Field, Purse Both Lacking Triple Crown Races Need To Up The Ante

Posted: June 10, 2000

It might not be the money, but it could be the money.

Something is seriously wrong when the purse for the Kentucky Derby ($1 million) is half that of the Breeders' Cup Distaff. For years, the Triple Crown tracks have been shortchanging the owners of the horses that invest so much money in the game. Finish second in the Derby and, considering the cost of tickets, hotel rooms and transportation, you're lucky if you make expenses.

The three races (the Derby, Preakness and today's Belmont Stakes) mean everything to the sport. They also mean everything to Churchill Downs, Pimlico Race Course and Belmont Park. Last year, nearly 350,000 people came to the three tracks for their big days. It is on those days when these tracks (especially Churchill Downs and Pimlico) make nearly all of their money for the year. Yet, the purses are minuscule in comparison to the revenue the events generate.

Which may be part of the reason the field for the $1 million Belmont is the weakest in memory. Races with $1 million purses are now commonplace. Really, all three Triple Crown races should be worth a minimum of $3 million. Prestige will only take a horse owner so far. Cash is better.

The sport itself once had a gambling monopoly. So what happened? The people running the game became complacent and arrogant. So, even as gambling exploded in this country over the last two decades, horse racing's share of the market decreased dramatically.

More than $100 million was bet on the Derby this year. Churchill's share of that was considerably higher than $1 million. And when you factor in how much revenue was raised from tickets, concessions and the like, it's clear that the track rakes in tens of millions on Derby Day.

Yet, the purse was just recently raised to $1 million.

The Triple Crown tracks have always figured that they could just open the entry box and all the right horses would show up. That is arrogant and complacent. It's also shortsighted. Show them the money.

After Red Bullet won the Preakness, trainer Joe Orseno considered the Belmont, but then said he'd wait for later races such as the Haskell and Travers. Why not? The purses are similar. And the horse wouldn't have to run the oddball distance of a mile and a half.

Would Red Bullet have been in the gate if the purse was $3 million?

Perhaps not, but you have to think it would have been an incentive.

The Belmont is a terrific betting race. In fact, the entire Belmont Park card is terrific, but that's just about people that already love the sport and probably would be playing regardless.

Casual fans want to see stars. There are no stars in today's Belmont. So when Dave Johnson says, "Down the stretch they come" for the final time in a Triple Crown race (NBC takes over the Triple Crown from ABC next year and Tom Durkin will call the races), too few viewers will hear him. The ratings won't be as bad as, say, the Stanley Cup playoffs. But they won't be nearly as good as they could have been if the purses for the Triple Crown races were even remotely in line with their importance to the sport.

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