Commentary

Pointing the finger back at the horsemen

Updated: December 4, 2010, 8:14 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

From the competitors' standpoint, horse racing is, and has always been, a prize-money sport. Somewhere along the line, that has been lost in the discussion. It's no different than professional golf, auto racing, tennis, bowling, boxing or any other prize money sport. You must compete successfully to reap the rewards. No one is entitled to anything.

Try telling that to horsemen in any state in America, who seem to think because they simply chose to compete in this sport that they are entitled to framing every business decision made. It's like a guy on the Pro Bowlers Tour investing $85,000 in a Winnebago to hit the road and somehow now feeling obligated to make decisions for the bowling alley -- when they can open, how much they can charge customers, how much oil they can put on the lanes.

Sounds ludicrous, doesn't it?

Certainly there's give-and-take between the competitors and event operators in any sport -- prize-money or not. An event operator that doesn't listen to its players, coaches, trainers, team reps, etc. would be turning a deaf ear to one of its most important avenues of feedback. But they don't share the responsibilities; there's a defined food chain in most prize-money sports. Horse racing's chain of command continually gets blurred to the point no one really knows who is in charge.

And why does that happen? I venture to say because of the singular avenue of money flow -- betting handle -- which is, in turn, used to create purse money. It's not that there aren't enough slices of pie for everyone to scarf up, it's that there's only one flavor in the bakery case.

What separates the competitors in horse racing from those other prize-money sports is that the horse racing community has never been able to land the auxiliary income that comes from merchandising, sponsorships, television and the like. Without it, horse racing's competitive players have relied one-hundred percent on purse money to fuel their sporting endeavors and have done nothing to expand their channels of income. And yet they come to the fore and point fingers at racetrack marketing, management and customer service as to why there isn't more money in the pot for them to share.

How about some personal responsibility?

When horse racing entities put together the rarest of merchandising deals, they almost always are for charitable causes. Why in the decades of racing history haven't owners, horsemen or horsemen's associations sold a ballcap or T-Shirt that was for profit? Why haven't more owners of two great horses gotten together and bargained for an appearance fee and a showdown race? Shouldn't owners be hawking ad space on their silks to offset business losses, and lobbying for rules allowing them to do so where prohibited? Here and there, we've seen a trainer or two do a commercial for an industry-related product, but they are few and far between, and insular at that. Jockeys have dabbled ever-so-slightly into advertisements, but have run into conflicts of interest with racing commissions and even the owners for whom they ride.

Consider that pro bowler Don Carter inked a million-dollar endorsement deal in the 1960s, and you wonder if the combined endorsement deals of everyone in horse racing will even come close to that this year. It's a disturbing fact, and one that makes you question why. Are those involved in horse racing that unappealing that even the titans of industry for whom they work are not interested in putting them in front of their products? Or, has the purse money been so good to so many at the higher levels that they haven't needed to look for ways to expand their commercial domain? Or, is it just laziness and a sense of entitlement that the purses SHOULD be taking care of their investments in sport?

Whatever the reason, because they have remained so fully reliant on purse money for everything, horsemen have staked themselves as veritable business partners with the racetrack owners. It's a relationship that historically has bogged down the horse racing industry, as we all have seen entities with too many self interests share absolutely no sense of common good, much less a workable business plan. Meanwhile, racetracks have been forced to cut other revenue-generating avenues to compete in the gambling marketplace, namely parking and admission, as well as absorb huge losses in concessions because of the consumers' move toward off-track and in-home wagering. The tracks' bottom lines have been forced to become more reliant on the betting handle as well. Something has to give.

Most lower-end horsemen want to keep costs low, and have lots of chances to race and at least get a small purse return every time they run fourth or fifth in a small field of six or seven horses. They don't want short, high-quality racing meets that boast big fields that appeal to bettors, which have proven successful at places like Keeneland, Del Mar and, most strikingly notable, Monmouth Park in 2010, where they offered half the racing dates as there were in 2009, but betting revenues wound up going through the roof. A similar struggle is going on in Maryland right now, where cutting racing dates could save the racetracks and make a completely spectacular spring season around the centerpiece Preakness, but fearful horsemen don't want to go down that path and are blocking the plans.

Can you imagine a collection of golfers ranked outside the top 100 guiding the destiny of the Masters or the PGA Championship?

Less is more to the business model of the racetrack operators, and also serves owners of quality racehorses as well. It's those who can't compete at the higher levels who are slowing down progress in the horse racing industry. Last I checked, the successful players all were driving shiny cars and wearing only the finest suits and pressed Wranglers.

I recognize not everyone will be successful in life or sport, and as a person who has been an independent contractor going on my 11th consecutive year without a single guaranteed paycheck on any Friday, I realize what it takes to continually reinvent your self-enterprise and support a family in the process. I also realize that I'm not entitled to this, or any of the many freelance or small business opportunities that have served as the prize money of my ventures. I need to be successful and compete at a high level, or move on to the next phase of life.

Those losing money and losing races have way too much say in the horse racing industry. And if you're forced to take direction collectively from losing operations, is there any wonder why no one is winning?

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the owner of the handicapping-based website Horseplayernow.com. You can e-mail him at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.