So Enormous is the scope of American racing that most of us probably tend to forget about the horses and race tracks which are not habitués of the headlines. Rolling along with the tide of public acclaim which is the birthright of the champion, it requires an effort to remember that for every Needles there are thousands of ordinary claimers and platers, and that for every racing plant as popular as Hollywood Park, Arlington and Monmouth there are dozens of small-circuit tracks struggling very hard to provide their own group of patrons with the best racing possible.
The State of Ohio serves well as an example of minor league racing. Within one mile of each other, and around 11 miles from downtown Cleveland, there are three race tracks: ThistleDown, Randall and Cranwood. When they are conducting their meetings, as ThistleDown is at the moment, they are within easy driving reach of somewhere between four and five million people, including the populations of Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Youngstown and Pittsburgh—to say nothing of the proximity of some one million baseball-and football-loving Clevelanders. And yet ThistleDown is not having a good season. At a beautifully modernized track, fully equipped to handle a crowd of 20,000, the weekday attendance has averaged only 5,000 with usually about 12,000 turning out on Saturdays. One theory advanced is that northern Ohioans are simply not horse players. Either a preference for other forms of gambling, or possibly a distrust lingering from another era when all Cleveland racing enjoyed nothing but the most unsavory reputation, has resulted in per capita betting of $60 at ThistleDown, compared to roughly $90 in New York and New Jersey.
Maybe the answer might better be found in some casual comments made the other day by ThistleDown Racing Secretary and Handicapper Jim Ross. "Purse distribution," said Ross, "is the key to success as far as any track is concerned. If a race track can afford to give away good purses, that track will draw a better class of horse. Otherwise the cheaper the horses you have to show, the less attractive your show is to the betting public. It's really as simple as that."
By way of illustrating Jim Ross's explanation, let's make some quick comparisons. At ThistleDown this season the average purse has been about $1,800. Hollywood Park, just to go to the opposite extreme, had an average purse of $7,644 per race in 1955. While ThistleDown had a gross purse total of $732,750 a year ago, Hollywood Park topped every track in the country by distributing $3,410,385. Other tracks running at the moment, such as Arlington, Belmont, Monmouth and Delaware Park, lure the higher class of horse for the same reason.
The little track does contribute, of course, to racing as a whole in the sense that in this day of fierce competition the small circuit is the only refuge for the thousands of owners who, for lack of good horses, would otherwise have no place in which to race. But, how to get some national acclaim—even if it's only for one day of the year? "The obvious answer," says ThistleDown General Manager Jack O'Keeffe, "is to feature one race per meeting which will attract top-class horses from other parts of the country. We have our Ohio Derby, $40,000 added for 3-year-olds. It's $40,000 out of our total stakes allotment of $90,000, and I know it may sound unfair to the owners of the best horses on the grounds, but with us it's a one-shot deal and we're in the position of having to build our whole meeting around one race."
There is quite an understandable resentment on the part of local horsemen toward the invasion by outside horses, and yet, as Jim Ross phrased it, "the paying public, no matter where, is entitled to see the best if the track can swing it for them. If the horsemen who have been supporting ThistleDown all season are complaining because we bring in better horses to run for our biggest stakes, maybe a few of them are forgetting that every small-time local owner who comes up with a good horse, is perfectly entitled to move out of ThistleDown and on to Chicago, New York or wherever he wants to go, if he thinks he can get a winning share of bigger purses. That's every horseman's privilege."
Horsemen, naturally, depending on what they have in their barn and what they hope they have in their barn, will have varied opinions on whether a track should flood the place with outside horses for the big race of the meeting. I believe this subject came up for airing last winter in Louisiana when a number of good horses were flown over from Miami to New Orleans to win a major stakes victory. At that time there were a few cries to the effect that if a horse was shipped in to one locality, he should be stabled on the grounds for a certain part of that meeting before being allowed to start in a major stakes. At ThistleDown last week one local owner, faced with the prospect of running in the Ohio Derby against such well-known opposition as the Preakness winner, Fabius, Queen's plate winner, Canadian Champ, and C. V. Whitney's Born Mighty, spoke out against what he called, "The wrong system." "Of course," said the man, "I think the best horse should win any race, but a lot of these good horses wouldn't even be coming here unless they were offered a chance to shoot for $40,000. O.K., say that if the track wants to give away $40,000, the method is wrong. They should cut the Ohio Derby to $25,000 and use the rest of the money to increase the value of allowance races. I race my stable here because I like to race at home where I can see my horses run. But when you've got to run for $1,600 allowance races you can hardly break even if you're winning."
As for the mile-and-an-eighth Ohio Derby itself last weekend (a race won, by the way, by Find in 1953 and Traffic Judge last year), the local owners were once again shut out. Fabius, who by now certainly must be the most overworked 3-year-old in the country (11 starts since mid-March), was the overwhelming favorite, but in the driving rainstorm which descended on the track just a few minutes before post time, he could do no better than finish second to another invader from Belmont Park: C. V. Whitney's Born Mighty. Toby B., who had upset Career Boy in the Blue Grass, was third. It was the biggest day for Ohio racing in quite a time, and although it may be premature to say that ThistleDown is on the threshold of promotion to major league status, one $40,000 stakes a year is a start in the right direction. After all, the big stables go where the money is, and where the big stables go the big crowds are sure to follow.