The US horse racing industry is nothing if not resilient. The pandemic may have ravaged the economies of racing and breeding in 2020, but on many fronts, the results have defied expectations.
The year-end Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators(2020) released by Equibase recently paint a vivid picture – an industry absolutely blighted in the first half by lockdowns and race cancellations, but with signs of rebounding by the Holiday season.
Before we take a look at the thoroughbreds who struck gold in a trying year, let’s take a quick look at the key takeaways from the economic indicators:
2020 in US horse racing – a story of two halves
Just a cursory scan of the charts reveals the catastrophic impact a 25% loss of race days has had on every aspect of the racing economy. In 2019, there were 4,424 races, as opposed to just 3,302 in 2020.
That percentage difference is reflected across the board, particularly in the reduction of purse sizes for the year. The difference in the first half of 2020 was a punishing 40%, with just $324 million on the line across 10,900 races.
The same period in 2019 had more than half a billion dollars in US purses, for over 17,450 races. But as we move into the second half of 2020, the situation looks less precarious. As the number of race days went up, so did the amount of money involved in it.
In Q3 and Q4 of the season, the number of race days had crossed 2000, with purses crossing the $500 million. While still down by around 13% compared to the previous year, it indicated a slow return to normalcy, at least as far as the races and purses are concerned.
How did purse size defy the pandemic, even as courses face an existential crisis due to lack of spectators? Well, most of it is due to the resilience of the betting industry.
Wagering largely unfazed by the pandemic
The loss of a quarter of the annual races is not reflected at all in the money gamblers spent on US horse racing in 2020. The figure stood at $10.9 billion, just a fraction below the mark of $11.03 billion set in 2019.
So, what happened?
When the number of betting markets went down, the level of involvement in available races went up, way up – from $2.4 million per race day on average to $3.3 million in 2020. It is a significant increase of 32% – bettors spent more on the races that did not get canceled.
While on-track betting was hit by lack of spectators (it still is), other forms like off-track advance deposit wagering, simulcast, and online betting seems to have picked up the slack. All these contribute to the horse racing purse available for each race at a track.
Even more important than the average wagering is the actual amount of money spent by gamblers.
That 1% decrease for the whole of 2020 stems from the chaos of the first half. In the last six months of the year, wagering showed a healthy 9.49% increase on the corresponding period from 2019.
With fewer races available, the average field size has also shown a minor increase year on year. Larger fields are generally better from a wagering and spectators’ perspective.
On the whole, the outlook is quite clear – the fundamentals are still quite solid on the US racing front. The important thing is to get spectators back in the stands, as soon as possible in a safe manner.
The top 5 horses of 2020
With the numbers out of the way, let’s take a look at the top 5 horses that dominated the 2020 season in earnings.
The interesting thing to note is that the list this year has been heavily influenced at the top by the controversial arrival of the Saudi Cup – the richest race in the history of the sport with an eye-watering purse of $20 million.
5. Tarnawa (IRE)
Chestnut Filly, Shamardal off Tarana (IRE) – $2.56 million
Tarnawa arrived in the US only in November 2020 – yet in two short months, this Irish filly ended up in the top 5 earner’s bracket with a superb finish at the Breeder’s Cup Turf in Keeneland.
She passed eight other horses in the final half-mile, winning comfortably by a length. With 4 wins out of 4 (including the Qatar Prix Vermeille and Prix de l’OperaLongines), she had an excellent 2020.
4. Mucho Gusto
Chestnut Colt, Mucho Macho Man offItsagiantcauseway – $3.17 million
A progeny of the 2013 Breeder’s Cup Classic,Mucho Gusto spent his year 3 racing in Grade 3 stakes in 2019. His debut as a 4-year-old was not an easy task – trainer Bob Baffert had him enter the Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park.
Despite returning after a 3-month break, Mucho Gusto won the $3 million Grade 1 race with ease in January – his only win out of 3 starts in 2020.
3. Midnight Bisou
Dark Brown Mare, Midnight Lute off Diva Delite, $3.72 million
Coming back to racing after a near-perfect campaign in 2019 – 7 wins out of 8 including several Grade 1 races – Midnight Bisou finished runner up in the $20 million Saudi Cup in Riyadh. She had a decent 2020 with 1 win and 2 places out of three starts. Her win came at Churchill Downs in a Grade 2 Handicap.
Bay Colt, Into Mischief off Flawless, $6.1 million
With 5 wins out of 7 starts, this 3-year-old had a dream debut year in 2020. Trained by Bob Baffert, he was one of the main hopefuls for the Triple Crown races. He won Baffert his 6th Kentucky Derby, as well as jockey John Velazquez a 200th Grade 1 win at Churchill Downs.
Though pushed to second in the Preakness by Swiss Skydiver, Authentic won big money at Keeneland in November, dominating the $6 million Longines Breeder’s Cup Classic.
1. Maximum Security
Bay Colt, New Year’s Day off Lil Indy, $10 million
The colt who made history at the Kentucky Derby for all the wrong reasons in 2019, continued his redemptive arc into 2020.
After getting disqualified for interference in the Derby, he went on to win the Eclipse Award as Champion 3-year-old Colt. He continued that good form into February 2020, winning the Saudi Cup.
He followed that with multiple Grade 1 wins under new trainer Bob Baffert, before fading out in the Breeder’s Cup Classic at Keeneland. Since then, he has been retired to stud at Versailles, Kentucky.