I had not been to Woodbine for this meet yet until last night. The Breeders Crown elims were on tap, and although there were a couple of trots, the three year old elim was quite a good tilt; and I did want to see a few of the horses.
The three year old race was a good betting affair. For those who chucked the chalk off the two heater at Lexington, expecting a dull effort, they were rewarded with a nice price on a fresh Mr. Wiggles. We will have more on the Crown finals this week of course.
I have been watching Woodbine since they came back and there are some troubling signs. Fields are shorter, there is usually at least one race less carded per racecard, and the field quality is not what we expect from the largest everyday track in harness racing.
For example, last night with several BC elims filling the card, there were only 11 races, and those 11 races is not what we normally see on a Saturday night. Out of the 11 races, I found three of them bettable, and the rest red lights.
Race 1 was a low conditioned race, with 7 horses. Race 2 was a low level trot. Race three was a low conditioned. The best two races of the night were the 4YO open and FFA, but they did not have a large field size. Almost every overnight was a race one would expect to see run on a Monday or Thursday night.
The handle was $1.3 million. In terms of live racing there were not too many people at the track, as well.
This is starting to feel like last years Meadowlands meet.
We constantly look for things to blame, or people to blame in this business, for poor performances. Heck, I once saw a guy at the track blame the driver when the horse came 8th off a two hole trip. It is that way in both thoroughbred or harness racing. If a polytrack has a loss in handle, poly-haters will blame that. If next week a dirt track has an equal loss of handle, the same people will blame the economy. Horsemen like to blame management, management blames horsemen. We often blame whatever it is that forwards our cause - whatever that may be.
Looking at the situation at Woodbine right now I quite honestly think there is no one to blame but the business itself.
Woodbine is offering huge purses. Their race office does a fairly good job. But there are not very many competitive horses to fill the box. Almost every B track in Ontario has a preferred carded, almost all have conditioned races with good purses, and this is a drag on Woodbine's box. The business made it that way by not forseeing this. Just like when they took 7% or so from the pools that was given them by government to grow, without thinking of the bettor, slot money for B tracks was thought of the same way. "If we raise purses and saturate a market people will come." If the cocoa market gets flooded tomorrow, futures traders will hammer it. In racing we would be going long. It was a horrible mistake.
I have no idea what the solution is, but I am sure of one thing: slots without a plan will be the death of harness racing. The Meadowlands carding poor racing because of tracks like Chester and Yonkers nearby has happened, and will continue to happen. Woodbine carding $19,000 conditioned races on Saturday, and eight or nine race cards on a Sunday is a road to less and less handle, and less and less interest in harness racing. It is happening right in front of our eyes, and for fans like us, it is sad to see and hard to watch.
For those who say "that's ok, we have slots", all I can say is wake the heck up. Pennsylvania just cut 16% from slot money to purses and took it for education and health care.
I wonder if someone will do something somewhere to help, or we will simply watch the upside-down hockey-stick handle curve continue, until the taps are shut off, the lights dim, and we all head to the casino.
I hope not. If I ever have to watch a ball on a wheel, or a card flip instead of a six wide finish with my little brown four legged friends, it won't be a happy day.