2019 BREEDERS’ CUP: SOME GOOD METRICS AND SOME CONCERNING POST-EVENT OMENS

From the standpoint of key business metrics, the 2019 two-day Breeders’ Cup event was a success.  However, post-event indicators—the average and median sale prices at yesterday’s Fasig-Tipton November Sale–may reflect bloodstock buyers’ dampened optimism about American racing’s future in the wake of so many high-profile horse fatalities. 

The most important measure of performance, betting handle, increased for the Breeders’ Cup by a robust 10.5% over 2018.  All-sources handle exceeded $174 million.

Announced attendance was 41,243 for the Friday card and 67,811 for Saturday.  Announced attendance for sporting events may differ from actual attendance, as event executives tend to count liberally.

The television result for the Breeders’ Cup finale, the Classic, was consistent with past years.  The TV rating for the 8-9 PM (in the eastern U. S. time zone) program was 0.3, which equates to 2.08 million viewers.  The Breeders’ Cup has an almost impossible task in driving up television ratings because college football season is in full swing.  The college football telecasts that were opposite the Breeders’ Cup telecast on network TV (as opposed to cable) drew ratings of 0.7 and 0.8.

Three days after the Saturday Breeders’ Cup, the Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner, Blue Prize, sold at the Fasig-Tipton November Sale for $5 million and the Turf Sprint winner, Belvoir Bay, sold for $1.5 million, both as broodmare prospects.  At the sale, a weanling sold for $750,000.

While these figures demonstrate some buyers’ optimism, the overall sale results were markedly down from 2018.  The average sale price was $531,336, a decline of 16.9% from 2018, and the median price was $300,000, a decrease of 8.4% from 2018.

One can’t read too much into a one-year drop in sale prices, as a number of factors could have accounted for the declines.  It could be that the quality of horses offered was not nearly as good in 2019 as in 2018.  Yet it makes one wonder if the withering criticism that American horse racing has come under in 2019, reinforced by the Mongolian Groom breakdown in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, had an effect on buyers’ expectations for the industry.  In a buoyant economy (with stock market prices at all-time highs, record-low unemployment, increases in real wages, and tepid inflation), a 16.9% fall off in the average sale price does not comport with what would be expected.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business

RIGHTING THE SHIP

The injury and subsequent euthanasia of Mongolian Groom at the 2019 Breeders’ Cup naturally and understandably engendered anguish, anger, threats by PETA, and even paranormal explanations like trainer Bob Baffert’s remark that “We’re cursed.” 

Putting aside the short-term “noise,” it is more productive to look at how American horse racing has arrived at an inflection point.  Before beginning, let’s stipulate that injuries occur to all athletes and getting injuries to zero is impossible and an unrealistic goal. 

The site for the 2019 Breeders’ Cup championships was Santa Anita and the sites for 2020 and 2021 are Keeneland and Del Mar.  These three racetracks have in common that all replaced dirt racetracks with synthetic surfaces and then reversed course and went back to dirt, ostensibly because bettors and the Breeders’ Cup prefer dirt.  The synthetic-to-dirt decisions immediately led to a spike in horse fatalities. 

At Del Mar, horse deaths rose from 1.75 per thousand starts on its synthetic track in 2014 to 2.44 on the new dirt surface in 2015.  In 2016, there were 12 horse fatalities at Del Mar and 23 in 2017, bringing unwanted and damaging national attention. 

Keeneland in 2013 (the last year for its synthetic surface) experienced 0.43 fatalities per thousand starts compared to 2.11 on its new dirt surface in 2014.  Keeneland had several high-profile breakdowns during races in its recently concluded fall meet.

Santa Anita in 2010 went from 0.59 fatalities per thousand starts on its synthetic surface to 3.45 on its new dirt surface.  In 2019, the track had 37 horse deaths in training and racing, including the notorious breakdown in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. 

(Click here to access a Horse Racing Business article from February 2019 titled “Analysis of Horse Fatalities at Santa Anita: Part 1.” Click here to read “Analysis of Horse Fatalities at Santa Anita: Part 2.”)

The top management at these racetracks repeatedly state that safety for jockeys and horses is their utmost concern.  This is obviously contradicted by the fact that all three tracks knowingly, based on hard evidence, replaced the safest racing surface, synthetics, with the most hazardous surface, dirt.

When the horse death toll at Santa Anita began to climb in 2019, and garnered international attention, the Breeders’ Cup board voted to keep the event at Santa Anita.  While a horse death could have occurred at an alternate site, the Breeders’ Cup inexplicably and recklessly chose to hold the event at a racetrack that manifestly had unsolved safety issues and was under close scrutiny and withering criticism.  Thus when the breakdown transpired in the Classic, the Breeders’ Cup was defenseless.

(Click here to access a Horse Racing Business article from June 2019 titled “A Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in 2019 Would Be a Terrible Blunder.”)

American horse racing is in a public-relations nightmare largely because of poor decisions made by leadership at the Breeders’ Cup and the three aforementioned racetracks.  But they are not alone.  Churchill Downs continues to invite disaster by persisting with a 20-horse field in the Kentucky Derby and a vocal and powerful contingent of trainers and owners resists mightily when it comes to America joining most of the rest of the world in running drug-free races. 

The path to saving horse racing as a viable sport and business is clear.  However, it is unlikely that the same people who contributed so much to the current sad state of affairs are willing and/or capable of righting the ship and setting it on a prosperous course.

(Click here to access a Horse Racing Business article from September 2019 titled “A Lethal Combination: Tin Ears, Bad Decisions, and Poor Optics.”)

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business

IF MAX SCHERZER HAD BEEN A RACEHORSE

Before and after last night’s deciding Game 7 in the 2019 World Series, the New York Post reported online about the physical condition of the injured ace pitcher for the Washington Nationals:

“HOUSTON — Three days after not being able to raise his right arm due to a nerve issue in his neck, Max Scherzer will start for the Nationals on Wednesday night in Game 7.

‘I feel good, the cortisone shot worked,’ Scherzer said after the victory.

He received the injection Sunday when he was scratched for Game 5.”

Imagine that a story in a major newspaper read as follows after the 2020 Kentucky Derby:

“LOUISVILLE — Three days after not being able to raise his right front leg due to a nerve issue, (the name of the winning colt) will start in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. 

‘The colt showed no lameness,’ his trainer said after the victory, ‘the cortisone shot worked.’

He received the injection Wednesday night.”

According to WebMD, “Cortisone is a type of steroid, a drug that lowers inflammation, which is something that can lead to less pain.”

The game-winnng Scherzer cortisone-injection story was reported matter-of-factly in a plethora of newspapers and there were no allegations about abusing athletes.  Had Scherzer been an equine athlete, who won the Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup Classic, a firestorm of criticism and outrage would surely have ensued.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business