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Rise of 'Super Trainers' Impacts Sport From Bloodhorse Daily
In an era of shrinking race days and foal crops, trainers are finding larger stables can be a successful business model, but the trend might be making it more difficult for new conditioners to establish themselves or for veteran trainers below the top tier to acquire stock. submitted by hodsct59 to horseracing [link] [comments]
While it makes sense that successful trainers with large stables, sometimes called "super trainers," would enjoy a large portion of the sport's success, they have fared even better in recent years, with dramatic improvement registered in the past two full seasons.
In telling this statistical story, BloodHorse defines "super trainer" as a conditioner with more than 400 starts in a given season. In 2016 such trainers walked away with nearly a third of the total available purses in the United States as their haul of $334.6 million represented 31% of the available purse money.
While one would expect the top trainers to grab a large share of earnings—just as top tennis players or golfers are rewarded in their respective sports—horse racing is changing. The 2016 season is the first time in the past 26 seasons that super trainers accounted for more than 30% of purse earnings. (BloodHorse examined every year back to 1991, but as the super trainer era is relatively new, it's likely super trainers never previously secured 30% of the available purse money).
In each of the past five seasons, super trainers have accounted for at least 25.7% of the total purse earnings. Each of those five seasonal percentage totals is higher than the percentage total in any of the 21 seasons from 1991-2011.
Having stables capable of making 400 or more starts is becoming a preferred business model. That trend is part of the reason for the increasing percentage of earnings gathered by this group, which also has seen a steady increase in percentage of starts. In each of the 10 years from 1991-2000, the percentage of starts for super trainers never reached 10%. But fairly steady increases to that percentage have followed, reaching a high mark in 2016 of 15%. That most recent figure is nearly double the 1995 rounded-off figure of 7.6%.
A big reason for the increased percentage of starts for the super trainers is the steady decline in total trainers since 1991. In 1991 there were 7,236 trainers (counting any trainer with at least 20 starts), but by 2016 less than half that number of trainers remained, down 57% to 3,103.
Racing Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who started the super trainer trend and had at least 1,100 starts every year from 1985-92, believes it is more difficult for young trainers to get started in today's atmosphere.
"The biggest difference is years ago, a young trainer that had some background and was probably ready to move on and get his own stable could get connected with a solid owner. Now, if a young guy goes out, he's probably going to deal with about five guys buying a horse together, and it's so much more complicated as far as handling the ownership and clientele," Lukas said. "It used to be that you got a Bob Lewis out there that wanted to buy four or five horses. He had faith in a young trainer coming up and they took off. Now the ownership has changed so much that you don't have very many people at that end. And the young people who are starting out usually have to go to a group of guys who are just trying to get in the game themselves."
Lukas noted that with fewer owners and the changing business model for trainers, owners who want to compete at the top level often just commit to one of the super trainers rather than a younger one building a stable.
"If you get a client that has the wheelbase to maybe get into the game at the top level, he will usually migrate to someone who is already doing real well and has established credentials," Lukas said.
Respected horseman David Carroll saw that trend firsthand when he ended a more than two-decade run as a trainer last year to accept a job as an assistant trainer with Mark Casse. Carroll's wife, Kim, said they typically had about 25 horses in training and another 10 at a farm.
"You have the small guy and the big guy, but there was no more middle. And we were in the middle. And so in our barn we'd carry a couple of really nice horses—like allowance horses. But the shift was going to the bigger people and we were just getting, I don't want to say average horses, but horses that might have run a little better in different places," Kim Carroll said. "So for us that was difficult and the thing is we weren't going to change how we took care of our horses; we always did top-notch for them. But it wasn't balancing out. So you say to yourself, 'Do I want to eat or do we let them eat?' And, so, it was a big decision we had to make."
The sport itself has seen significant downsizing in recent years. The total U.S. races offered in 2016—37,614—are down 47.5% from the 1991 total of 71,689. The 2016 estimated foal crop, 20,850, is down 45% from the 38,151 foals of 1991. Thanks in no small part to an infusion of money from added gaming, purses have increased 55% from 1991 to the $1.08 billion paid out in 2016 (when inflation is not considered).
It's important to note the total number of super trainers has not increased. The 80 conditioners with 400 or more starts in 2016 is down from the 107 who qualified in 1991. But their percentage of the overall trainer population (again, requiring trainers have at least 20 starts to be considered) has grown from 1.4% in 1991 to 2.6% in 2016.
These super trainers have dominated the top of the sport, accounting for more than half of the graded stakes wins in three of the past four full seasons. The 55% of graded stakes races won by the super trainers in 2016 is the highest percentage in the years examined. From 1991-2012 the super trainers never won more than half of the graded stakes, but in more recent years it's become routine.
Just going back to the years 1991-2001, the super trainers won less than 30% of the graded stakes in nine of those 11 years.
Kentucky-based trainer Rusty Arnold, who in the past five seasons has averaged 231 starts a year, said the Lukas model has changed the game. He said when he started in the sport, once a trainer filled his barn, he wouldn't take any more horses and no one had thought of a second division.
"And then Wayne came along and he changed it. He hired wonderful people—Kiaran McLaughlin; Wayne's son, Jeff; Dallas Stewart; Todd Pletcher; one after another," Arnold said. "He put them in places, they learned his system, and it obviously has worked because they've all gone on and been highly successful."
Arnold agreed with Lukas that the emergence of super trainers has made things more difficult on young trainers.
"They can't get horses. When I started, it was so much easier to get started," Arnold said. "I see the young guy now where if he doesn't work for one of those guys and leave them with an owner, it's very hard to get started."
Jeff Platt, president of Horseplayers Association of North America, thinks it was a more interesting game when more trainers enjoyed success.
"What concerns me is that the number of horses that some of these big barns get keeps growing and at the same time the little guy, the independent guy who used to have a string of 15 horses, now has six horses," Platt said. "The little guy is being driven out of the game. You have horses that previously went to these smaller trainers that now are sent to the super trainers. To me that's a concern."
In 2016, of the 11 Breeders' Cup World Championships races won by horses trained by U.S.-based conditioners, seven were won by super trainers. Compare that with Breeders' Cup 1991, when the four North American-based trainers to win Breeders' Cup races all fell short of 400 starts. Christopher Speckert had 111 starts, James E. Day, 328 starts, Richard Lundy, 226 starts, and Ernie Poulos, 333 starts.
The 1991 Kentucky Derby (G1) saw 16 horses entered, all from different trainers. Of those 16 trainers, only three would have 400 or more starts that season (19%). Three other trainers in the race would finish with fewer than 100 starts that year.
In the 2017 Derby, three trainers accounted for eight of the 19 U.S.-based starters. Those three trainers—Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, and Mark Casse—have each already had at least 850 North American starts this season. Of the 19 U.S.-based 2016 Derby starters, 15 were conditioned by trainers who already have reached 400 starts this season. Two other trainers should qualify, which would bring the total to 17 of 19 starters conditioned by super trainers (89%).
Lukas said it's becoming more difficult for a smaller stable to compete. He said it can get caught with a horse that is too good to run in claiming races but overmatched in stakes races.
"There is a certain element of the top 20% that are so tough and have such a hold that it's difficult and frustrating for a young guy to come along and try and make inroads and break into that level. You get frustrated wondering if you can compete," Lukas said. "For example, if someone gives me $100,000, I go over to the sale and I try and buy one or two horses. If I'm located in New York, I look up and here they come. And you're thinking, 'What the hell? I'm too high up on the ladder to run for a claim and yet how can I jump in against these well-bred horses that cost $800,000-$900,000, or a million?' It's frustrating."
Of course, different people have different definitions of a "super trainer." There certainly is no perfect statistical number that can be used to define the category.
In 2016 six trainers had 1,000 or more North American starts: Steve Asmussen (1,600), Karl Broberg (1,566), Mark Casse (1,334), Todd Pletcher (1,213), Mike Maker (1,152), and Jerry Hollendorfer (1,078). Broberg and Asmussen surpassed 300 wins. Pletcher, Casse, and Maker were joined by Robertino Diodoro with more than 200 wins.
In the earnings column, seven trainers surpassed $10 million last year led by Chad Brown at $23.1 million. He was followed by Pletcher ($21.1), Casse ($17.9), Bob Baffert ($15.8), Asmussen ($14.8), Maker ($11.5), and Doug O'Neill ($10.3). With nearly $115 million in combined purse earnings last year, those seven trainers collected nearly 10% of the North American purses awarded in 2016. Seventeen trainers surpassed $5 million in purse earnings, and they accounted for 16% of the purses awarded in 2016.
The super trainer definition also can be applied to conditioners who dominate an individual track or circuit. At this year's Monmouth Park meeting, trainer Jorge Navarro not only led with a meet-record 65 victories, he enjoyed a 41% win rate from 158 starts. He has finished as the meet's leading trainer five seasons in a row. Tracks have made adjustments to this new era of decreased trainers and owners by paying down more positions in a race. Tracks that previously paid out purse money to the top five finishers now might pay every starter in a race, even if it's a relatively small amount. On the Oct. 9 card at Belmont Park, the last-place finishers in the three $60,000 maiden races received $400-$600. Owners of horses in maiden races at the lucrative Kentucky Downs meet that finished last received checks in the ballpark of $1,000.
Kentucky Downs president Corey Johnsen, who also is a horse owner, said it makes sense for racing to move to a model that pays down more positions and gives owners some return just for starting a horse.
"We need to lessen, as best we can, the risk that you take every day you have a horse in training," Johnsen said. "It always costs money to run a horse, and at Kentucky Downs everybody ships in. It was our goal to lessen that burden and spread some money out through the industry."
Maryland Jockey Club general manager Sal Sinatra has seen a corresponding decline in owners along with the reduced number of trainers, and is working with horsemen and the racing commission on a purse bonus that would pay owners for each horse their horse finishes ahead of. He hopes the structure, which he would initially use in dirt races, would encourage larger fields, which are attractive to horseplayers and generate more pari-mutuel handle.
"There's a couple of problems for racing offices right now," Sinatra said. "When you're hustling races, guys always want to know how many horses are in there. When you really look at it, the track wants 12 or 14 horses in a race, but obviously an owner doesn't want to be in a 12- or 14-horse race. So when you get, say, a maiden claiming race with 12, I notice that we get scratches, usually 20-1 shots or 15-1 shots in the program. And I kind of get that. The Midlantic has so much racing going on that they may scratch and look at Delaware Park or Penn National, or wherever.
"In trying to look at it from both perspectives, my thought is why not pay back to last but also add $200 for every horse you beat? You reward the guy who wins the race, beating 11 horses; and the guy who finishes fifth or sixth might get enough to help his training bill. My whole purpose with this is to get churn for the owner. The game is expensive."
In terms of the sport's gambling product, the era of the super trainer has seen the percentage of races with two or more starters from the same trainer increase from 1.3% in 1991 to 4.8% in 2016—again a high-water mark for the years examined. The percentage of graded stakes with two or more starters from the same trainer has nearly doubled since 1991, up to 8.7% in 2016—a high-water mark for the years examined.
Platt applauds most racing commissions for updating rules to allow entries from the same barn to run as uncoupled entries, which improves the number of betting interests—an important factor in generating handle. "Horseplayers would rather not have them coupled. If there is a price on one of the horses they like, its odds are not driven down by the other half of a coupled entry," Platt said. "It makes the races more bettable and most racing jurisdictions have gone to this approach."
Also, Platt notes that in the era of super trainers, it's often an assistant trainer actually working with a horse if it's starting away from the program trainer's base. While some entries list the names of these assistant trainers, he would like to see that practice become the norm and include stats for these assistants.
The Monmouth Park racing schedule was initially set for Kentucky Derby Day. Now, the thoroughbred racing schedule has been pushed back for the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend as a result of the The shifting Monmouth’s 2020 live race schedule is an attempt to salvage the best part of the meet and give the NJ sports betting and horse racing fans a decent season. The centerpiece of the season remains the $1 million TVG Haskell Invitational on July 18. It will be conducted at 1 1-8 miles. The race already has notoriety, showcasing top Monmouth Park Racetrack is an American race track for thoroughbred horse racing in Oceanport, New Jersey, United States. Horse Racing Find all information about our live horse racing here at Monmouth Park. Monmouth Park will reopen for simulcast wagering and sports betting July 2, with live horse racing returning the following day. The complex will operate at 25% capacity as part of New Jersey’s Monmouth Park Racetrack said it hopes to begin taking sports bets on Sunday, less than a week after the state government announced that such enterprises would no longer be illegal in New Jersey.