Trainer’s super night came a few days earlier than the 25th edition of Illinois festive evening of racing last weekend at Balmoral Park.
The Belvedere, IL native sent out four horses at Hoosier Park on the track’s “Night of Champions” September 11 program and they delivered $228,800 in purse earnings to the stable, thus far this year the most lucrative payday on a single card by any an Illinois based trainer.
Welch’s Always About Katey and Justine Jet each won a $200,000 Indiana Sire Championship and his two other starters finished third.
Racing at both his home track at Balmoral with a 3 and 1/2 hour drive to Hoosier Park in Anderson, Indiana, sometimes on the same night, has got to be awfully tough on Welch and his employees.
“It’s not an easy thing to do and it takes a lot of traveling but when you can race for 3 or 4 times more money than you can in Illinois, it can be worth it,” said Welch, who celebrates his 50th birthday today.
“Plus, the stake payments to Indiana sire events are a quarter of what they are in Illinois, so it can be a profitable business if you have the right horses.”
In 2012 over 4,000 Standardbred horses were bred in Indiana, about 10 times more than in Illinois where the breeding industry has been hit hard through the past decade with the exodus of so many horsemen and their owners.
For the last 20 years in Indiana the breeding industry has grown leaps and bounds with the influx of money derived from on-track Casino gambling. Meanwhile, it’s been mostly broken promises for the last 10-plus years to the horsemen and the racetracks in our state with still no slots at the racetracks.
“In our industry in Illinois there haven’t been any new sires in years and that’s also the case for broodmares,” said Welch. “When you go to a yearling in our state it’s a cross of the same old broodmares and the same old sires.
“Half the babies in the sale are the brothers and sisters of horses you’ve trained and the other half are brothers and sisters of horses you’ve raced against. It’s the same old bloodlines. There aren’t any new faces at our Illinois sales. It’s been stagnant that way for a long time.”
While the Standardbred breeding industry is prospering big-time in Indiana and lucrative purses are offered to horsemen and owners, that hasn’t translated into booming mutuel handles. Far from it, the wagering on Balmoral programs is two to three times greater on any given night than at Hoosier Park.
Indiana’s $1.88 million Night of Champions program handled only $470,783, compared to Balmoral’s $1.3 million Super Night card where $1,758,945 poured through its betting windows with the same number of races.
In fact the same Wednesday when Hoosier Park held its “Night of Champions,” Balmoral handled $700,730, over $200,000 more, with four less races and a paltry $43,600 in total purses, that’s $1,836,400 less than horsemen raced for in Indiana that night.
I asked Roger why he thought the mutuel handle in Indiana has never caught up to the caliber of horses racing nightly in the Hoosier state.
“There do have better horses with full fields and their marketing department does a very good job,” he answered. “The track has plenty of giveaways and special events but what they don’t do is cater to the big gambler. They do a number of things that keep that person away. I’ll give you a half-dozen of them:
“First, Hoosier has 10 horse fields but unlike Balmoral, it’s not 10 horses across. It’s nine behind the (starting) gate with a trailing horse and most gamblers don’t like trailers.
“Second, they have a no whipping rule in Indiana. A driver can’t whip at all. You’re fined if you do. Gamblers like to see drivers get after their horse. Most hit the bike or the disk wheel, anyway
“Next, unlike Illinois they don’t use a staggered starting gate there and the gambler knows that hurts the chances of horses with outside posts.
“They don’t have a passing lane at Hoosier like they have on the Chicago circuit. Most tracks do and big players like it. They don’t want to see their horse stuck inside with no chance of getting loose race after race.
“Also, Indiana starts its races at a bad time. They start at 5:30 pm. Most harness tracks start at 7 or 7:30 in the evening. Indiana begins its races going against some major thoroughbred tracks in California and it’s at a time that is too early for most harness racing fans.
“Lastly, Hoosier is a 7/8’s oval while Balmoral is a full mile track. Every poll taking in the county says players prefer a big track and they prefer it by a wide margin.
“If Hoosier Park’s Super Night card were raced at Balmoral Park on a Saturday night it would set a new record handle," added Roger.”
It makes you ask yourself what kind of handle numbers Balmoral Park could put up on a regular basis if the slots-at-the-racetracks bill ever gets passed and signed in Illinois.
It definitely would be huge, that’s for sure.
By Mike Paradise
The Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association