MATCH series focuses on owners, too

ON HORSE RACING

July 11, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

For Barclay Tagg and William M. Backer, the seven races of the MATCH series (Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championships) seemed back in May to stretch on forever.

But after Crab Grass, which Tagg trains and Backer owns and bred, won the first two races in the sprint division for fillies and mares 3 and older, they became captivated. Now, after three races in each of the five divisions of MATCH, Tagg and Backer stand atop the leader board for their share of $550,000 in trainer and owner bonuses.

And they're delighted, especially Backer, who endorses anything that draws attention to the sport and rewards owners for their investment and perseverance.

"I think anything that gets more money directly into the hands of owners is good for racing," says Backer, a retired insurance executive who owns Smitten Farm in Virginia. "People say there's a shortage of horses. Nonsense. There's a shortage of owners."

The owner of the horse who wins the MATCH series will earn bonuses of $125,000 -- $25,000 for winning its division and $100,000 for winning the overall championship. The winning trainer will earn bonuses of $65,000.

Crab Grass, a 5-year-old mare, is the force pulling the Tagg-Backer wagon.

For winning the Skipat Stakes on May 9 at Pimlico and the Shenandoah Valley Handicap on June 5 at Charles Town, and then finishing third in the Regret Stakes last weekend at Monmouth Park, Crab Grass has earned a MATCH-leading 15 points.

With four races still to run, Tagg must balance the demands on Crab Grass with the quest for additional points.

Horses don't have to run in every race, but they can't earn points by watching from their stall.

"It's very, very difficult to follow a series with any racehorse," says Tagg, who conditions horses in Maryland and New York. "Sometimes you're tempted to run a horse when you normally wouldn't. It does cloud your judgment a little bit."

Tagg says he will probably not enter Crab Grass in her division's fourth race, the Endine Stakes on July 25 at Delaware Park. He wants to make sure she's energized for the later races, including, if necessary, the finale, the Sweet and Sassy Stakes on Oct. 2, also at Delaware Park.

That's when each division concludes. This is the third year of MATCH, and in its first two seasons the series came down to the final races.

Its founder, Baltimore lawyer Alan M. Foreman, would like nothing better than another nail-biting finish.

"It's still early yet," Foreman says. "But so far, the quality of the races has been very high. The interest is up. The nominations are up. The wagering is up. We're obviously very pleased."

However, "one dark cloud," as Foreman puts it, looms. Discord within the mid-Atlantic region over the budding home-betting industry threatens to disrupt the series in future years.

"One thing about MATCH," Foreman says, "it united the region. What once was a very united region is now very splintered."

At the center of the dispute is National Thoroughbred Racing Association's support of Television Games Network and Philadelphia Park's allegiance to its own home-betting system, the Racing Network.

The horsemen at Philadelphia Park recently resigned from the multi-state Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which Foreman heads. They cited dissatisfaction with Foreman, who is also a director of the NTRA. Immediately, the other groups in the association rushed to Foreman's defense.

Now the dispute has spilled into New Jersey, where the battle flares anew over competing home-betting networks. As in most conflicts within the racing industry, this one is deep-rooted and convoluted. For now, let these words of Foreman suffice: "There's clearly a war going on between the Racing Network, TVG and the NTRA."

TV betting

TVG, short for Television Games Network, debuts Wednesday, but only to subscribers of the Superstar satellite system.

About 1.1 million such subscribers exist in this country, says Rick Baedeker, a TVG executive, including some in Maryland (although he doesn't know how many). When will other Marylanders get to sample TVG, the highly touted 24-hour horse-racing cable channel? Not for at least a couple of months, it seems.

Baedeker says that TV Guide, TVG's parent company, has been negotiating distribution deals for several months with the country's major cable companies.

"I can't give you an exact date when those negotiations will be completed," he says. "It could be anytime. It could take another month."

Once they are completed, he says, law requires that the cable companies give their viewers 30 to 45 days' notice that gambling on horses is coming. Then, and only then, can Marylanders establish accounts with TVG's betting center in Oregon and begin watching and wagering from home -- at least on TVG.

The Racing Network has been under way since April, broadcasting horse races over its satellite-dish system. On Friday, it introduced its greyhound-racing channel.

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