Common sense, devoid in a lot of areas in our business, is making a comeback. Just take a look at some of the comments on the Paulick Report.
During the debate about California racing raising its prices while fans are leaving the turnstiles quicker than any Milli Vanilli album signing in history, Ray Paulick has tried to make the case for California, but has not done it very well. It's not his fault, of course. It is difficult to make an argument for policies that fly in the face of economic theory and all common sense. But he sure has tried.
His latest salvo is "that it is really tough to be a horse owner." No kidding. And he says that money going into purses, by increasing prices on customers is the way to go. All you have to do is read the comments on the story to see the cogent, sharp and articulate points against that, so we won't hash too many out here.
In "The Story of Dan Patch" owners spoke of how the game of racehorse ownership was not, and probably never will be profitable. This was in a time when racing was North America's number one sport, and race horses were on cereal boxes. It was a proud game yes, but not a money making game. At the turn of the century it was estimated that 1 in 500 horse owners would make money. When you buy a horse, one thing you know, and this holds to this day - if you hit the big horse you can make some money, but if you don't you will struggle.
From 1930 to today, takeout increased over 130% (takeouts are margins, not real dollars, so the rate of inflation has nothing to do with that number). The thinking for the last 80 years is that if we take more money from the customer and sink it into purses (this actually had theoretical merit because horse racing was a monopoly and could average cost price back then - i.e. raise takeout and make more money), all will be well. It is 2010, and that thinking is alive and well in California, despite the fact our sport has been relegated to a minor sports and gambling entity. Of course, as we all know: raising takeout does not raise more money because we are moving further away from optimal take as we raise it.
As a California horse owner with around 20 head posted (someone who both owns horses, and bets this game daily):
If the magical purse fairy made avg purses in CA 100K starting tomorrow, they would not lower takeout for the bettors.......owners would just go out and spend higher prices on horses....trainers, vets and vendors would raise their prices, etc....and in a short while, owners would be complaining that they need more money to stay in the business.
Bingo. That is exactly what has happened and will happen. Add to the fact that raising takeout does not raise purses in the long run and you realize just how hard it is for Ray to make this silly argument show legs.
Horse ownership has grown already - by a ton. In Canada, there were 30,000 racehorses registered in 1975. In 2008, there were close to 200,000 - a 587% increase. How did that 6-fold increase in horse ownership do for our handles and popularity since 1975? Not well. Increasing foal crops, into a system where we don't have customers, is an experiment which already has empirical data associated with it and has failed. This is nothing new and should not be shocking to anyone. Without customers paying for purses, every business must shrink. There is no way around it. We have a customer problem in racing, and have for some time.
From my personal experience, I have filed 17 tax returns since 1990 where I have asked for the maximum tax deduction for losses all but twice. I have owned about 80-100 horses since that time, in a super-slot rich province. We have an expensive hobby. We all know that going in because we stick money into something for entertainment as a hobby. Our customers on the other hand are not hobbyists, they are rational gambling customers who like all customers of anything, seek value.
A big four automaker three years ago might have said "if we could only charge $44,000 for an Impala instead of $30,000 we'll be well." Clearly that is folly, because they had more than a revenue problem. If you have a cost problem, throwing more money at it will not help. In addition, at $44,000 you are going to sell less Impala's and more Honda's anyway, so in the long run you are toast.
We try to put round pegs in square holes in racing. We try and use faulty logic about takeout and ignore all the real issues. Some like Ray write: higher takeout means more money for purses, more purses mean more owners, and somehow (this is the real stretch - see the Ontario foal increase for that above) more owners mean more bettors and a healthy industry.
Since we have tried that algorithm about 50 times since 1900 and it has failed horribly, one can see how Ray and the CHRB are having such a difficult time convincing people it makes sense.
I congratulate the commenters on the Paulick Report for seeing through it. We may finally have a chance in this industry to do some good if we start finding and solving the real problems, and stop concentrating on the specious ones. If we can find a way to decrease horse owner costs in our business we have a chance at more horse ownership; until then everything else is simply ignoring the real problem. If the CHRB and Ray Paulick spent more time on that, they would be doing our business a service.
As a poster on the article penned (and a sharp poster at that): "Your stance will hurt the industry Ray. Everyone involved. That is why you "strike a nerve" with it. It's not provocative, it's just wrong."
And "wrong" is a hard thing to sell.
Note: The comments at the Paulick Report have brought out the best from people who care about this sport and have a keen understanding of the issues. There are several intelligent posts (in fact most of them). It is so nice to see people standing up and saying "enough is enough". They are worth a read because it shows we are maturing as an industry and when sharp people like that get involved, it is good for our long-term prospects. Four years ago a topic like this would have 12 comments and 9 of them would be "bravo Ray, we put on the show". Not any longer. There is real discussion going on, based on sound economics and business principle. It appears industry back slapping and "woe is me" hyperbole has finally taken a back seat to proper discussion. For that we should all be thankful.