Louisville Courier Journal
More bucks don't add up to stronger race fields
By JENNIE REES, Horse Racing Columnist
Two horse-racing examples: the NTRA Champions on Fox bonus series that concluded with the Whitney Handicap and Saturday's Arlington (Two) Million.
Though the Million doubled its purse, it didn't attract a single horse that wouldn't have been there originally. America's richest race outside the Breeders' Cup landed seven horses, only one coming from Europe.
The NTRA series paid out $292,000 in bonuses, but I don't know of any horse whose schedule was altered because of the added money. Indeed, Scotty Schulhofer, trainer of series winner Lemon Drop Kid, knew nothing about the bonus fund until shortly before the colt won the Whitney and picked up $230,000 in addition to the purse.
Throwing money after what already is big money to lure horses usually doesn't work at the top end of the game.
LEMON DROP KID ran in the Whitney because it's a prestigious race whose timing and distance worked into Schulhofer's schedule -- not because of bonus incentives. Horses such as Lemon Drop Kid are so valuable as future stallions that it dwarfs the few hundred grand to be earned by winning a series.
There comes a point of diminishing returns. This country's top events for older horses seem to have reached that level, with the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, Pacific Classic and Jockey Club Gold Cup -- all $1 million races -- and the Pimlico Special, Whitney and Stephen Foster, which carry purses of $750,000. You're not going to get more horses by sweetening already attractive purses.
The old American Championship Racing Series and its bonus worked well in 1991, but dynamics have changed.
Purses for major stakes have increased. Whether horses have become more brittle may be questionable, but I believe owners and trainers have for sure.
NO ONE condones running an ailing horse, but there appears to be a disturbing trend of going into a prevent defense after one career-making victory. Top horses too often race four or five times and then get the rest of the year off. Bonuses aren't going to change that mentality.
That's why I admire frequent starters such as Behrens and Cat Thief. Those horses might get beaten, but their owners and trainers lick their wounds and try again at the next stop.
It's great to hear that Lexingtonian Mark Stanley's Ecton Park, traveling to Del Mar for the Pacific Classic, could race next year at 5 despite an attractive pedigree for stud.
That's what horse racing needs: more horses racing. But bonuses aren't the answer.
In a resource-strapped sport, the extra million of the Million or the NTRA series' bonus fund could be put to more effective use.
In the case of Arlington, maybe the money would be better invested in overnight purses or to beef up other stakes, giving more owners a chance to share the wealth.
THE NTRA has done a good job getting more races on television. The bonus money could be better utilized by acquiring further TV exposure -- for races such as Friday's rematch between Heritage of Gold and champion Beautiful Pleasure in the Personal Ensign Handicap at Saratoga.
Give Arlington and the NTRA credit for trying. It didn't work. It's time to try something else.
The good news is that in a sport rooted so heavily in tradition, there still are people who want to win races such as the Whitney and Million for their prestige more than the payday.
Jennie Rees covers horse racing for The Courier-Journal. She can be reached at (502) 582-4042, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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