Pact Bolsters California Racing Purses by $15M, Horse Owners Eye Sports Betting for More

Posted on: January 18, 2021, 01:09h. 

Last updated on: January 18, 2021, 10:32h.

California horse racing received a major boost last week after several key stakeholders reached an agreement on a purse enhancement program.

California horse racing purses
Quick (left), ridden by Umberto Rispoli, holds off Hermaphrodite, ridden by Joel Rosario, in Sunday’s Grade III Astra Stakes at Santa Anita Park. The California track increased purses for this meet thanks to an agreement between stakeholders that will add $15 million to purses at tracks across the state over the next two years. (Image: Santa Anita Park)

The accord between the Thoroughbred Owners of California, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, The Stronach Group’s 1/ST Racing, and TVG means $15 million more for purses over the next two years.

The move had been expected to the point Santa Anita Park previously upped its purses by 10 percent. At $533,000, the average daily purse now allows the Stronach-owned southern California track to compete with tracks across the country. That includes those that have their purses supplemented through casino gaming, historical horse racing, or other subsidies.

Santa Anita’s meet began on Dec. 26 and will run through June 20.

“California racing has always been very important to TVG, and we are committed to continuing our support of the racing industry here, especially given the challenging circumstances the industry faced in 2020” said Kip Levin, CEO of FanDuel Group-owned TVG, in a statement released by the Thoroughbred Owners. “We feel the right strategy is to partner with the stakeholders to further strengthen what has always been a premier racing circuit in the United States.”

Del Mar projects the average purse for its summer meet will be more than $600,000 this year. In the statement, Del Mar President Josh Rubenstein said the boost, along with hosting the Breeders’ Cup in the fall, set the San Diego County track up for a “fantastic” year.

Smaller Fields Forced Top Jockey to Move

The purse increases come as California has struggled to attract and retain horses and jockeys.

According to Jockey Club data, California tracks have seen a gradual decline in field size since 2008. In that year, fields averaged 7.9 starters. Since 2013, when tracks averaged 7.6 horses per race, the average has declined each year. In 2019, the average dipped to 6.9.

Last year, jockey Joe Talamo made news for his decision to leave California and race at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and at tracks in Kentucky and Louisiana. The jockey with 2,136 career wins and nearly $114 million in purse winnings made the move after getting just 547 mounts in 2019. That served as the fewest starts he made since he raced as an apprentice in 2006.

The horse population out there (in California) just, every year, seems to kind of dwindle down a little more and more,” Talamo said according to an Oaklawn release last year. “Like I said, I still feel like I have a lot more in the tank, so I felt like making the move out here would keep the momentum going.

“The way things are out here, the purse money is incredible,” Talamo said. “The horse population is incredible. Everything seems in growth mode right now. I thought if there is a time to do it, I thought it would definitely be a good time.”

In 2020, Talamo made 942 starts, according to Equibase data. It was his busiest year since 2014.

California Sports Betting on the Way?

The release especially noted the investment in purses did not come thanks to expanded gaming. However, don’t think the California horsemen aren’t looking for that as an option in the future.

TOC President Greg Avioli sees sports betting as a key part of reinvigorating horse racing.

With sports wagering on the horizon and its potential to both add millions more to purse accounts and to create new horse players, combined with the successful safety and welfare measures instituted over the last two years by our race tracks, we are well on the way to returning California to its historic place as the country’s premier racing circuit,” he said.

Sports betting likely won’t start in California until 2023. Last month, a petition drive started by California’s tribal casino operators garnered more than 1.4 million signatures. That puts it on track to become a referendum item for voters, with that most likely occurring next year.

Both tribal casinos and state-licensed race tracks would be able to offer sports betting.