The Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championship Series, which had a five-year run from 1997-2001, returns to the racing landscape in 2018. The MATCH Series kicks off on Preakness weekend at Pimlico racecourse in Baltimore, with the Skipat Stakes (for filly and mare sprinters) and Jim McKay Turf Sprint (3 and up, turf sprinters) contested on next Friday's Black-Eyed Susan day, May 18. On Preakness day, May 19, MATCH series races are The Very One Stakes (filly and mare turf sprinters) and Maryland Sprint Stakes (3 and up, dirt sprinters).
The MATCH Series is a cooperative venture of horsemen's organizations and racetracks in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The Series races offer $2.9 million in purses and there is nearly $500,000 in bonuses for owners, trainers and breeders. Breeders associations in the participating states also support the Series.
Visit the MATCH Series website to learn more about the series schedule and divisions, stakes closing dates, bonuses and rules.
Alan Foreman, the chairman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (which has affiliates in all four MATCH Series states) is the original creator of the Series and worked to bring it back in 2018. He discussed the Series with Paulick Report publisher Ray Paulick.
What inspired you to bring the MATCH Series back?
ALAN FOREMAN: For the past five years, all of the stakeholders in racing in the Mid-Atlantic region – tracks, horsemen's organizations, regulators, breeders – have been working collectively and in a unified fashion to address medication and equine safety and welfare issues. As you know, the Mid-Atlantic region comprises the largest concentration of racing on a daily basis in the United States, with horsemen racing throughout the region in the various states. There is a recognition that more than anywhere else in the United States, uniformity and coordination in the region is necessary. With that backdrop, I had a sense in 2017 that the stars were aligned, that the time was right to begin discussions about reviving MATCH, and that we should add the marketing of racing in the region to the collective progress we have made in the other areas. It was clear when I approached the various stakeholders that they agreed, and that we should try and bring it back.
How is the bonus money for owners and trainers being funded?
For MATCH to work, both the horsemen's organizations and tracks need to be invested. When we created the Series in 1997, we determined the bonus pool that we thought was necessary to give the Series credibility and buy-in from the horsemen. The bonus pool then, $500,000, was divided equally among the participating horsemen's organizations. The tracks contributed to the administrative costs of the Series, and their share was also divided equally. With the revival of the Series, there was recognition among the horsemen's organizations that racing is healthier in some states than others, but we wanted participation from all of the interested groups regardless of their financial situation. Each of the participating horsemen's organizations is contributing their fair share to make the Series bonus pool work and all of the money goes to the bonuses, which is $450,000. The tracks are each contributing 25% of their horsemen's contribution towards marketing and administration. All of the money is going into the Series. There are no salaries or compensation. Additionally, we invited the breeder's organizations in the region to consider participation with a breeder's bonus, and last month that came together. Each of the breeder's organizations is contributing $10,000 for the top points earning filly/mare and colt/gelding from their programs. A true regional partnership.
Why did the original Series end?
Industry politics, plain and simple. In or about 2002, when the Series last ran, the NTRA had been formed as the marketing and “central office” for Thoroughbred racing. In order to satisfy those who wanted the NTRA to become self-reliant and no longer dependent upon dues payments based on handle and purses from the member organizations, the NTRA leadership proposed to designate TVG as the industry's account wagering provider, with NTRA getting a portion of revenues to fund the organization. The Mid-Atlantic tracks rebelled, given that some were already in that space. The THA was then, and still is, a strong supporter of the NTRA and it determined to remain in the NTRA. This created a schism between the THA and the Mid-Atlantic tracks. The Pennsylvania THA left the THA in support of their track. The unity that made MATCH such a success evaporated and the Series became a casualty. When the Pennsylvania THA rejoined the THA in 2011, we tried to revive the Series, but the region was experiencing other issues, such as the threatened closure of Maryland racing, the privatization of Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands and legalized gaming in states surrounding Delaware. We couldn't raise the money or insure that everyone could work together. We came close in 2014, but things were still dicey. We found the sweet spot last year.
What are you hoping to accomplish with MATCH?
First and foremost, we want a competitive and fun event for our horsemen, tracks and fans and spark interest in racing in the region. Most of our owners and trainers don't get the opportunity to run in the Triple Crown or Breeders Cup, so we want to give them an opportunity to participate in a first-class event that will invest them throughout the summer. We have created a roadmap for them in each of the divisions should they have a horse that is eligible. There will be no other track in the region where they can go, so we want to identify the best horses competing against each other. And, we want to bring some recognition throughout the Series to the owners and trainers who are supporting our sport.
The Series has provided an opportunity for the tracks, particularly the racing directors, to work together in an effort to coordinate racing in the region. It is a very difficult task, but the spirit of cooperation that characterized their collective efforts to design the Series, move races, respect each track's bigger days and recognize the challenges of the declining horse population was really inspiring. I am hoping that this is a building block that will lead to further discussions beyond MATCH on how we can compete against each other and yet help all of us in the process.
Lastly, we are hoping for large fields, increases in betting on the Series races and compelling stories.
How will you measure whether or not this is a success?
At the end of the Series, the stakeholders will all sit down together and due a post-mortem. Did we meet or exceed expectations? What did we learn? What mistakes did we make? What changes should we make going forward if there is a sense the Series was a success? Were the divisions competitive and did we select the right divisions? Did we see increases in field size and handle? Do the stakeholders, particularly the tracks, feel they got a “bang for their buck.” And, as we did last time, we will talk to the participants and others and get their views. We'll also listen to the critics. I must tell you, though, that the fact that we got the region to agree to bring the Series back and got the tracks to agree to coordinate schedules and eliminate competition and work together for the regional good, already makes it a winner. We need to build on this success.
As everyone knows, one of the biggest challenges for racetracks is the limited horse population, and competition among the tracks can be fierce. Were there any surprises in working with the various racing offices while putting the schedule together?
Once the tracks' racing directors agreed to participate in the discussions, I was cautiously optimistic. I did this before when we last ran the Series and the racing directors then were terrific and committed to the process. This time was no different We asked them to leave any agendas outside the room and design a series that could work for everyone. We actually had a model and started to slot in races, when Mike Dempsey suggested that we scrap it and work with divisions that had races that needed the most support because of competition and where each track could derive benefit. It was typical of how the process worked, and we worked from a chalkboard similar to the war rooms in the NFL draft. I can't say enough about the spirit of cooperation and commitment from Georganne Hale, Sal Sinatra, Sam Elliott, John Mooney, John Heims and Eric Johnston and the contributions from Todd Mostoller, David Richardson, Bessie Gruwell and John Forbes. The biggest surprise was that the tracks designed each division so that an eligible horse would have a roadmap for the summer and the tracks pledging to protect the races and not run competing races against a MATCH race. That was huge.
If all goes well for MATCH in 2018, do you envision any changes in 2019 or beyond?
I think we all agreed to keep it simple this year and see how it goes. We'll let the stakeholders collectively decide its success and future course. We are going to do a Pick 5 over Championship weekend with a lower takeout, and divide the revenues generated, if any, among the stakeholders. We looked at the possibility of doing a big-event Championship Day at one track for all of the divisions, but that is a complicated discussion that we will have in the fall. Several of the tracks have indicated an interest in doing so. We would love to have a breeder's competition, but that will require changes to each bred-fund program. We talked with New York during the last Series about joining, but NYRA was not interested. If this Series has appeal to them, and our colleagues in New York, horsemen and breeders, we would love to talk. We'll also see if the financial situation in West Virginia improves. I, along with others, have lots of ideas. I hope we get the chance to discuss and implement them.
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