Trouble on the turn: How Trainers View the Financial Viability of California Horseracing

Abstract

Horseracing was once the most popular spectator sport in the United States. With the legalization of Native American casinos and the proliferation of Internet gambling, attendance at racetracks, including those in California, has fallen to record low levels. The current recession has weighed even more negatively on the industry. This paper examines the economics of racing in the nation’s most populous state from the perspective of the trainer, who operates the stable and determines when and where a racehorse will run, and under what circumstances. Over 20,000 Californians are directly employed in the horseracing industry, and their continued livelihood depends largely on whether trainers are willing to ride out uncertain times or relocate to states where the cost of operating thoroughbred racing stables is lower. Utilizing personal interviews, a group of California-based horse trainers were surveyed in order to gain insight into how they view the current business climate as well as other factors impacting the sport. The results indicated that trainers share a number of common concerns, particularly with regard to lower purses, a declining owner base, and synthetic racing surfaces. All have faced challenges in maintaining profitable stables, yet display resilience in terms of staying the course and retooling the traditional business model.

Key Words: Horseracing, Trainer, Synthetic Track, Costs, Diversification

Introduction

Long considered the “Sport of Kings,” horse racing in recent years has experienced dramatically lower attendance and an aging fan base (8). Once prominently featured on the front page of sport sections throughout the state, it is increasingly rare to discover in-depth newspaper coverage beyond major racing events such as the Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup. Hollywood Park, a premier racing venue in southern California, cut purses in 2009 on average five percent as the pool of horses available to race plummeted and empty stalls abounded (1). In addition, Hollywood Park has been purchased by a large developer and is slated to close in the next few years. There is discussion as well among trainers regarding the relative risks and benefits of synthetic racing surfaces, now mandatory at larger tracks. Adding to the concern is the recent closing of Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo, leaving only one major racing venue in Northern California. Empirical research, however, on the perceptions of California trainers regarding racing’s future viability is lacking. As these individuals perform the most critical aspect of the sports operation–the care of the horse, it follows that their input could help predict the future health of the industry within the state.

In “Cracks in Foundation of Kentucky Racing” (7), several prominent trainers in that state indicated they had considered relocating their stables to states where slot machines were legal and proceeds in part benefited horseracing. Some who are struggling to remain profitable with higher expenses and lower purses have moved their stables to neighboring Indiana or West Virginia where slot revenue supplements purse money. For example, at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky, purses averaged $150,500 per day in 1994, compared to $135,000 in 2008. California-based trainers have lobbied, without success, for slot revenue from Indian casino gaming. Some have shipped horses to run in races in states such as New Mexico, where slot machine revenue from tribal owned casinos is shared with horse tracks.

Slot machine revenue is hardly the only issue impacting trainer attitudes toward basing operations in a particular state, as on-track attendance and corresponding betting handle also impact purse structure. In “Down at the Track, What Policy, Marketing & Technology Offer The Sport of Kings,” Leslie Cummings (4) discovered that while overall gambling revenue increased year over year through the mid 1990’s, the betting take specific to horseracing declined during this period. Cummings (4) determined that lower attendance was directly related to this decline in wagering and cited failures in marketing management such as poor customer service and lower quality horses as significant factors. In 2009 racetrack attendance in California averaged near 7,000 persons a day (3), down significantly from years past when one might encounter 30,000 fans at Santa Anita racecourse on a weekend day. Cummings’ (4) research focused on national trends and included data from California racing venues.

Synthetic Surfaces

Another significant factor impacting horseracing in California is the imposition of synthetic tracks. In 2007, the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) mandated that all major racetracks in the state replace traditional dirt tracks with synthetic surfaces (Smaller tracks, including those in the county fair circuit, are exempted). This followed a series of high-profile breakdowns, including Barbaro, the 2005 Kentucky Derby winner whose subsequent catastrophic injury in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later was also witnessed by a huge worldwide television audience. Artificial racing surfaces, more common in Europe, are considered by some industry groups to be safer, though evidence of this is still evolving. In 2009, the CHRB commissioned a comprehensive study of synthetic tracks to gauge the injury rate and related factors compared to dirt surfaces (9).

Role of the Trainer

Trainers occupy arguably the most critical niche in the racehorse industry, as they are the men and women who prepare the animal for the racing experience and whose daily care and welfare the equine athlete is entrusted to. Trainers are not only horsemen, but business owners as well; they must turn a profit to remain economically viable. Unprofitable trainers run the risk of losing what business they may be struggling to hold on to. Most owners expect a trainer to win races with their horses; trainers that can’t “do some good” with the horse run the risk of losing it to another barn (5).

Trainers face an array of different costs in order to operate their barns. These include payroll expenses to compensate assistants, grooms, hot walkers, and exercise riders as well as monthly bills from veterinarians, ferries, and feed suppliers (3). Trainers attempt to recapture these costs by charging owners “day money.” In 2005 the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC) determined that the average day rate in the state was $81.33, while expenses were $86.93. As a result, it is incumbent upon trainers to make up the difference through commissions earned for winning or placing in races. In a number of states that have legalized slot machines, for example New Mexico, Indiana, West Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, a percentage of the gaming revenue is earmarked to subsidize purses at horse tracks. This is not the case in California, where the Native American entities permitted to operate casinos have forged compacts with the state that do not provide subsidies to horseracing interests.

In addition to the closing of major racing venues, California has experienced a shortage of racing stock. Whether this is a manifestation of the broader economic slowdown or the result of other factors affecting California racing is a question addressed by this research. In 2009, Hollywood Park received permission from the state to shorten its racing week from five to four days (2). For trainers who are required to maximize every opportunity for revenue, the loss of racing opportunities offers an additional challenge to the continued viability of their racing operations. The purpose of this investigation was to describe how the overall downward economic trend in horseracing is perceived by these California horsemen.

Methods

Participants

The participants of the study consisted of thoroughbred horse trainers within California. These individuals, at the time they were interviewed, had or were currently operating stables located at the racetrack. Personal interviews were utilized in all cases to gather information, which was manually recorded and later transcribed electronically. Summaries of the interview were electronically mailed to each participant for their review and additional input or modification as necessary. A total of eight interviews were conducted with a cross section of California trainers; six from the southern part of the state and two from the north. Interview locations included the Horseman’s Lounge and Grandstand Box Section at Hollywood Park, the grandstand at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton, California and a horse farm in Riverside County. No access issues arose, however plans to tape record the interviews were abandoned due to the high incidence of background noise. Two of the participants were former jockeys, and two came from horseracing families. Three of the individuals interviewed averaged 30 horses in their care, three others averaged 60 or more thoroughbreds, and the remaining participants were affiliated with smaller operations. From the collected data, quotes from participants were coded and sorted in terms of identifiable and emergent themes. Each was provided an overview of the research project’s goals and agreed to sign the California Baptist University Research Consent and Participant’s Bill of Rights, including the right to withdraw from the study at any time. The signed return of these forms constituted informed consent. Questions emphasized the participant’s views and perceptions regarding the economic challenges of horseracing in the state from a lived, experiential framework. Participants were provided pseudonyms in order to preserve anonymity and elicit the most candid responses. The study was conducted through the use of semi-structured personal interviews utilizing an interview guide comprised of eight open-ended questions (Appendix A) with an opportunity for follow up probing questions. The questions were reviewed by a staff person at the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC), a professional organization with a strong commitment to further the interests of both the horses and horsemen in the state.

Role of the Researcher

The researcher and author, Dan Prince, has been licensed as a thoroughbred owner in California since 2002 and holds or has held additional licensure in New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, and Kentucky. He has been actively involved in the sport in California, having employed various trainers to stable, care for, and enter horses in races at major tracks under his name. In developing and maintaining close working relationships with trainers, he was familiar with many of the operational issues and challenges trainers faced.

Data Analysis

The study reviewed and transcribed interview notes, coding key words, expressions, and phrases to identify and sort data into common themes. Emergent patterns and themes were further catalogued to establish specific categories. Data was inductively analyzed to determine saturation points leading to theoretical constructs.

Results

Utilizing an inductive approach to analysis, five major thematic categories informing trainer views were revealed; 1) the high costs of operating a stable in the state, 2) the lower costs and additional benefits of doing business in other states, 3) synthetic racing surfaces, 4) diversification, and 5) weather conditions in California.

High Cost of Racing in California

Previous research had determined that costs are a significant factor in trainer decisions on where to base operations (6,7). This was apparent in the interviews, where seven of the eight participants cited escalating costs for labor, feed, supplies, and insurance as a significant economic factor affecting their operation. Several trainers expressed concern in particular over the state’s high rate of Workers’ Compensation insurance, which they were required to pay for each employee. Bob, who trained at major tracks before taking a position as a farm manager, stated “Workers’ Compensation costs are the main challenge…the state classifies only race car drivers as a higher risk; the state of California forces honest guys to almost cheat in order to stay in business. Minimally skilled ranch help is paid $12 per hour; a groom at the track is making $1,000 per week to care for just four horses…these costs are placed directly on the owner.”.

Seth, who had trained in California for 30 years, said “Owners are burdened by high costs, taxes are out of control, the claiming tax is over 10 %; owners are leaving the business.” The claiming tax this participant referred to is the state’s imposition of a sales tax that must be paid by the new owner each time a horse is “claimed,” or bought out of a race. (In California, most races are classified as claiming races, and the majority of trainers operate what are commonly referred to as claiming stables.) Craig, a Northern California based trainer, noted “In the San Francisco Bay Area, the cost of living is already high, so purse structure is not comparable; everything else has gone up except purses, which have stayed the same or even in some cases gone down.” The concern with respect to lower purses was echoed by several other participants and was cited previously in this work as a significant factor in trainer decisions to relocate operations to other states (1).

Horseracing in Other States

When asked the question of what benefits are available racing in other states, three participants pointed to slot machines and the added revenue they bring to purses. Craig emphasized, “We should have partnered early on with the Indian Tribes; we fell asleep and failed to appreciate how powerful a lobby they have. Tracks like Mountaineer in West Virginia and riverboat states have slots that assist horsemen.” This sentiment is consistent with earlier research that suggested horsemen must formulate strong revenue sharing agreements with tribal entities in order to remain competitive (4).

Half of the participants pointed to the advantage of lower rates for Workers’ Compensation insurance outside of California. States such as New Mexico and Arizona are “right to work” states, with lower overall labor costs. Craig noted that in some other states “there are lower Workers’ Compensation rates, it costs less to train; the cost of living is cheaper, and a dollar goes a lot further. We pay for the good weather in California.” John offered that other states “have weaker competition and stronger purses,” though “Kentucky is having trouble.” The reference to Kentucky is telling, as this is a state that like California, had failed through legislation to legalize slot machines at racetracks, where the added revenue directly benefits the horserace industry (4, 7).

Bob, who moved his training operation out of California for several years, reflected on the experience: “You see how well horsemen are treated; treated like royalty at tracks such as Zia (New Mexico), Canterbury (Minnesota), Prairie Meadows (Iowa), and Turf Paradise (Arizona). Racing Secretaries there will accommodate you, write races for you. In California, they will only write a race for you if they owe you a favor. In this instance, the participant was speaking of the human experience beyond the economic advantages; racetrack personnel in other states were friendlier, more appreciative, and willing to extend horsemen courtesies not necessarily available in California. This same individual was the only participant who did not articulate any benefit to racing in California, stating “you can run for half of the day money (in California) for the same amount of purses in other states; there’s no Workers’ Compensation tax and the costs are lower.”

Synthetic Racing Surfaces

This question generated the most emotional response among the participants and resulted in a distinct Northern versus Southern California bias. Five of the six trainers from the south indicated their disdain for the synthetic track, citing injuries and other disappointing characteristics. Skip, who operated a successful mid-size stable based at Hollywood Park, offered, “Originally they were good, but as they have aged, they wear out and tracks do not maintain them at the same level. Before, horses’ feet were clean when leaving the track, now the material balls up in their feet. Synthetic is better in Northern California, where there is more wet weather; this is an experiment gone awry.” There was a discernable theme of synthetic track performing well in wet weather; trainers from both Northern and Southern California held this opinion. It is also significant to recognize that the climate is generally wetter in the North, where the two representative trainers held favorable views of synthetic tracks.

Another common theme that emerged with regard to synthetics was the tendency for horses to “stick” to the surface rather than “slide” during a misstep, resulting in greater injury. Ron, who had won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with horses he has trained, suggested that synthetic surfaces “are the worst thing they ever did…horses stick on them, there’s no surface to slide. Where the foot goes in, they stay, breaking bones, tibias, and getting soft tissue injuries.”

Seth, who operated a larger Southern California stable, described the synthetic surface as “unnatural, harder on horses; the injury rate is higher, there are more hind end and soft tissue injuries.”

Craig, the Northern California trainer who generally favored synthetics, still had concerns, pointing to “lots of hind end injuries and soreness; the two year olds get shin problems because they stick instead of slide, muscles get sore, hocks, stifles are affected from the pounding because there is no give to the racetrack.” However, in defense of the surface, he went on to add:

“I am the leading trainer on synthetic surfaces in Northern California. I have run a lot of horses on synthetic; it’s incredible when it rains. It’s a very fair track for both speed horses well as closers. You don’t get the catastrophic injuries.”

John, who emphasized younger horses in his training style, framed the issue by stating his preference for “a universal synthetic track; there are too many variations between locations. Its better when it rains; the surface is harder in hot months. I wish we could go back to dirt.” The reference to variations was significant, as there are three separate tracks in Southern California, each of which having a distinct brand of artificial surface (10). The inconsistencies between the tracks add to the problem; horses are creatures of habit, and even relatively minor variations in training regimens may influence performance. Conversely, with the closing of Bay Meadows, Northern California has only one major racing venue, Golden Gate Fields; its synthetic track was better regarded. Hal, another successful Northern California trainer said in no uncertain terms “the Tapeta brand at Golden Gate is the best.”

Diversification

When asked how they planned to remain financially viable in the current economic climate, several participants acknowledged their involvement in the buying and selling of horses, or “bloodstock” in industry parlance. The practice centers on purchasing horses at an early age and offering them for sale at a higher price at later stages of training and development, known as pin hooking. John said, “I’ve been lucky enough to make a profit buying and selling horses…you can’t rely on day money, it’s eaten up so fast.” Bob offered that he depended on “buying and selling; buying yearlings, pin hooking to two year old sales.”

Other participants spoke of diversification in terms of their product mix. Craig, one of the successful Northern California-based trainers said:

“You try to get better horses so you can run for better money. You have to have an equal mix of good and cheap horses in order to run in a lot of categories. You have a group of owners that want to make money; it would be nice if the economy got better; more people will buy horses.”

Hal, also from Northern California, provided a more unique blueprint for remaining profitable, emphasizing personal relations:

“I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. Lots of owners are getting out, but others are coming in. Good communication with clients. Being a good trainer, really, some can communicate well but can’t train. You have to do both well.”

Given the high costs associated with training thoroughbreds (3, 6), owners expect to be kept informed of their horse’s progress at the racetrack; Hal’s point was that this is often not the case, and trainers may lose clients as a result. Seth, the longtime California trainer and former jockey, stated, “I’m just holding on, creating jobs for my staff, people depend on me for jobs. I should have 10, not 25 horses, it’s not economically viable.” One may ask if Seth’s background as a jockey influenced his willingness to operate a stable simply for the benefit of his backstretch “family.” Skip, who grew up around horseracing, was more to the point when asked how he will remain in business: “Find another runner.”

There are sound economic reasons to focus on younger horses, including federal income tax breaks related to depreciation and generous “breeding awards” paid to owners who foal and race two year olds in California. Half of the trainers interviewed stated a preference for younger horses; John described his current operation as “30 horses in training, primarily younger stock. Mostly yearlings, some two year olds bought in training.” Skip commented “I have 30 head, the majority are young. I focus on buying young horses.”

Weather

All but one of the respondents indicated that California’s good weather was a major benefit to racing in the state. This is more than just cliché–horses cannot properly train on sloppy tracks, and normally neat and orderly shed rows are turned to muck when the backside is exposed to prolonged rain and other precipitation. Helmer, in his seminal 1991 study of the backstretch, pointed out that the only real holiday hot walkers, grooms, exercise riders, and trainers get is when it rains. A number of the trainers we interviewed originally came from the Midwest, where adverse weather is more likely to result in cancelled races and limited training opportunities.

Conclusions

It is perhaps overly-stated that a particular industry or sport is at a “crossroads.” For horseracing, this has been the case for a number of years as attendance for what was once America’s most popular spectator sport has declined dramatically over the past several decades (8). In California, considered one of thoroughbred racing’s most important venues, trainers employ thousands of employees and play a pivotal role in maintaining the economic health of the industry. This research revealed that as a group, California trainers are most worried about the continuing higher cost of doing business in the state and how by extension these costs are passed on to owners. While some participants referenced the current economic recession as adding to the challenges horseracing faces, the majority express frustration with the state legislature, which has failed to approve revenue sharing with Native American tribes operating casinos and is perceived to be adding to an ever growing tax burden. Trainers, specifically those in the southern part of the state, were generally unhappy with synthetic surfaces and pointed to the state’s mandating their use as an economic disincentive. However, the interview data suggested that trainers were willing to make adjustments (such as diversifying operations), hope for the best, and would attempt to ride out the tough times. Only one participant indicated plans to leave California, though several others pointed to obvious advantages, such as slots and lower costs as inducements to race in other states. The data additionally suggested that Northern California trainers, despite the closure of a major track, were more positive about their sustained financial viability. However, given the relative small sample, additional trainers from the north could be interviewed in order to provide better grounding for this potential hypothesis. The industry is awaiting the results of a major study regarding synthetic tracks that could validate the view of the participants that these surfaces are causing more injuries to the animals that train and race on them.

Racehorse trainers by the very nature of the business deal with disappointment and adversity on a nearly daily basis (5). Even the favorite only wins 30% of the time. In the largely isolated world of the backstretch, a deep recession may be viewed as simply another marker in an already tough race. The fact that the trainers in this study emphasized younger horses and were expanding their business models to include bloodstock development and sales suggested a certain resiliency as well as a cautious optimism regarding the sport’s future in the Golden State.

Applications in Sports

A study commissioned by the American Horse Council and performed by accountants Deloitte and Touche in 2005 revealed that the direct economic impact on California from horseracing was 1.4 billion dollars annually, with another 1 billion dollars in indirect or induced benefits. Nearly 22,000 Californians were directly employed by the industry in 2009, with another 26,000 in ancillary jobs such as truck driving and feed production. Given the pivotal role trainers play in the economics of the sport, other interested parties, including owners, racetrack operators, breeding farms, grooms, and veterinarians are potential beneficiaries of this study, as their livelihoods are tied to the sustainability of horseracing in the state. That trainers for the most part are continuing to base operations in California despite the economic challenges and obvious advantages in moving their tack to other states has significant implications for others involved in the sport. A large-scale exodus of supporting “players” would drive up labor costs while simultaneously diminishing further the pool of owners willing to pay even higher training costs. For those considering participation in California horseracing, the sport’s relatively high cost in the state is offset by opportunities such as year-round racing (weather again) and the willingness of highly- regarded trainers to “stay the course.” Additionally, the data reflected trainer concerns about the relative “safeness” of synthetic tracks; in 2010 California horseracing regulators indicated a willingness to reconsider the requirement for synthetic surfaces.

References

Andersen, S. (2009, April 16). Hollywood lowers daily purse levels. Daily Racing Form. Retrieved from http://www.drf.com/news/article/103019.html.

Andersen, S. (2009, June 5). Hollywood drops final five Wednesdays. Daily Racing Form. Retrieved from http://www.drf.com/news/article/104424.html.

Costs behind the “Day Rate”: A closer look at training costs and historical inflation. (2006, Winter). Owners’ Circle, 48, 8-11.

Cummings, L. (1996). Down at the track – what policy, marketing, & technology offer the Sport of Kings. Gaming Research & Review Journal, 3(1), 33-54.

Helmer, J. (1991). The horse in backstretch culture. Qualitative Sociology, 14(2), 175-195.

Hereth, R., & Talbott, J. (1993). Economic and tax implications of thoroughbred racing. Journal of Accountancy, 176(5), 51-56.

LaMarra, T. (2009, February 13). Cracks in foundation of Kentucky racing. The Blood-Horse. Retrieved from http://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/49163/cracks-in-foundation of-kentucky-racing.

Randl, J., & Cuneen, J. (1994). Demographic characteristics of racetrack patrons. Sport Marketing Quarterly, 3(1), 47-52.

Shinar, J. (2009, January 15) CHRB Launches Synthetic Track Study. The Blood Horse Retrieved from http://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/48820.html

Shulman, L. (2009, January 8). Trainers voice Santa Anita surface concerns. Retrieved from http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=13404

Appendix A

California Trainer Survey

  1. Please give some background information about yourself as a trainer.
  2. Describe your current racing operation.
  3. What are the most significant economic challenges horseracing faces in this state?
  4. Please describe your experience with California’s synthetic racing surfaces.
  5. What are the benefits of racing in other states?
  6. What are the benefits of racing in California?
  7. Discuss how you plan to remain financially viable in the current horseracing climate?
  8. Talk a little about the future of horseracing in California as you see it.

Corresponding Author

Dan Prince, MS: danielprince@cox.net
Note: Research was performed at California Baptist University


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