THE DARK DAY FILES: Short Fields in Big Races, and How to Stop Them

Sunday’s Shuvee at Saratoga made handicappers from all walks of life wince. The race named for a mare that won back-to-back renewals of the Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1970 and 1971 (back when that race was the biggest race for older horses on the east coast), one that boasted Grade 3 status and a healthy $200,000 purse…drew just a three-horse field.

This is a recurring theme this year, and it’s a growing concern around the country. The Beholder Mile, a Grade 1 race for older fillies and mares at Santa Anita, saw another three-horse field. Sharp Azteca demolished just three others in Sunday’s Monmouth Cup. Saturday’s Jim Dandy, the main local prep race for the Travers Stakes, had a five-horse field, as did the Grade 1 Clement Hirsch at Del Mar a day later.

What’s going on here? These races are the ones fans care about, and, allegedly, they’re the ones big-money owners get in the game to compete in. If that’s the case, why are top horses continually avoiding these spots, leaving the track, fans, and gamblers to suffer and grouse?

As I mentioned in Sunday’s edition of The Pink Sheet, there’s no easy answer to this problem. What we’re seeing here is a combination of factors, ones I hope to shed a bit of light on in this edition of “The Dark Day Files.” Got something to add? Think I nailed it? Think I’m full of…something? Send in your questions and comments. I promise, I read every one.

The first thing to consider is the declining foal crop. When you start off with less possible horses and have the same number of races, average field size is going to decrease. This, unfortunately, is a problem that isn’t going away anytime soon, nor is there anything resembling an easy solution. Thankfully, there are other factors the industry can influence that may lend a hand in solving the short field conundrum.

I’ve talked at length in past columns at many previous stops about the breeding industry and how the tail wags the dog in many instances. In prior decades, horses were bred to run and did just that for many years. It wasn’t uncommon to see top horses run 10-15 times per year for multiple years. Now, though, if you’ve got an exceptional 3-year-old male, stallion rights are often purchased very early, and the priority often becomes getting them to their second careers unscathed.

From the financial standpoint of owners and breeders, this is logical. A male horse can only earn so much money in a career, and will earn exponentially more at stud. Take, for instance, American Pharoah, who commanded $200,000 for his breeding services in 2016 and had dates with more than 200 mares. On paper, that results in a cool $40 million, and we won’t even know if his offspring can run until 2019! That we didn’t get to see him race against California Chrome and Arrogate as a 4-year-old is unfortunate, but given these financial figures, we should be extremely grateful we got to see him run three times after he made Belmont Park’s grandstand shake.

I have nothing against breeding operations, many of which double as some of horse racing’s top owners and do great things for the sport. They’re taking advantage of a proven business model, as they have every right to do in such a competitive industry. With that said, here’s the most important question that we need a definitive answer to: Are we still breeding to race, or are we racing to breed?

If we’re breeding to race, let’s breed for stamina and soundness instead of pure speed and, ahem, “brilliance.” Let’s make sure the horses that rise to the top of the game are given the chance to stay there and can run more than once every two or three months, and let’s give fans chances to see them do their thing at racetracks around the country. If we’re racing to breed…well, then that opens up a can of worms this column can’t address.

Meanwhile, there’s also plenty that tracks can do to solve the problems short fields bring. They’re hurt by those in many ways, from the negative publicity they result in to the lack of handle they generate. NYRA, in fact, buried the Shuvee as the first race on Sunday’s card, so as to keep it out of the Pick Six and Pick Four sequences.

The most obvious answer is to reward the horses and connections that run multiple times at the highest level. Give them additional reasons to show up, perhaps bonuses for horses who sweep certain races or finish best in a certain series. Forever Unbridled skipped the Shuvee, a race she would’ve almost certainly been favored in, to await the Personal Ensign on Travers Day. Would that decision have been made if, say, $250,000 was to be awarded to connections of horses who win multiple graded stakes races at the same Saratoga meet? I don’t know, but I bet that carrot being dangled would have at least gotten the connections thinking about it. Furthermore, that could’ve easily brought a mare or two from Monmouth’s Molly Pitcher (which somehow drew eight horses for half the purse) up north earlier than anticipated. To go further still, imagine what such a bonus program would do for 2-year-old races at Saratoga, which are already considered some of the most competitive in the world.

Del Mar has gotten rave reviews for their “Ship and Win” program, one that helps ensure fields are full and brings in connections that don’t normally frequent California meets. Install a similar program at Saratoga, one that provides travel reimbursement and purse incentives, and you’ll likely see an increase in field sizes, especially for big races. NYRA can certainly find the money to make all of this happen, and for the sake of the product and to avoid future embarrassment in graded stakes races on big stages, they should do just that.

There are other, smaller things that can be done, of course. Let’s get a neutral study on the effects of certain race-day medications (like Lasix) on a horse’s long-term soundness and strength. Let’s forgive horses that lose (looking at you, Arrogate bashers), or horses that win, but not the way we want them to (looking at you, Songbird bashers). Let’s appreciate the horses that stick around for a while and make us remember why we fell in love with the game, rather than attempt to nitpick their resumes for what they didn’t do (looking at you, Wise Dan bashers who couldn’t stand that he raced mostly on turf).

I’m a handicapper, a gambler, a social media producer, and a writer. Above all, though, I’m a fan of this great game, one where you can be closer to the athletes than anywhere else and legally make money if your opinion is correct. I sincerely hope that this trend of short fields goes down as an unfortunate fad akin to the pet rock, the Macarena, and male rompers. If it doesn’t, top-tier racing, with the exception of a few big days, could be in for a world of hurt.

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