By John Piassek
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Scratching My Head Over Scratches
On Preakness weekend, Todd Pletcher entered two horses in stakes races. Stanford, his winner of the Charles Town Classic, was scheduled to face off in a rematch against Classic runner-up Page McKenney in the Pimlico Special. Gettysburg, meanwhile, was entered to take on fellow three-year-olds in the Sir Barton Stakes.
After a long period of waffling, however, Pletcher decided to scratch Stanford from the Pimlico Special, because he wanted to run in the Met Mile three weeks later. Pletcher’s reasoning that it “wasn’t safe” to run his horse in both races (even though horses run off three-week layoffs all the time). The next day, Gettysburg was scratched from the Sir Barton Stakes, for reasons never really explained in published media, outside of wanting to run him in an allowance race at Belmont Park five days later. He finished fifth.
In that same Met Mile that Stanford was entered, in in lieu of the Pimlico Special (and the same Met Mile where he wasn’t a serious factor), Zayat Stables entered El Kabeir, only to scratch him the day before the race. Why? Because they wanted to run him in the Stephen Foster Handicap next weekend at Churchill Downs. Apparently, they did not realize this until two days after entries were taken. Later in the card, Wake Forest was scratched from a start in the Manhattan Stakes, because the owners would rather run in the United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park…three weeks from now.
I could list more examples from the past few weeks, but we would be here all day. The point, however, is this: the amount of healthy, frivolous, and/or unexplained scratches in racing is too high, and the practice has to be stopped.
In an era of small fields at many tracks, races often come up short on entries before scratches even happen. Now, if the scratch is because the horse is injured or sick, or there’s some bureaucratic issue (such as Private Zone in the True North Stakes), that’s more than defensible. Stuff happens. However, in other cases, the reason is listed as “trainer” or “stakes”, which is extremely and unfairly vague.
Consider the Tremont Stakes on Friday at Belmont. It went from a decent seven-horse field to a largely unbettable field of five. The difference between five horses and seven is meaningful, as far as handle and bettability goes. The reason why those two horses scratched? “Stakes”. That’s helpful.
It’s unfair to bettors to have horses scratched without a reason. People spend a lot of time handicapping these races; they put in a lot of work constructing bets. To put in all that work, to build up enthusiasm for a horse, and then to see him scratched because of “trainer” is no fun. Now, it’s true that in other sports, guys occasionally take games off for rest. But it’s not like there are fewer people playing. If there’s a ten-horse field, and three trainers decide to frivolously scratch, it’s down to seven runners.
It also negatively impacts business for the tracks. On Sunday at Monmouth, there were six scratches listed simply as “trainer”, including two trainer scratches from the featured Select Stakes. Saturday’s program saw three of them, again, including one in the featured stakes race. Given that the handle for this weekend’s racing at Monmouth was $48,850 per horse, it’s not unreasonable to say that the scratches for God-knows-why cost Monmouth at least $440,000 in handle, possibly more. So not only do the scratches hurt the bettors, they hurt the tracks.
Of course, this idea will never fly among horsemen. Usually, the explanation for policies like this are something like “we need time to make a decision on a race.” Well, the condition books for most tracks come out weeks before the races in them are run, and stakes schedules come out months in advance. If El Kabeir’s connections were uncertain as to which race to run the horse in, they had plenty of time to decide before the Met Mile entries were due. If you are that uncertain about which race to run in, don’t enter the first one in the first place.
It’s time to get serious about scratches. The bottom line should be: if your horse is healthy, you should run him or her. Racing can’t afford more healthy scratches in its fields.
John Piassek is a student at Loyola University in Maryland. He prides himself as a supporter of racing in New Jersey and Maryland. John is an aspiring race track announcer, marketer and writer. His “Mid-Atlantic Musings” column on DanonymousRacing.com focuses mostly on NJ and MD racing, ways to market them, how the states can improve their racing, and how racing should start focusing on bettor-centric marketing.
You can follow John on Twitter @Theyreoff.