North American Racing Federation as its official statistician. Shortly thereafter Elias announced that it would begin publishing a monthly racing newsletter within the next 12 months.
SVN and ICS became a reality. Major metropolitan areas were first, with California, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania going “on-line” by September. Mutuel handles, which doubled since the forming of the North American Racing Federation just two years before, doubled again almost overnight on these circuits. All circuits were expected to be available in 85% of the homes that have cable access by the end of 1996.
Non-NARF tracks continued to suffer. With so much high-quality horse racing available in virtually every home that has cable access, the handwriting was on the wall. The small race track was doomed.
In a related story, the results of several class-action lawsuits filed against the Federation were likely to be settled early in ’96. The pending suits were on behalf of breeders, jockeys, trainers, and race track owners. Barry Kane, NARF President, made a statement in July form his New York office that NARF would fight with its “last dollar,” if necessary.
The monthly telecasts of World Series of Racing became an instant hit when they began in June, 1995. The mutuel handle at the host track on those nationally telecast days was more than four times their average for a weekend card. This represented an eight-fold increase over the largest Breeder’s Cup Day from the 1980’s.
Elias Sports Bureau bean publishing its racing paper, The ThoroBred Times, on a weekly basis in March, 1995. The paper met with instant success right from the start and its subscription list grew quickly. Rumors began flying that they would produce a daily paper in competition with Daily racing Form, something never been done successfully in the past.
Monday Night at the Races began in February, 1996 as a replacement for Monday Night Football and met with mixed success. As expected, the mutuel handle was improved, but no where near the levels achieved on the World series of horse racing dates. On the last Monday in August, from Arlington Park, an evening of World Series Racing set new records for handles and market share for a sporting event. This may have been attributable to exceptionally close contestants in the point standings in four different categories.
All but one of the now-famous “NARF Suits” were settled out of court or dropped. The other lawsuit, a class-action brought about by eight breeders from the state of Kentucky, caused increased furor. The issue under contention was whether or not NARF should implement a single National Breeder’s Incentive Program, or should one be designed that addresses each state on an individual basis. Barry Kane, after a unanimous re-election as President by the Federation’s Board of Governors, announced that a committee had been created to solve the problem by summer of 1997. “The issue is not whether or not we start a breeder’s incentive program, but rather how and when it is implemented,” said Kane.
In other news, it was announced that, beginning in 1998 there would be no Bute or Lasix use permitted within 72 hours of any NARF-sanctioned event. Penalty for violation would be a six-month suspension for a first offense, a two-year suspension for a second offense within ten years, and lifetime disbarment for a third offense within a ten-year period.
In a related story, the first lifetime disbarment by the Federation was handed down in May to jockey J.M. Palimore for “failure to persevere.” Pallimore appealed the decision citing the fact that it was a first offense, while the Federation cited a previous incident that had been penalized by only a minor suspension. The Federation’s spokesperson, Barbara Hamilton, said. “We are not out to make an example of Pallimore. This is simply the way it’s going to be. This kind of mischief will not be tolerated, excused or forgiven.” The Federation appeal was denied and Pallimore filed suit in Federal District Court. The case was summarily dismissed.
Major league racing at Pimlico became a reality in April when the track reopened under the Federation Banner. On the track’s inaugural day the track spokesman for Pimlico was quoted as saying,” This is the finest facility in North America. We’re very proud.” The renovation and expansion of the facility was a $25 million project which took almost 10 months to complete.
By 1997 horse racing had become a true major league sport. The number of track owners had dwindled with the closing of so many minor race tracks, although many remained in the industry running authorized simulcast stations. But, generally, minor tracks went the way of the class D baseball clubs: extinction.
In his annual “State of the Industry” speech on Breeder’s Cup Day, NARF President Barry Kane announced several major changes, including the total elimination of two-year old horse racing by 1999. In addition, he announced that three-year olds would not be raced until May of their three-year old year, effective in the year 2000. “The owners and breeders are making more than enough money to withstand the cost of the additional growth year and it will be good for the breed,” said Kane.
In another surprise, the Federation announced that they were “looking into” the possibility of a track-take roll back. Track management was, to say the least, less than thrilled with the idea. Under the Federation’s franchise rules they have had the right to control the mutuel take, providing it is uniform at all race tracks. To date they had not exercised that control. Several track owners said that they did not believe the Federation had the legal right under federal law to enact such a change.
The minimum horse racing age was a major issue in the negotiations with breeders regarding the Breeder Incentive Program. In the final agreement there were strong incentives for horses that were still producing wins after the age of six, a reward for breeding healthy animals.
The Professional Association of Trainers and Jockeys, the “Players Association” of horse racing, began lobbying for a better retirement plan in June, threatening a strike at the finals of the World Series of Racing in November. Negotiations advanced quickly and the agreement was ratified by the union on the first ballot.
The long-awaited opening of major league horse racing in Texas became a reality in July, 1998 with the opening of Dallas Downs. The Dallas “money crowd” made the Arlington, Texas track an instant success, and the cable companies were swamped with installation orders.
On a more somber note, Louisiana Downs officials were issued a “final notice” to improve their facilities or risk having their franchise revoked. With the Dallas race track being the most modern facility in the country, competition was very keen in that market area (Texas-Louisiana-Arkansas). If Louisiana Downs was to continue competing head-to-head with Dallas, their future was in serious jeopardy without improving the facility. (After the fact all this became academic after the LaD expansion in 1999.)
Oaklawn has been the dominant winter-spring track on the circuit, but with the Houston Race Course scheduled to open in January, ’99, even their future was less than secure.” Perhaps NARF should have foreseen that the pie was going to be cut too any ways,” said a track spokesperson from Louisiana. NARF leader, Barry Kane said, “We never intended to eliminate competition. A Competitive environment creates a natural selection process where only the strong survive. The tracks which offer what the public wants will do well and the others will struggle. Unfortunately, this is the way it must be.”
As if to prove that the Pallimore disbarment two years age was no fluke, the Federation announced two additional suspensions for illegal actions. Tom Aaronson, a Southern California trainer, was prohibited from NARF racing for life after his second violation for horse-drugging. A jockey, Willie James Arnold, a 27-year old apprentice riding in Maryland, was handed a six-month suspension for personal drug use. He immediately entered a drug abuse program and vowed “I’ll be back.”
In a major rules change, all participant’s wagers were to be made public knowledge, effective January 1st of 1999. This was a compromise reached in on-going negotiations between the Trainers and Jockeys Union and the Federation. The Federation originally wanted to eliminate all wagering by participants. The penalty for making a “secret wager” is a six-month suspension. When questioned about the severity of the penalty, Kane responded by saying “These are the rules of racing. Intentional disregard for any rule makes it a serious infraction.”
Barry Kane, credited with being the “Guiding Light” of North American Horse Racing Federation, died in April of a heart attack. He was 56. Thomas T. Berry of Baltimore, Maryland took over on an interim basis and was elected President in a close battle. “Mr. Kane’s shoes will be hard to fill, but the organization is as solid as a rock. it will continue to thrive,” said Berry shortly after taking office.
If 1999 was any indication, he was right. For the seventh straight year all forms of racing revenue set new records, both on a federation basis and on an individual track basis. Tracks which had been struggling to survive ( before NARF’s formation), such as Monmouth Park and Louisiana Downs found themselves on firm footing. Even Pimlico, which spent $25 million on track renovations just three years ago, was in a solid position for the first time in over a decade.
Two-year old horse racing became a thing of the past in 1999, as did three-year old racing before May. There were more races carded for older horses which resulted in several two-horse rivalries. The Federation, in conjunction with the Breeder’s Cup organization, revived the match race concept with a round-robin series of races between the top four finishers in last year’s Breeder’s Cup Events. The twelve-race series ( six for males and six for females) was run at the Meadowlands, Belmont, and Saratoga over a four-month period and was declared a resounding success.
In September, Del Mar race track recorded the largest pick-six payoff in history. After sixteen days of carryover, Mrs. Mable Barney of Shreveport, Louisiana, cashed $38,000,283.50. The record payoff came on the final day of the meet and was the result of an $8 investment. “My husband insisted that I leave in those four horses in the seventh race. I knew he was just wasting the extra six bucks.”
Daily Racing Form, faced with competition from three other daily racing papers, introduced a completely new format January 1st. As one racing fan said, “DRF has just become the IBM of horse racing papers. This new format has every piece of information that the horse player could want.” Under the new format, the past performances carried across the entire four-column tabloid and contained such new information as trainer name, allowance class level (NW1, NW2, etc.), a relative class index number for each race, and expanded earnings box information.
In addition, Daily Racing Form announced DRF-On Line ,a computer service which allowed subscribers to download the entire day’s race information for any track. The service allowed all the race data to be viewed or stored ( for personal use only). In addition, users with a laser printer could print the complete past performances. The service was $12 per day or $175 per month for one track. Yearly and multiple-track subscriptions were available as well.
After several years of discussion an anti-trust suit which went all the way to the Supreme Court, the Federation lost the right to set mutuel takes across the continent as they saw fit. The High Court found in favor of the tracks primarily because of the contractual wording. However, in a counter-action, the Federation announced that this would be a major negotiation factor in upcoming franchise renewal talks scheduled for 2001.
An 18-month study released in December, showed that horse injuries (breakdowns) have dropped to 28% of 1990 levels. This was attributed to the incentives placed on races for older horses, the elimination of two-year old horse racing, and the restrictions placed on three-year old racing. Additionally, the study suggested that the curtailment of drug use may have had a major impact on the injury statistics simply because unhealthy horses were not racing as often as in the past.
In his annual address on Breeder’s Cup Day, Thomas Berry stated that all the goals set when the Federation first began had been met. “This does not mean that we have no new mountains to climb,” said Berry. “We have expansion plans for Tampa and Toronto next year, a World Series schedule that is the best ever, and we are considering some new racing surfaces which may make horse injuries caused by a bad step a thing of the past. Our primary concern is to continue improving the sport.”
In the last summer the Federation released the results of a survey commissioned last year to study the “typical” horse racing fan. The results were very positive, especially when compared to a previous survey done in 1992. The study showed that the average age of the racing fan is dropping and that the fan has more confidence in the integrity of the game than ever before. In addition, 10% of the race-going public said that horse racing represented a viable investment medium for the serious player.
Editor’s Note: This article was intended as a piece of thought-provoking fiction. Obviously, in order to write such an article with impact, actual names of race tracks and organizations were essential. the references to specific tracks being either in need of physical or financial repair were entirely a work of fiction. All persons mentioned in the article are purely fictional and resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental.