by Nick Hahn

A few years ago, during a Virginia Racing Commission meeting, Colonial Downs’s then-General Manager, John Mooney, was asked what he thought was a sustainable average daily purse for Colonial Downs. Mooney replied, “Two hundred thousand.”  Though he’d answered for Colonial Downs, his response could have served nearly every mid-Atlantic racetrack south of New York.

In 2013, two hundred thousand appears to be roughly par for mid-Atlantic tracks, and average daily purses run in a pack. According to Jockey Club figures (2012), six of the 13 tracks that offer average daily purses between $180,000 and $300,000 are located in six mid-Atlantic states.

Source: The Jockey Club, 2012

“Running a horse on the East Coast is very expensive. You have to maintain high purses so owners can recover their investment,” explained Mooney, now at Delaware Park, in a recent interview via telephone. “I don’t think that number works as well as it used to. You have to have a certain scale to attract horsemen. Especially here in the mid-Atlantic with Maryland’s slots, that number may be getting to be more like $250,000. With the shortage of owners in the industry, money is more important.”

There are ten racetracks in North America that offer average daily purses under $100,000, none of which is located within a legitimate day’s drive of the East Coast. The region’s popular steeplechase circuit may serve to help fill the lower end void. At the same time, none of the 11 tracks offering average daily purses of $400,000 or more nationally is located in the Mid-Atlantic, either, though fortunately for area horsemen, those opportunities in neighboring New York and Kentucky, are an easy ship away.

That makes mid-tier mighty in the mid-Atlantic. Of all the tracks in the mid-Atlantic, only Timonium, Mountaineer (on the fringe) and Charles Town offer average daily purses below $180,000.  Eight others offer purses between $180,000 and $360,000.

As you may expect raising the purses boosts field size, a critical number for any track because higher field size typically yields greater wagering handle.  At Colonial Downs, which largely offers mid- and lower-level turf racing, field size becomes critical to handle. It’s no accident that when Colonial’s average daily purses dropped to $158,760 in 2010, field size dropped dramatically to 7.73. Horsemen recognized then that a trip to Colonial was virtually a must-win race; even place or show finishes could contribute to negative cash flow.

The following year after Colonial shortened their meet and started moving average daily purses back towards $200,000, field size increased by a full horse to 8.73. This past meet — with purses back over $200,000 for the first time since 2007 —  field size was 8.83, its highest since 2009.

At least in Virginia, where Colonial is remotely located as the southernmost parimutuel racing venue north of Florida on the Eastern seaboard, the formula that works best appears to be one developed by a Blue Ribbon task force effort during Anne Poulson’s days as Chairman of the Racing Commission: to get the number of days of Colonial’s summer meet, take the available purse money and divide it by $200,000.

“We’ll find out what’s in the purse account in February, and what I got is what I got to run for,” commented Tyler Pickelsimer, Colonial’s Director of Racing.

A tentative calendar could be presented at the Virginia Racing Commission meeting on September 25th for Colonial’s 2014 dates. With some expecting a shorter meet at Colonial in 2014 — and virtually no one anticipating a longer one — the way the number of days is scheduled may be as important as the number of racing days itself.  Many trainers seemed to prefer spreading the racing days over a longer meet with fewer days of racing during the week, to enable them to maximize the number of starts they can get for their horses.

And, of course, Colonial is not alone in seeking to reduce days; in recent years, both Monmouth and Delaware have seen days lopped off their schedules, and other regional track operators would be happy to follow suit.

Source: Colonial Downs

So with meets likely becoming shorter, could a synchronized regional Mid-Atlantic calendar be developed?

“I don’t think there is a track operator in the mid-Atlantic that doesn’t believe they are overextended,” observed Mooney. “If we put our heads together we can find a way to be less competitive with each other and find circuits that work to raise handle and purse money. If you look across the country, the most successful meets are the shorter meets. It’s where they are trying to run year round-racing is where there is more difficulty.”

After several years, Mooney was able to apply his doctrine this year at Delaware Park, where the meet got shorter and the purses got larger in order to eclipse the $200,000 mark. Delaware Park attempts to synchronize its calendar to be opposite of the opening and conclusion of the Oaklawn Park and Tampa Bay Downs meets, allowing those horsemen to ship only twice a year.  Many think a similar thought process in scheduling regionally could benefit everyone.

“Horsemen have to agree to it, and that’s not always easy,” explained Mooney. “It took three years to reduce the number of days in Delaware. They don’t want to get up and move like they did in the old days. The big outfits have more capability to move to where the money is. They go where the most money and opportunity are.”

Which doesn’t mean that Mooney is unsympathetic to the horsemen.

“By the time the owners pays the bills to get a horse to the starting gate, it could be over $30,000 and that’s without the cost of the horse,” added Mooney. “If you can’t win two races a year, it’s difficult to break even on the expenses, not counting the investment.”