Although the $450,000 overall bonus scheme for breeders, owners, and trainers is unchanged from its 2018 level, the scheduling, number of races, and cumulative purses for the stakes that comprise the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championships (MATCH) series will get a significant makeover for 2019.
The chief changes for the points-based challenge series at Laurel Park (Apr. 20), Penn National (June 1), Delaware Park (July 13), Parx (Sept. 2) and Monmouth Park (Sept. 28) include:
1) Each participating track getting its own exclusive showcase day of MATCH stakes
2) The exclusion of both high-end graded stakes and below-par stakes in terms of purse value, which will be replaced by 20 stakes with $100,000 purses carded equally at each track
3) A streamlining of the number of horse divisions, from five to four
4) The doubling of marketing money put up by each track to promote the series.
The MATCH series, which debuted in 1997 and ran for five years, was brought back in 2018 after a long hiatus. It is the brainchild of Alan Foreman, the chairman/chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, and the goal of the series is to highlight regional racing while rewarding the connections of mid-Atlantic horses and providing a season-long focal point for fans and bettors.
“Last year we got our feet wet with it. It was a success,” Foreman told TDN via phone Wednesday. “I saw somebody online this morning who said, ‘Well they’ve made an awful lot of changes to it. How can you call that a success?’ But we looked at what we accomplished in 2018, and now the thinking is, ‘How can we make it better?’ So that’s what we’re trying to do for 2019.”
The basic MATCH concept remains the same. Horses competing in the series earn points based on participation and order of finish. The owners and trainers of the leading 1-2-3 point-earners in each division earn bonus money ($375,000 available). The overall points-earning owner ($50,000) and trainer ($25,000) for the entire series also earn bonuses. Like last year, this money is paid by various the horsemen’s groups and state breeding organizations in the mid-Atlantic.
There are also separate Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware breeder bonuses ($40,000 available), with each state’s breeding organization fronting $5,000 payouts for the top point-earning horse of each sex that is certified in their respective programs.
The altered format of the races will be the most noticeable shakeup to MATCH (see schedule here).
Last year, the MATCH series began on GI Preakness S. weekend at Pimlico Race Course, then hopped around from track to track. An unequal number of races got carded at each venue. And some tracks opted to include graded stakes worth up to $250,000, while others carded $75,000 stakes.
In hindsight, Foreman said, “We thought it was probably a mistake to open on Preakness weekend. And graded stakes races are great, but they’re not great for the series. You get a different caliber of horse, and those [graded stakes horses] are generally going to go elsewhere; they’re not necessarily going to continue on in the series. This year, we wanted a competition where the horses in the region are going to stay in the series and contest the series, and give us something that you don’t see elsewhere in the industry.”
In fact, so few horses earned points in several of last year’s divisions that only $380,000 of the $450,000 in available bonus money got paid out because the rules state that a horse must participate in at least three races within its division to be eligible for a bonus.
“They didn’t earn enough points to qualify, and that’s something that we were scratching our heads about,” Foreman said. “Some of it had to do with the divisions we ran last year, and it was also because of the competition from graded stakes horses. We think we’ve fixed it this year in a way that we shouldn’t have that problem. Remember, we had five divisions last year. We’ll only have four this year. It’s not that we’ve reduced the bonus pool. It’s just that we have one less division.”
But the switch to standardization–four stakes of $100,000 apiece at each of the five participating tracks–means a reduction in both the number of races and overall purse money for the series. Last year, MATCH had 25 total races with $2.9 million in purses.
“We tried to make it level for everyone. We said let’s do 20 races, $100,000 each for $2 million in total purses,” Foreman said. “They’re all $100,000 races, they’re all stakes, and we’ve left it to the tracks to name those races, and doing it in a way that they’re not interfering or competing with their own stakes schedules or stakes at other tracks within the region.” (Like in 2018, the 2019 stakes money comes from each track’s own purse account.)
The four horse divisions have been streamlined as follows: 3YO & Up Sprint Dirt; 3YO & Up Sprint Turf; 3YO & Up Fillies and Mares Sprint Dirt; 3YO & Up Fillies and Mares Long Turf.
Presque Isle Downs, which participated last year, won’t be included in the 2019 MATCH series. The Maryland Jockey Club will be represented by Laurel only, and not Pimlico.
Foreman said one betting-related benefit of having four MATCH races at each track on a stand-alone showcase day will mean the likely addition of reduced-takeout Pick Fours on those respective cards. This is pending regulatory approval in each state, he added, but he believes such wagers are doable.
“We’re going to do little things, and we’re going to make them work. We’ll keep trying to innovate,” Foreman said. “I can’t overstate enough the level of cooperation that is required and put forth by the tracks and the horsemen to really make this thing work. We had some very close to irreconcilable issues that we thought might prevent the series from going forward this year. This is not simple. When you move days and change days that some tracks covet, it affects everybody in the region. It is a really significant collaborative effort.”
Foreman said one of the sticking points during 2019 negotiations was that having a “championship day” was “a condition of being in the series” for Monmouth.
“And then, in doing the schedule for this year, we thought, ‘Well, why can’t everybody have a big event day, and why don’t we sequence the races so we move from track to track, sort of what NASCAR does?’
“We thought it would be a scheduling nightmare. And it was incredibly difficult–but it worked. Everybody liked the idea of each track having a special day just for MATCH, which does conclude at Monmouth with a championship day. We think it will enhance the series, and it will be good for the horsemen, because they’ll be able to move from track to track.”
Foreman said another change is that last year, MATCH tracks paid for the series’s administration and advertising costs on a sliding scale that was not publicly disclosed.
“This year, they’re all paying the same,” Foreman said. “They’ve increased their contributions this year–they’ve doubled their marketing contributions–which I just think shows the confidence that they have in the series.”
In the spirit of recognizing that MATCH is an ongoing work in progress, Foreman said that its member organizations are already looking ahead to tweaks that might be implemented for 2020.
“We have a new [regional] player this year in Colonial Downs,” Foreman said, referencing the Virginia track that will be back in action for the first time since 2013. “We actually talked with them–they’re not far enough along yet with [planning] their summer meet, and we were too far along to include them in MATCH. But I think that you’ll see them in the series in 2020, so we’ll probably expand. We also talked to New York. That brings along a whole host of other [issues], but at least we’re having a conversation with them.”