Ever see salt water taffy being made? The taffy is secured between two machines and then kneaded and stretched. As the taffy is pulled apart it gets thinner and thinner in the middle, before it’s gathered up, kneaded into a ball, and stretched out again.
Stretched out and thin is an apt analogy of the current state of racing in the National Steeplechase Association. The denizens of the NSA office often tout an increased purse structure ($4,865,325) and increased opportunities for horses to race as markers of an improving racing economy. So why does a general feeling of unease pervade the sport? Why did the spring season start with the inauspicious cancellation of a $25,000 allowance hurdle at Tampa Bay Downs (Fla.)? Why were there only five starters in the $100,000 Carolina Cup (S.C.)?
The answer is simple’it’s the age-old paradigm of supply and demand. Steeplechasing is in short supply of horses’or, more precisely, new owners with horses. To procure a horse that can run with the big boys and pick up big checks, an owner needs to ante up a large initial investment. Gone are the days of a Rowdy Irishman, bought for $1,500 and an earner of $3 million. Today’s steeplechase stakes winners, like Lord Zada and Quel Senor, are either ex-stakes winners on the flat or solid allowance horses, and no one gives them away for $1,500.
In a March 29 horseman’s meeting at Camden, S.C., Bill Gallo, NSA racing director, stated that creating racing opportunities was a way to encourage owners to the sport. In keeping with that philosophy, the NSA agreed to add the reincarnated Tanglewood (N.C.) meet to its fall schedule. Also, Colonial Downs (Va.) has scheduled 10 races from June 22 to July 20, in their second year of summer racing, immediately followed by the traditional six weeks at Saratoga (N.Y.).
Gallo followed that announcement with a stern warning for horsemen about filling the races at the tracks. But where will all the horses these races demand come from? If the races aren’t filled at Saratoga’that means eight-horse fields’the New York Racing Association will wipe their hands of the NSA, and NSA officials will need to wipe the egg off their faces.
How is more better? The balance between increasing purses and racing opportunities and actually keeping owners and thus horses has been adrift for years. Until the NSA Board of Directors develops a long-range, strategic-action plan that includes cultivating new owners and keeping present owners in the game, the sport will continue to flounder. It’s simple math: The number of opportunities to run is greater than the number of runners.
Few owners can purchase a $150,000 steeplechase prospect. Prospective owners should be offered a way to dip their toes in the water. Their initial investment should be low, perhaps through a syndication-type ownership, and their “cheap” horse should be given a chance to win some “cheap” races. With a couple of win pictures on the wall, these owners could be encouraged to take a bigger leap.
The NSA’s leaders, were they running a corporation, would have been ousted years ago for lack of vision. Instead of figuring out how to get more horses and more owners involved, they’ve short-sightedly just grabbed at any meets or races that anyone offers. They need a comprehensive plan to keep the races they have and to fill the races there’through attention to details like date and location, footing, owner relations, race types and purses. It’s time to pull all the taffy back in and knead it again before stretching it.