One visited Belmont Park as a guest of noted handicapper, writer and spec Keven Depew's family on a beautiful Saturday afternoon with great gratitude. The place reminded me of a mausoleum. Right out of Rosebud. More empty betting booths than customers existed. Hundreds of unused betting booths with lettering from the 1960s that hadn't been used in decades stood unattended. About 1000 were at the track which sits on at least 100 acres and houses thousands of employees.

The average handle per race was about 150,000 including all exotics and simulcasting. And that's 25000 per race to the associating. The average purse was 60,000 of which about 80% is paid by the track. The losses on the Belmont Park must be of the order of 50 million a year, and taking the opportunity cost of the land on the park which is worth billions, it's a billion dollar a year loser. Naturally the state just agreed to take it over, so the losses will escalate and the ordinary citizen will pay for the entertainment of a dying breed of 90 year old bettors, and for maintaining the status of the owners and horsemen.

Throughout the industry, there is devastation, degeneration and loss. The breeders are desperately trying to sell their farms, and the attendance and handles are decreasing. Not much attention is paid to the losses except that an indirect effect is that twice as many horses are dying each year from the races. We only saw one death on Saturday in the 8th race, and it was properly handled with a black screen, and an ambulance truck. Apparently it's the norm because the purses are getting bigger as an offset to on track occasions and the trainers have more of an inducement to get their horses into the races with greater frequency.

In the good old days, on a nice Saturday with a 300,000 high stakes race like the mother good handicap, we would have seen 60-75,000 in attendance. No touts letters were available and the usher who had been there for 45 years said he hadn't seen the Lawton brothers' the famous clockers, or any replacements there in 25 years.

The mother goose handicap was won by the beaten favorite at 5 to 1, and he had been 2 to 1 against the same field the previous two races. A good lesson to learn for speculators. Laurel got the exact on the mother goose with the help of Lila Depew who knows horse racing so well, and makes one wish that one had half the knowledge in his own field as she does in hers where she runs online racing for the racing form. The average racehorse costs 35,000 a year to keep in a barn and race. With 85,000 foals born each year from the breeders, that's 3 billion a year in costs. The average horse at Belmont wins about 40,000 a year, of which the owners take is say 30,000. Let's say 10,000 of them race each year, making their prize money about 300 million.

Whatever the economics of breeding are and some horses produce 600 foals at 20,000 a foal, there is a tremendous loss to the horse racers. It has to be done for prestige and enjoyment. The race tracks themselves must lose another billion or two a year considering the opportunity costs. No wonder the NY government is taking over the racing association, as the owners can't afford it any more. In New Jersey however, with attendance at The Meadowlands down from an average 0f 25,000 10 years ago to 1,000 these days, all the barns are being torn down, and a grandstand 1/5 the size is being built at a cost of 85 million in the futile hope that a reduced size will make the place look less like the mausoleum that all the non-casino racing tracks looks like.

The main reason for the decline in racing handle is that the average bettor is 90 years old. Young people these days don't wish to spend a whole day at the track for action when they could be playing video games or watching porn. The off-track take of 20% is much higher than they can get at the casinos, and they are not comped and romanced at the races. The price of admission to Meadowlands I believe last time I was there was 0.50 but to its credit Belmont maintains a 2 buck admissions charge, although there is a rebate of 1 buck for most circumstances.

I liked the nice touch that when you come into the horseman's area, it's a jacket and tie policy only. There were about 25 in the only restaurant on premises, and the restaurant looked like it had a capacity of about 600 from the good old days. I was reminded of how uncle Howie walked through the Loews Hotel with a yarmulke on to go to his wedding in one of the private rooms there, and the general manager walked up to Howie and told him to remove the yarmulke as it might offend the guests. Howie has always rued that day to the present. He was so revved up for the wedding that he completely overlooked knocking the block off the general manager, cursing him out, creating an uproar in the hotel and canceling the wedding. As I saw the forlorn handful of bettors straggling at the finish line, I thought of what many commodity brokers have told me. "It's so sad to see Smith trading now. He used to trade 1000 lots. Now he's reduced to trading one lot, and we're on his back every moment to see that he doesn't stiff us if the loss goes above the margin."

There but for the grace of the good one be I and all other gamblers. Laurel is a big gambler and bets much more heavily than I do, and one couldn't but be thankful that …

David Hillman comments: 

It's taken three decades, but this is a pretty god description of what's happened at Pimlico in Baltimore. Absent the Preakness, I have to wonder if the course wouldn't have been dismantled already.

J.T  Holley writes:


Back when Lila and Kevin lived here in Richmond she invited me to bring the kids down to the 17th Street Farmer's Market that she ran. She told me that I should play Tony Cibo in checkers. At that time Tony was 86 years old and was a master of the board. Lila was so nice to walk around with my children after they watched their father get beat in the first two matches. After I realized that it was hopeless and I didn't have a game I asked Tony if he could talk with me about his win against Tom Wiswell. He broke out a newspaper article that was preserved. It had a picture of him sitting at the table playing with Tom and mentioned the feat attained. I asked Tony how he did it and he said "practice", "memorization", and "studying books" from the greats.

That was the first time I also learned about St. John's and being a "Johnnie" as Lila told me of her education. She is awesome and Kevin and her are really great people.

I take my kids to Colonial Downs here in Virginia whenever I can. On Sunday's the place is a ghost town, but they offer a 16 dollar package. You get 4 admissions, 4 tip sheets, 4 hot dogs, 4 drinks, and entry into prize drawings for only those attending that day. I've never been where one of my children didn't win a half way decent prize due to the small pool of attendees!

I don't know how the Jacob's Family is profitable owning that track? I've always thought that it had to be the satellite-casts that they are a part of because the place is complete empty the majority of the time. Heck even the Virginia Derby that is coming in a few weeks only has around 10,000 attendees.

Anything that I've learned from Horse Racing has come from your book/posts over the years and Kevin.

The other slice of heaven that I would recommend people to visit is Montpelier the former home of James Madison. The Orange County Fair is there annually and it is a true historic agriculture fair. It also has been turned into a thoroughbred rescue and has some of the most amazing horses that I've seen. Yes, they have fox hunts, polo matches and steeple chases there as well. Don't go there on any days of those events though. Go when there isn't anything planned. The silence is powerful and Montpelier sits there as if you have been placed back in time. You can listen to the horses in the distance stalls and running around in the fields. It isn't a commercialized landmark but one that is barely kept up it seems and the raw preservation is still intact.

There is a nostalgia that seems to hang onto Mr. Jefferson. I wonder if many who hang onto such nostalgia even have read much about Mr. Jefferson? He actually passed away indebted and broke, if I remember my readings the bankruptcy laws were different back then and when your parents and inlaws passed you inherited their debts. Not many know either that he had a nail manufacturing facility and worked hard with incentives "red coats" to further produce and profit.

One of my favorite quotes by T.J. is in a letter to his daughters. They wrote him and asked him to help buy dresses that were fashionable and newer. His response was "dress like the others, be different with your mind". Far from buying farmland to be fashionable and doing such for nostalgia or to foxhunt and having an expensive hobby.


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