This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jennie Rees of The Courier-Journal…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Churchill Downs’ fall meet left a lot to be desired
The final three days — with progressively warmer weather, good and enthusiastic crowds and terrific stakes — let the meet end on a very high note.
But make no mistake: This was a bad meet for Churchill Downs.
Usually the fall meet smooths over the ills of the spring meet, when competition for horses is brutal and the short fields show it. Louisville is a great autumn stopping point for one more race before the breeding shed or before heading south for the winter.
Usually the fields are full, the daily racing has a lot of quality and there is a happy buzz throughout the meet. Kentucky horse racing’s ongoing implosion is easy to ignore until Turfway Park opens.
Not this year. I’ve never seen a fall meet met with less enthusiasm.
True, there was some cold and soggy weather. That happens in November in Kentucky.
Could it have been that the new September meet kept Louisvillians from embracing the traditional fall session as being special, since they’d gone only three weeks without live racing?
Then there was the racing itself. Some of the allowance races, 2-year-old maiden races and stakes showcased top-flight horses. But the daily fodder was increasingly bleak, dominated by cheaper claiming races and often with more than half the card being maiden races. Too many had short fields.
Much of it stems from the competitive disadvantage that Kentucky racing has been in the last 20 years as other tracks in the region siphon off horses with purses boosted by slot machines.
Add in this: During the meet, Keno started locally and is proving very popular in South Louisville, a horse racing stronghold. That is only more competition for the gaming dollar.
Still, some of the malaise was self-inflicted.
Churchill unilaterally bumped purses for its new September meet far above what horsemen expected to run for, at the same time assuring trainers and owners that the November racing would not be impacted.
When Churchill’s projections were off, daily average purses for November were reduced 22 percent from 2012 — a huge hit even given that there were four more racing days. For the first time in memory, purses at the Churchill Downs Inc.-owned Fair Grounds were better than those at Churchill’s fall meet.
The week-plus overlap with Fair Grounds exacerbated matters. I never saw so many empty stalls and barns with almost two weeks left in the meet.
It’s stunning that average field size was still as high as 8.84, down from 9.56 during the 21-date meet of 2012. That’s with 20 of 52 scheduled grass races taken off the turf.
Churchill can’t help the weather, but it can help how it treats customers. The track has run off fans through actions such as eliminating the Twin Spires Club that let members get in for a buck. It hasn’t helped that Louisvillians who have had Derby boxes for decades find them taken away, moved or made into prohibitively expensive Personal Seat Licenses. This certainly is Churchill’s right, but it doesn’t foster fan loyalty.
Many fans disliked being shoehorned into The Parlay for offseason simulcasting.
Take Howard Lerner, who has been going to Churchill for 60 years. Part of his discontent this fall was that too many horses who didn’t figure to were winning and too many who seemed like locks were up the track.
“I have never, ever, in all the years I’ve been following it had less interest in what is going on at Churchill Downs than I have right now,” the Gold Room and Turf Club member said. “My views are that the management of Churchill Downs wants to run everybody off.
“For instance, how can you invite somebody to spend an entire day with you to bet simulcast racing and not provide a hamburger for them? The food is absolutely horrible. They offer you premade sandwiches. ‘Take it or leave it. And if you don’t like it, go home and bet on Twinspires.com.’ ”
Lerner is among those who believe that discouraged simulcast bettors now are staying home during live racing.
The $1 draft beer and hot dogs on closing day were nice. Ellis Park does that every Sunday.
Something needs to be done about Sundays. Nobody was there, and it didn’t look like the Family Fun Days did any business at all. I know NFL Sunday Ticket is exorbitant for big facilities, but how do the big sports bars make it work?
Trying to predict kickoff for the University of Louisville’s Saturday home games is impossible. So why not schedule night racing when the Cardinals are on the road or playing on a weeknight?
Why no on-track handicapping contest? Those brought in people who bet the races live.
Churchill and its corporate management might think they do a lot for the average fan — their consumers — but those I hear from just don’t see it. Perception becomes reality in such a competitive landscape.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jay Hovdey of DRF.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Mieszerski has melancholy job of promoting Hollywood as it closes
It’s a melancholy job, and it could get to a person if they let it – dwelling on the last running of the Hollywood Gold Cup, the last Californian, the last in a long line of historic Hollywood Derbies. But somebody has to be in charge of spreading the word through traditional and social media as Hollywood Park nears the end of its 75-year run, and who better to do it than Bob Mieszerski.
In his role as the last in a respected lineage of Hollywood Park publicity directors – including Bob Benoit, Nat Wess, Jim Peden, and Mike Mooney – Mieszerski has plowed ahead in these final months as if Hollywood is still the only game in town, which it is, at least until the last fan leaves the house on the afternoon of Dec. 22.
“It’s certainly sad, but when I got this job I was happy and grateful for the opportunity, and I knew this day would eventually come,” Mieszerski said. “Of course, I hoped it would be later rather than sooner.”
Mieszerski is no different from most racing fans. His most vivid experience came at an early age in the company of family, in July 1977, and it just happened to take place at Hollywood Park.
“My grandfather was big into racing, and my grandparents were visiting from New York,” Mieszerski said. “It was when Seattle Slew came to Hollywood after winning the Triple Crown. Of course, my grandfather wanted to go, so there we were, sitting way at the end of the grandstand. The build-up to his appearance was so great, and there was such an incredible atmosphere being one of the 68,000-plus here that day.”
Mieszerski was 20 and had just started working as a copy boy for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the “we try harder” afternoon paper in a market dominated by the Los Angeles Times.
Fortunately, Mieszerski’s ambitions were aimed higher. Within the year, his handicapping skills found a home in the selection box alongside such racing household names as Gordon Jones and Jerry Antonucci. By 1985 Mieszerski was the racing reporter on the beat. In 1986 he covered his first Kentucky Derby – won by L.A. hometown heroes Ferdinand, Bill Shoemaker, and Charlie Whittingham – and in 1987 he was at Belmont Park for the paper when Alysheba tried to win the Triple Crown. Later that year, Mieszerski was on the scene at Hollywood Park for a rare meeting of Derby winners when Ferdinand faced down Alysheba in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“The Herald Examiner was very big into racing when I started,” Mieszerski said. “One of the first times I came to the press box at Hollywood Park was just a weekday afternoon. There were six or seven Herald Examiner people there, including Gordon, Jerry, Allan Malamud, Jack Disney. Racing was a big part of their lives.”
As a survivor, the unflappable Mieszerski takes a backseat to no one. In 1989 he was about to get on a plane bound for the Breeders’ Cup in Miami when he got word that his paper had folded. Within days he was hired as lead handicapper and reporter at the Los Angeles Times. When the Times eventually scaled back its racing coverage and downsized its sports staff, Mieszerski eventually found a home at Hollywood Park, beginning the spring of 2010.
“Working here when Zenyatta won another Vanity and then her final California appearance later that year in the Lady’s Secret – those were almost like the old days,” Mieszerski said. “The crowds may not have been as large as in the past, but for her they were just as intense.”
Now, in these waning hours of Hollywood Park, Mieszerski lords over a large press box built for big-time events but now home to only a handful of regulars. There probably will be a few extra media mouths to feed this weekend, when Saturday’s program includes potentially entertaining runnings of the Generous Stakes and the Miesque Stakes for 2-year-olds on turf, while Sunday’s card is topped by one last Matriarch for fillies and mares and the 72nd and final running of the Hollywood Derby.
All that’s old hat as far as publicity is concerned. The real story is the closure of the racetrack, and Mieszerski has had plenty of interest.
“I’ve tried to act like it’s just another meet,” he said. “I have a job to do, and hopefully we can get some coverage on some of the bigger races. You do get a little more interest knowing the track is going away. John Branch is here for the New York Times to write about the closing. The L.A. Weekly has a feature coming out. People will say, ‘Oh, it’s going away. We’d better get out there.’ That’s just human nature, and as we get closer to the end there will be more people interested.
“I wasn’t a Raiders or a Rams fan, but I understand the agony of a team leaving town,” Mieszerski added. “It’s somewhat like that. As far as people are concerned Hollywood Park has always been here. The seasons were the same every year. And now for that to suddenly change is going to be very different, and very . . . strange. That’s the best way I can describe it.”
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Steve Crist of DRF.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
There’s one Eclipse Award where Wise Dan is not best choice
Secretariat. Forego. Affirmed. John Henry. Cigar. Curlin. Wise Dan?
Come January, the question mark will be gone and Wise Dan will join those six as the only horses to win more than one Horse of the Year title since the Eclipse Awards began in 1972.
(If you want to travel back to the pre-Eclipse days of Horse of the Year polls that began in 1936, you can add Challedon [1939-40], Whirlaway [1941-42], Native Dancer [1952 and 1954], and Kelso [1960-64] to the list.)
Wise Dan’s second such title is about the same price as the sun’s rising in the east tomorrow. Game On Dude would have wrested the trophy from the 2012 Horse of the Year with a Classic victory, and Princess of Sylmar would have made it a horse race had she won the Distaff. However, when those two finished ninth and sixth, respectively, at Santa Anita last weekend, while Wise Dan won his second straight Breeders’ Cup Mile, the voting for the sport’s top award became a formality.
Two days after the Cup, Wise Dan got 53 of the 56 (95 percent) votes in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s weekly poll, suggesting this year’s landslide may be even greater than the 2012 version, when he received 194 of the 250 (78 percent) actual ballots cast.
In some ways, Wise Dan fits right in with the other multiple winners. His 19 career victories are the same number as Cigar’s, and more than Curlin or Secretariat, and his $6.2 million in earnings put him fourth among the seven (behind Curlin’s $10.5 million, Cigar’s $9.99 million, and John Henry’s $6.59 million, but more than Secretariat, Forego, and Affirmed combined to win in the 1970s.) His seven Grade 1 victories in 2012 and 2013 are a smidge light but the same number that Curlin posted in 2007 and 2008.
The primary differences, and probably the ones that make some old-school types a tad reluctant to put him in such exalted company, relate to surface and distance. Wise Dan will be the first multiple Eclipse Horse of the Year who did not win a race at 10 furlongs or more during one of his championship seasons, or a dirt race of any kind.
He’s not the first to win the award twice with a predominantly grass campaign: John Henry won nine Grade 1 races during his 1981 and 1984 Horse of the Year campaigns, and seven of those nine were on the grass. (Curlin and Secretariat each tried grass only once, Cigar was 1 for 11 on it before he got good, and Affirmed and Forego never touched the stuff.)
I have no hesitation about voting for Wise Dan as Horse of the Year and champion turf male, but I will be looking elsewhere for champion older male. Those who take the name of that award too literally will argue that the Horse of the Year must by definition win any other category in which he is a contender, but to me that title really means best main-track older horse.
There is precedent for awarding the older male Eclipse to a horse other than a grass-based Horse of the Year who happens to be an older male. In fact, Wise Dan was the first such horse to win the older male award, largely because there were no dominant older dirt males last year. When John Henry won his second Horse of the Year in 1984 without a grass victory, the older male title went to Slew o’ Gold. When all-grass Kotashaan won the big prize in 1993, the Eclipse for older male went to Bertrando.
Last year there was a stronger case for Wise Dan as best older male on grounds of versatility – he had a runaway synthetic-track victory in the Ben Ali and a narrow defeat in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster on dirt to go along with his four grass triumphs. This year, he lost his only non-grass start when he finished second to Silver Max after the Shadwell Turf Mile was rained onto the main track.
So with eight weeks until ballots are due, I’m leaning towards voting for Wise Dan as Horse of the Year and top turf male, but for Game On Dude as champion older male. Before his Classic misfire, he was 3 for 3 on dirt and 2 for 2 on synthetics and swept California’s three biggest races for older males – the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic, all at 1 1/4 miles. Wise Dan’s a worthy and inevitable Horse of the Year again, but there’s still an appropriate way to honor the horse who had the best season at classic distances on the main track.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Bob Ehalt of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Paynter Looks For Hollywood Ending
Hollywood is the place where dreams or storybook tales can come to life.
That’s why it’s so fitting that on Nov. 2 a horse named Paynter will run in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita, a track within a relatively short driving distance of Tinseltown — traffic permitting, of course.
The story of Paynter belongs in Hollywood. Even now, when the events of his tumultuous past year and a half have been widely celebrated, they seem more fiction than fact.
Far more absurd is the notion — about a year removed from an illness that nearly claimed the life of the Zayat Stable colt — that he could beat the nation’s best horses in the year’s richest race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Then again, it’s all taking place in the shadow of Hollywood.
“This could be the biggest fairy-tale story anyone could ever imagine,” says 21-year-old Justin Zayat, son of Paynter’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, and racing manager for his father’s stable.
Go back to late summer of last year, though, and this heartwarming tale seemed certain to be written as a tragedy.
At the time Paynter was making a big name for himself. In just his fifth career start, he finished second by a neck in the Belmont Stakes. Then on July 29, he won the Haskell by nearly four lengths and was poised to fill the leadership void in the 3-year-old ranks caused by the sudden retirement of I’ll Have Another.
Soon thereafter, however, Paynter was diagnosed with colic and then laminitis — two potentially fatal diseases — as an army of fans used social media like Twitter and Facebook to express their support for him. It seemed a long shot that he would survive, and preposterous that he would ever race again. But before the year ended, he was back at trainer Bob Baffert’s barn.
“The fans have been there for him every step through the process,” Justin Zayat says. “That’s what kept us going during the low days. It’s just unbelievable, with the tweets, the messages, the postcards we get. Every one of them counts.”
Paynter’s comeback started with a win in a June 14 allowance race at Hollywood Park. A runner-up finish in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar followed, but a disturbing last-place finish in the mud in the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga prompted concern that too much might have been asked of the 4-year-old colt.
A solid second in the Awesome Again — Santa Anita’s steppingstone prep for the BC Classic — dispelled those thoughts. Though he was beaten 4¼ lengths by Mucho Macho Man, the runner-up in last year’s BC Classic and a top contender in this year’s race, Paynter endured a wide trip that enhanced his performance and punched his ticket to the Classic.
“He’s doing fantastic. He should move forward off a good effort in the Awesome Again and is poised for a big race,” Justin Zayat says. “From Day One in bringing him back, our goal was the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile would have been easier, but Paynter gets better the farther he runs. He’s a classic horse. He lost the Belmont Stakes by a neck so a mile and a quarter should be no issue for him. I think he’ll relish the mile and a quarter.”
While destiny would seem to be aligned with the charismatic Paynter, victory will not come easily for him.
His rivals in the Classic include leading Horse of the Year contender Game On Dude, plus last year’s BC Classic winner Fort Larned. Older stars Ron the Greek, the Jockey Club Gold Cup winner and Flat Out plus 3-year-old stars Palace Malice and Will Take Charge add even more quality to the sport’s deepest and most talented field of the year.
Were Paynter to beat all of them, after all he has endured, it would produce the kind of moment that would be fondly remembered for years to come.
“If he could win, it would be great, not just for my family, but for the whole sport,” Justin Zayat said. “It would be a great story, like when Zenyatta won the Breeders’ Cup Classic [in 2009]. I was there at Santa Anita when she did it, and the stands were shaking. It was the craziest feeling I’ve had in my life, but if Paynter wins the Classic, it has the potential to match that.”
Beyond that, it would be a perfect story for the folks in Hollywood.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jennie Rees of Courier-Journal…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
A rule that needs to be scratched (well, actually, rewritten to exempt stakes)
A bizarre Kentucky regulation required the scratch of Console in Friday’s Phoenix, with Medal Count and Oogley Eye to be scratched by the stewards from Saturday’s Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland.
Here’s what happened: The regulation requires a horse who is on the “also-eligible” list for a race that overfills, then is entered in and gets in the body of another race, will automatically be scratched from the race in which it is on the AE list (akin to a waiting list). Such rules almost always apply only to overnight races, not stakes. But the Kentucky regulation makes no exception for stakes, where owners pay nomination, entry and starting fees to run.
As it turns out, there were scratches in the Phoenix and expected defections in the Breeders’ Futurity, so the horses would have gotten to run in those races. But one doesn’t know that going in. And because Bill Mott entered Console in Saturday’s Woodford turf sprint, and Dale Romans entered Medal Count and Oogley Eye in Sunday’s Bourbon on turf as back-up plans, they unwittingly put themselves in positions to be scratched from the races in which they really wanted to compete.
The irony (and what makes this particularly galling) is that horses who get in the body of two stakes can run in either. Example: Hogy being scratched from the Phoenix to run in Saturday’s Shadwell. And trainer Todd Pletcher double-entered Intense Holiday in both the Breeders’ Futurity and today’s Champagne in New York, with the colt running in the Champagne – which otherwise would have made room for one of Romans’ horses.
But trainers who are entering their horses in other spots to ensure they get a chance to run are penalized, as are their owners.
And this is serious business this time of the year, with so many of these races “Win and You’re In” challenge events where the winners get their entry fees paid to the Breeders’ Cup. Including the Phoenix and Breeders’ Futurity.
Yes, those horses still have a shot to run (and in Breeders’ Cup challenge races) but not in the race that their trainers obviously thought suited them best. What are they supposed to do? Not enter another stakes, hoping for a scratch that might not come?
Chief state steward Barbara Borden said the stewards must apply the rule as written, and that it’s clear that the horses must be scratched. Romans argued that another reg exempts stakes, but Borden said that applies only to race preference lists, which are different from also-eligible lists.
“The rule doesn’t exclude stakes,” she said, showing a reporter the rule.
She said the stewards will ask the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to review the regulation. “It’s a rule that definitely needs to be reviewed, and we will put in our two cents in as to what it should say,” she said.
Those two cents no doubt will be two words: add “except stakes.”
This bad rule was exposed because of Keeneland’s full stakes fields, the fact that there is so much crossover between Polytrack and grass racing, and that Keeneland had stakes for both surfaces so close together.
Making it worse, Console had already gotten his Lasix medication four hours before post time, and then was scratched.
No doubt it was an oversight by those who drafted/wrote/fine-tuned the regulation. But it’s still highly embarrassing to get its major flaw uncovered on one of the biggest racing weekend’s in Kentucky. The good thing is that the high-profile nature means the rule has the best chance to get corrected, quickly.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jon White of Xpressbet.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
The Dude and Dan
How truly wonderful it is that two outstanding geldings, Game On Dude and Wise Dan, are gracing the racing stage this year.
The good news is Game On Dude and Wise Dan are a combined nine for nine so far this year. The bad news is The Dude and Dan have made a total of 51 career starts between them, yet they have never run against each other. Not only that, as it stands right now, Game On Dude and Wise Dan will not clash anytime during the remainder of the year.
Game On Dude, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, is headed to the Grade I, $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at 1 1/4 miles on dirt at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 2 following his record 8 1/2-length victory in Del Mar’s Pacific Classic on Aug. 25.
Wise Dan, conditioned by Charlie LoPresti, is headed to the Grade I, $1 million Woodbine Mile on turf Sept. 15 after he won Saratoga’s Grade II Fourstardave Handicap on Aug. 10. After the Woodbine Mile, Wise Dan is scheduled to run in the Grade I, $2 million Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita on Nov. 2, a race he won last year in course record time.
The two best geldings in the sport today again are ranked first and second nationally. Here is this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll (with the number of first-place votes in parenthesis):
1. Game On Dude (32)
2. Wise Dan (15)
3. Royal Delta
4. Cross Traffic
5. Point of Entry
6. Princess of Sylmar
8. Sahara Sky
9. Flat Out
10. Palace Malice
While Game and Dude and Wise Dan are exceptional, they certainly have not yet come close to compiling a body of work that reaches the same level of greatness achieved by Kelso in the 1960s, Forego in the 1970s or John Henry in the 1980s.
Kelso was voted five Horse of the Year titles, Forego three and John Henry two.
Wise Dan has a single Horse of the Year to his credit. He was voted 2012 Horse of the Year and is in the running for a second such title this year. Game On Dude has never been voted Horse of the Year, but he also is in the running for the title this year.
On my list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th and 21st Centuries, Kelso is No. 4 (behind Man o’ War, Secretariat and Citation), Forego is No. 13 and John Henry is No. 22.
On this date (Sept. 4) in 1959, Kelso won a six-furlong maiden sprint at Atlantic City to begin his distinguished career. How great was Kelso? What Kelso would go on to pull off would be comparable to a contemporary horse winning five consecutive Breeders’ Cup Classics, with a Breeders’ Cup Turf triumph thrown in for good measure.
Kelso won the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Breeders’ Cup Classic of its day, for five straight years. In 1964, Kelso also captured the Washington, D.C., International, forerunner of the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
Regarding weight, Kelso carried 130 pounds or more 24 times. He twice won under 136 pounds (once in the 1961 Brooklyn Handicap, the other time in a 1964 handicap race at Aqueduct).
Forego also carried 130 pounds or more 24 times. He toted a staggering 137 pounds when victorious in the 1976 Marlboro Cup Handicap while spotting 18 pounds to runner-up Honest Pleasure.
Horses today rarely pack 130 pounds or more. One reason for this is many of the races a Wise Dan or Game On Dude run in today are no longer handicaps.
Excluding sprints, no horse has carried 130 pounds or more in a graded stakes race on American soil since Skip Away’s victory under 131 pounds in the Grade II Philip H. Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park on Aug. 30, 1998.
Wise Dan won this year’s Fourstardave Handicap while carrying 129 pounds. That is the highest weight he has ever shouldered. The highest weight Game On Dude has ever carried is 127 pounds when he won this year’s Hollywood Gold Cup.
Forego not only was an admirable weight carrier, he was quite versatile in terms of distances. In 1974, Forego had the class and stamina to win the 1 1/2-mile Woodward and two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. That same year, he also had the class and speed to win the seven-furlong Carter Handicap and seven-furlong Vosburgh Handicap. In the Carter, Forego defeated a formidable foe in Mr. Prospector. In the Vosburgh, Forego carried 131 pounds and posted an excellent final time of 1:21 3/5.
John Henry never carried more than 130 pounds. He carried 130 pounds only three times.
Because John Henry became so immensely popular, tracks from coast to coast desperately wanted him. An appearance by John Henry meant a significant increase in attendance and handle. Cognizant of this, John Henry’s trainer, Ron McAnally, let it be known that the lower the weight assigned to John Henry, the better chance a track had to get him to race there.
It is my belief that keeping more than 130 pounds off 1981 Horse of the Year John Henry was a major reason he was still so effective late in his career, unlike Kelso and Forego. Remarkably, John Henry was voted a second Horse of the Year title at the age of 9 in 1984. As a 9-year-old, John Henry won six of nine starts, with four of his victories coming at the Grade I level.
Compare that to what Kelso and Forego did at 9 after carrying so much weight earlier in their careers.
When Kelso was 9, he made only one start. He finished fourth in an allowance race at Hialeah Park.
When Forego was 9, he made just two starts. He won an allowance race at Belmont, then ran fifth under 132 pounds on a sloppy track in the Grade I Suburban Handicap at that track.
Game On Dude and Wise Dan are each 6. Considering neither of them has yet to carry as much as 130 pounds, hopefully they both still will be racing — and winning — as 9-year-olds in the year 2016.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Paul Moran of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Saturation at Saratoga
There was a time when trainers and owners took a hard look at their animals before making the decision on whether or not the trip to Saratoga was prudent.
Promising 2-year-olds would not be left behind at Belmont Park or Aqueduct. Saratoga is the perfect showcase for fast youth. Stakes horses with summer objectives, those with available allowance conditions and those at the upper end of the claiming food chain would find opportunity at the Spa.
But this was no place to bring horses running at the lowest claiming levels and certainly not maidens already being offered for sale in claiming races. There would be no opportunity. Saratoga was a boutique meeting, not a consignment shop.
Even as the meeting was expanded from 24 days to 30, 36 and, now 40 days, the quality of the product was closely guarded. This, however, is lost in 21st Century Saratoga. There is at times little discernible difference between some races that find a place on a Saratoga racing program and their counterparts at Finger Lakes, Monmouth, Delaware Park or Parx Racing. Nowadays, there is no such thing as a New York-based horse too cheap for Saratoga.
On Thursday, Aug. 1, an 11-race card that began with two steeplechases included two races for maiden claimers and four other claiming races. By the time horses left the paddock for the 10th, a $20,000 claimer and absolutely unessential, most of the crowd was gone. This was not an isolated incident. Too many cheap races do nothing to keep people from leaving. In fact, it often hastens their departure.
There is simply too much product at Saratoga and much of it does not measure up. Saratoga is ideally an enclave for the equine elite, not a fortress of low-grade pari-mutuel fodder.
The sheer length of the racing day — 10 or more on most weekdays, as many as 12 on weekends, six days a week — is debilitating to all involved and the races being used to senselessly bloat these programs do not belong here. This is about special horses and those with the potential to become special. Yet, established mediocrity is not seen by the New York Racing Association as a negative. Now, if a horse can walk to the paddock, there will be opportunity to run at Saratoga.
Not that long ago, there were no maiden claiming races carded here. They are now plentiful and do nothing to enhance the Saratoga experience. There is more than ample opportunity to run these bottom-level horses at Aqueduct and Belmont. For six weeks, this should be a class act, top to bottom. While the biggest names in racing are present and accounted for, too many cheap horses are permitted to run here in the misguided interest of elongating the daily product until the last 10-cent superfecta wager is placed.
This is entirely counterproductive. The belief that more races regardless of quality results in greater betting handle is fallacious. It has long been established that bettors risk more on high-quality races than on those run for lower-level animals. According to Equibase, U.S. betting handle in July was essentially flat year over year despite a 2.87 percent decline in racing days. This trend has been well established in recent years. Money available to be bet remains constant regardless of the number of opportunities offered and an unwelcomed test of endurance does nothing to hold a crowd.
Complaints during and after the 2012 meeting about the length and suffering overall quality of a day at the races here brought some hope of a more reasonable approach but have apparently fallen upon deaf ears. More than 60 races a week exceed, by far, demand for the product, the public attention span and the limits of staff and employees. By the end of this meeting on Labor Day, NYRA will have run more races in 40 days than should be run in 50.
In the main, the racing here has been contentious and entertaining for all the reasons expected at a Saratoga meeting. But neither of those qualities is dependent upon overly long programs and a six-day racing week. Too much of anything becomes tiresome and there is far too much racing here.
Altering the racing program would take little creativity. Simply eliminate maiden claiming races. That would trim much of the excess. Elevate that bottom claiming level to $35,000. Nine races on a weekday are more than sufficient. Another race or two on weekends is acceptable. But much of what NYRA is now offering the bettors and more casual fans at Saratoga is not only below expectations but insulting. It is certainly not creating an improved entertainment experience at the Spa.
Saratoga is about high-class racing supporting top-class racing. It is not about maiden claimers. That’s why there are tracks in Canandaigua, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. These would be happy to accommodate horses not up to Saratoga snuff. Sadly, there is no longer such a thing as Saratoga snuff.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?