Numbers crunching N.Y. racing

June 12, 1994|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

ELMONT, N.Y. -- New York racing officials and horsemen are now trying to do what the late Frank De Francis accomplished in Maryland 10 years ago -- get the state to reduce its share of the betting dollar and channel about $20 million a year into bigger racing purses.

Marylanders who think their horse racing game is in trouble should have been in the press box at Belmont Park last week and heard comments from horsemen who think New York racing is in dire straits, citing some foreboding statistics.

According to a statement released by the horsemen, total purses in New York have declined 10 percent in the past 10 years, compared to 60 to 110 percent jumps in Florida, New Jersey, Maryland, California and Kentucky.

In the meantime, the number of licensed New York owners has decreased from 4,500 in 1989 to less than 1,600 in 1993. Owners pay about $150 million yearly in training expenses, but race for about $80 million in purses. For the second straight year there will be fewer than 1,000 foals born in the state. By comparison, Maryland has about a 1,500-member foal crop.

An impressive array of trainers, including Hall of Famers Mack Miller and Scotty Schulhofer and such well-known horsemen as Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott and P. G. Johnson, told reporters that New York racing is losing horses and owners because expenses are too high and purses too low.

Miller said new people can't be enticed into the game "because it costs too much. A lot of my old friends are in debt and starving to death. They just don't get the horses to train anymore. This is something I worry about a great deal."

A revived circuit in Kentucky -- led by Churchill Downs, Keeneland Race Course and Turfway Park, where training costs are lower and purses competitive with New York -- also is luring away owners.

"Everybody has been reading about short fields," Johnson said. "Well, it used to be that New York horsemen thought they could go to California or New Jersey. But the tracks in California are hard as concrete and the purses in New Jersey aren't that great. The option now is Churchill Downs."

Johnson said New York owners can race in the spring and fall at Churchill and Keeneland and "then go where they want to in the winter, like Florida. Daily training rates are $50 a day in Kentucky compared to $75 a day in New York and purses are just as good."

"The balance is shifting away from New York to Churchill, something I didn't think could ever happen when I was training there 10 years ago," Mott said.

McGaughey added that since Turfway Park has raised purses "owners and trainers that used to flock to New York in the winter now stay at Turfway."

The Kentucky circuit has grown stronger because the tracks now operate a series of year-round simulcast outlets led by Churchill's Sport Spectrum complex in Louisville. The next item to boost revenues will be the addition of full-card simulcasts from out-of-state tracks, similar to the program Maryland tracks adopted last year.

The New York horse racing industry, including owners' and breeders' groups and the New York Racing Association, is now united and is lobbying for two bills that have been introduced in the state legislature.

The first bill would lower the current state takeout from 4.75 percent to 3.75 percent. The 1 percent difference, or about $20 million annually, would go to purses.

The second bill would eradicate a sales and use tax which places an 8 percent surcharge on the purchase price of horses running in the state more than four times.

"If an owner buys a horse in Kentucky for $1 million and runs him more than four times in New York, he has to pay an 8 percent tax on that horse," McGaughey said. The tax, the horsemen said, "is an albatross that racing needs to shed."

De Francis' Va. track in jeopardy

Although Maryland track operator Joe De Francis thought his plan for a combined Maryland-Virginia circuit was well-received by Virginia racing commissioners during three days of hearings last week, it is quite possible that he will have to withdraw his application to build a racetrack in Loudoun County, Va.

Residents of the county who don't want the track have gone to court and have set an Aug. 2 referendum to try to bar pari-mutuel betting in their jurisdiction.

De Francis' legal attempts to block the referendum have failed and it now appears likely the Aug. 2 vote will be held. De Francis' chances of winning the referendum are considered poor, although he told the commissioners he will mount a public relations drive to try to win the special election.

The racing commissioners could void the referendum by awarding a Virginia license to one of six applicants, including De Francis, before Aug. 2. But commission chairman John Shenefield said last week that board members are likely to take the full 90 days -- or until Sept. 28 -- to make up their minds.

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