After considering 2018 a “trial balloon” from several standpoints, founder Alan Foreman is excited to have the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championship Series return for the second year of its revival, ready to really take flight.
The 2019 MATCH Series kicks off Saturday on the Spring Stakes Spectacular program at Laurel Park with a quartet of $100,000 stakes, the first four in a 20-race series that moves on to tracks in Pennsylvania and Delaware leading up to its Sept. 28 conclusion at Monmouth Park.
A total of 104 nominations were made to the four races – the six-furlong Primonetta on dirt and one-mile Dahlia on turf for fillies and mares 3 and older, and the six-furlong Frank Whiteley Jr. on dirt and inaugural 5 ½-furlong King T. Leatherbury on the grass for 3-year-olds and up.
“It's really special to start in Maryland, first of all, because of the support that Maryland racing has given to the series, but also the willingness of The Stronach Group organization to support the series and help to make it work for everyone,” Foreman said. “I couldn't be happier that this is starting at Laurel.”
Recently turned 69, Foreman is a Baltimore native who continues to make his home in Pikesville, Md. Considered one of the leading racing law attorneys in the United States, he serves as chairman and CEO of the Columbia, Md.-based Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents more than 20,000 owners and trainers across the country.
Foreman had long been an advocate of bringing back the MATCH Series, which originally had a five-year run beginning in 1997. It wasn't until last year, however, that he felt the climate was right to launch a comeback after 16 years.
“The reception was nothing short of terrific, at every level. We brought the series back, number one not knowing what the reaction would be, but secondly how many people even remembered the series and whether it could even be relevant?” Foreman said. “We knew it was very successful when we did it; unfortunately, industry dysfunction, particularly in the region, prevented the series from continuing and we discontinued it back in 2002.
“As we kind of rebuilt the industry in the region and we worked together on all forms regarding the health, safety and welfare of the horse, my sense was that maybe we could bring MATCH back because we needed to do something to promote the sport.”
The MATCH Series began and ended in Maryland last year, kicking off over Black-Eyed Susan (G2) and Preakness (G1) weekend in mid-May at Pimlico Race Course, and ultimately concluding as part of the Frank J. De Francis Memorial (G3) card in late September.
After a rocky start thanks to unusually wet weather which hit Maryland during Preakness week leading up to Justify's dramatic emergence from the fog to ultimately be crowned the 13th Triple Crown champion, the MATCH Series gained momentum throughout the summer and fall.
“Everybody was, 'Let's take a look, and let's try it,' so last year was really kind of the trial balloon,” Foreman said. “The two biggest impediments last year were, we kind of got a late start when we decided to do it, so a number of the trainers did not have horses that fit the series. They would have liked to have participated, they just didn't have the horses in their barn. Secondly, we struggled with the weather. That's not something that anybody can control and that was a problem for everyone in racing last year. It particularly hobbled us.
“We started out Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness Day and we just got killed with scratches and coming off the turf, you name it, but we recovered. We saw significant increases in handle, the horsemen loved it, we got tremendous response not only from industry media but from industry organizations and people we talked to at the racetrack,” he added. “Because of the weather, we had to push back the final day and we had three of the MATCH Series finals at Laurel, and it was kind of like a big-event day. It combined with the De Francis Dash and we saw and enormous increase in handle and interest in MATCH.”
The success on De Francis Day 2018 led Foreman to propose a change in the MATCH format for this year, where each participating Mid-Atlantic racetrack – Laurel, Penn National, Parx, Delaware Park and Monmouth – will host four series races. In all, the series offers $2 million in purses and more than $400,000 in bonus money.
“When we got the region back together to take a look at 2018 and see if it worked, if it didn't work, did we want to do it again or not, instead of this notion of doing it like we'd historically done it where you're running races throughout the region all summer and just moving around, why not package everything as big-event days at each of the tracks and let the series move like NASCAR,” Foreman said.
“That's something, historically, I didn't think we could do. I thought it would be too difficult to space the races and eliminate tracks competing against each other,” he added. “I thought it was almost an impossible task, but when we decided to try to go down that road, it wasn't easy to do it but we managed to get everyone to move things around. They liked the idea of having a big-event day.”
Another change for 2019 was to trim the number of divisions from five to four – 3-year-olds and up, sprinting on both turf and dirt; and fillies and mares 3 and older going long on turf and sprinting on dirt.
Among the horses nominated this year are four of the top nine overall finishers – Laki, Lewisfield, Dubini and Pool Winner. Laki and Lewisfield finished 1-2, respectively, in the 3-year-old and up, dirt sprint division, while Dubini and Pool Winner were 2-3, respectively, in the 3-year-old and up, turf sprint division. It's the Journey, third to Laki and Lewisfield in their division, is also nominated.
“The fifth division would have been on the turf. We're a little gun shy about turf racing because of the weather and we don't want to compromise the series,” Foreman said. “The other reason is, it's tough to do races for the older horses because there aren't that many of the older horses running that we can actually fill a division, particularly long on the dirt. So, we took what we thought were the four best divisions this year. We got the word out early and I'm optimistic that these races are going to be full and it's going to be a great start to the series.”
Aside from the competition and boost in handle to each of the racetracks, one of the best parts of the renewed MATCH Series for Foreman has been witnessing the cooperation between the various horsemen and management groups from the beginning.
“It's pretty amazing. I've been facilitating meetings between the stakeholders in the region for a long time,” Foreman said. “I guess what's humbling for me is, when I invite them, they come and they let me facilitate the meetings. So when I called around and asked whether they would be willing to talk about MATCH, they all said 'Yeah, let's talk about it.' Part of it is just getting everybody to agree to sit in the room, and the more you have the conversation the more they really liked the idea. The challenge has always been to schedule the races, get racing offices and managements to decide that we're going to support the series and not run races against series races, and how can we make this work for everybody?
“This is a unique region in the country as far as racing is concerned – the Mid-Atlantic is the largest concentration of racing on a daily basis in the United States – and so something like MATCH really is perfect for this region,” he added. “You can get everybody to put aside their agendas, and you can get the horsemen to put up money that otherwise they would be running for at their tracks, to put it into the series to try to lift everybody up through increases in handle and an increased interest in horse racing. Everybody had a role to play and everybody was willing to do it. Unless you're in the room to see it, it's pretty amazing to see the compromises and the challenges and how they work through them.”
Seeing the success of the MATCH Series is particularly satisfying for Foreman, a self-described casual racing fan growing up 15 minutes from Pimlico who in high school dated the daughter of Charles Town's owner. That was the extent of his racing experience before Foreman was assigned to represent the stewards following Codex's win over Genuine Risk in the 1980 Preakness, the first of several high-profile cases that launched his career on a national scale.
“We truly have had a renaissance in Maryland racing. We're doing things in Maryland that you will not see anywhere else in the country. It's not smoke and mirrors by any stretch; it's truly been a change in the dynamics and a change at so many levels for the better,” Foreman said. “To me, it was an extraordinary thrill to start the MATCH Series last year in conjunction with Preakness weekend. I remember when we were doing MATCH 18, 20 years ago, we would actually start at Pimlico, which was then running in April, and we would be running series races as part of Preakness weekend.”
Foreman remembers the 1999 Maryland Breeders' Cup Handicap (G3), when a man made his way to the main track and attempted to punch Artax as the horses sprinted down the stretch toward the finish line. Artax, who finished fifth, would go on to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint and be named champion sprinter.
“When that fan climbed the fence and ran out on the racetrack, that was a MATCH Series race,” Foreman said. “I was down in the winner's circle watching it.”
Foreman's list of accomplishments in the industry is long. In addition to his own practice and his position at THA, he is a founding director of the NTRA and serves on its Board of Directors and Compensation Committee, and is widely credited with creating the Maryland Jockey Injury Compensation Fund, Inc. in 1984 – the nation's first workers compensation program for jockeys.
On Wednesday, Foreman spoke to a class of 80 students at the University of Maryland on gaming in the 21st century. Earlier this month, Foreman was presented with the William H. May Award, the highest honor given by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, recognizing an individual or entity that has had a profound positive effect on professional racing.
“I wasn't prepared for it,” he said. “You don't get much recognition in this business. I've been doing it for a long time and it was really a very nice feeling, particularly by the regulatory committee, to be recognized for work that I've done over the years. It's a body of work, and I'm very proud of it.”
Foreman has maintained his passion over four decades and continues to be a major player in the industry, with no intention of slowing down.
“We just implemented a long-term, strategic plan to reduce equine fatalities in the Mid-Atlantic and that work has produced significant positive results,” he said. “As the environment for racing gets tougher and tougher with competition from other forms of gambling and a newer generation coming into the business, I've tried to do everything I can to ensure that this business can survive and flourish going forward, and that's quite a challenge.”
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