Archive for Saratoga

Should Racing Strive For Quality Over Quantity to Improve Product???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Steven Crist of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Racing needs to improve its product and change with the times

Some of the most interesting remarks made at last Sunday’s Jockey Club Round Table on Matters Pertaining to Racing were on a topic sometimes overlooked at such industry gatherings: Matters actually pertaining to actual racing.

Martin Panza, nearly a year into his new position as the senior vice president of racing operations for the New York Racing Association, has already made a series of welcome changes to the game in New York – not in the frequently overemphasized areas of marketing or medication, but in the nuts and bolts of the racing product.

He has emphasized quality over quantity, banishing the 13-race Saratoga cards that used to overflow with turf sprints, maiden claimers, and complicated conditioned-claiming races.

“Race day schedules have to be reduced,” he told the assemblage in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “Our fans deserve and demand better wagering opportunities. If there is not a reduction in race days, then at the very least there must be a reduction in the number of races offered. The days of carding 11, 12, or 13 races may be over. They should be. It’s just not working.

“As our economic environment has changed, we need to reevaluate our circumstances and our strategies. Instead of scheduling cards with 11, 12, or 13 races, because that’s what we did last year, maybe it is time to look at the equation from the other side. How many races can we run on a given day and average eight, nine, or 10 horses per race? Set the standard from a requirement of what we want the product to look like, and then determine the amount of races that can be offered to meet that standard.”

Setting a standard for racing, rather than having it set for you purely by economics, is exactly the kind of attitude that makes our sport different from managing a casino floor. It’s been a while since anyone paid more than lip service to the idea of setting high standards for the sport of racing in New York, and now is the ideal time to be doing it.

Promoting quality over quantity sounds good, but doesn’t work if you can’t pay for it. When Monmouth Park went upscale with an “elite” meeting, everyone liked the boost in quality, but the increased business was not enough to offset the higher purses. The whole experiment turned into a massive giveaway that was discontinued after one year.

Due to its huge, casino-fueled purses – maiden races on Whitney Day were worth $98,000 – New York can afford to do the right things for racing instead of focusing entirely on the bottom line. Panza believes that the declining annual foal crop makes such changes necessary as well as desirable.

“It is difficult to maintain a quality racing program for the long term by running lower-level races,” he said. “The economics of ownership is not really sustainable with the lower-level purses.”

Rather than card as many five-horse fields as possible, he suggests, less could be more.

“Having spent most of my career in California, we enjoyed a certain amount of isolation from other racing circuits,” he said. “Now working on the East Coast, I am amazed at the amount of racetracks trying to compete with each other in such close proximity. With the foal crop situation, horsemen, owners, and racetrack operators may fare better with coordinated 60-day meets shared amongst three states rather than the current schedules being offered. Perhaps breeding programs could expand to tristate or multistate opportunities rather than remaining unique to each individual state.”

These are the kinds of ideas that are going to be necessary for the sport to survive, much less thrive and grow. An increasingly vocal and critical fan base is voting with its feet against smaller fields and higher takeout. Racing tends to spend more time worrying about abstract ideas about customer creation and retention rather than doing the best marketing of all – improving the product being sold.

“The game is undoubtedly going through a transitional period,” Panza acknowledged, but found some reason for optimism there:

“It seems to me with thought and proper planning, we may have an opportunity to reinvent ourselves.”



Geldings Ruling Racing in 2013

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jon White of…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
7. Obviously
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.


Saratoga: Where Racing Makes Sense

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Paul Moran of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

About Saratoga

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — If the racing landscape has in recent years taken on the look of a lunar typography, this is the antidote.

There is, for 40 days, life at the races.

Saratoga, in spirit, is oblivious to the many things that plague the racing business nowadays. Controversy and tumult, both real and the spawn of agenda-driven contrivance, has become pervasive. But, until Labor Day, we return to racing, horses, tradition, idyllic mornings shrouded in mist illuminated by first light and electric afternoons. Whatever strife, threat and nonsense that waits will be there in September.

For now, the conversation is about the pick-six, not the specter of misguided Federal meddling or the recent state takeover of the New York Racing Association for better (yeah, right) or more realistically and ominously for the worse. It’s about the upcoming pick-four, not debate over the efficacy of Lasix or the long-term ravages of corticosteroids. It’s about 2-year-olds who have revealed the tease of promise in the infancy of careers as yet undefined and about who might show up for the Travers now that I’ll Have Another and Union Rags are retired.. It’s about the midday fast-food decision — Hattie’s fried chicken, Pie on Wheels or the Shake Shack. It’s about the dominance of speed on turf courses hardened by an unquenched thirst for rain, the fact that open maiden races in New York now offer purses of $80,000 to $85,000 and the reality that the best party in town may be going on at a picnic in the backyard. It’s about the price of a cocktail at Siro’s and dinner tabs that rival the price of a used car. It’s about too many turf sprints and the best places to play golf on dark Tuesdays. It’s about finding a seat.

It’s still among the few places where a seersucker suit and bow tie doesn’t get a second look and people dress for the races. It’s about no one being surprised or minding that nothing, including plumbing, works on opening day. It’s about the guy with the Armani suit, yellow Gucci loafers and no socks attracting no attention whatsoever.

The nation’s oldest racetrack, for 40 days, is full of people having fun, dominated by a demographic far younger than the typical racing crowd and more deeply tanned. They are hunched over the Daily Racing Form in the morning at the sidewalk cafes on Broadway and on the porches of the bed-and-breakfasts along Union Avenue. They gather in the evenings to recount the day’s pari-mutuel triumphs and traumas over many cocktails. The daily average attendance at the track rivals the resident population of a town that no one visits only once.

The place has a pulse. It breathes. It makes a horseplayer smile.

Perhaps the people that make Saratoga Springs an obligatory summer destination spend the rest of the year sitting at computers, watching races on television and betting over the Internet, but an understanding of the Spa is at once shared and entirely personal. It demands attendance in the flesh. For the true fans of racing, it provides a renewed sense of what lured them to the track in the first place, a remembrance of things lost and gentler times past.

Hundreds of books have been written about the place but none has fully captured its essence. The experience — and Saratoga is truly an experience as much as a place — is more sensory than literary. Horses great and otherwise move at arm’s length among the gathered fans, a crowd that spans the socio-economic spectrum. The measure of social status, it is said, is access to grass after the perpetual motion of the crowd has by the meeting’s second week left most of the ground bare and hard. Grass survives mainly in the shaded paddock, where horses are sill saddled beneath century-old trees and entry is restricted in theory to owners and horsemen.

Jockeys walk among the patrons en-route to the paddock and upon return from races, an intimacy between participant and spectator replicated nowhere else in a sporting venue. Ramon Dominguez and John Velazquez walk in the footprints of Eddie Arcaro. A sense of elegance and history pervades. This is, after all, the once-bawdy playground of Eastern society and notorious gamblers, ground on which every important thoroughbred has run and scene of many of racing’s most stunning upsets. It is also near the scene of what is widely considered the pivotal battle of the American Revolution but that, for racing folk, is a footnote.

If only temporarily, the real world can be held at arm’s length, all life revolves around horses and the day’s racing. All spirits gathered here are kindred.

This is the sporting life as it should be. Yet, it is a short season always followed by an abrupt return to reality. This time, there is a lingering sense of dread pushed to the background but inevitably confronted: Can racing in New York — even in the throes of unprecedented prosperity, survive the state’s government?

There are, after all, no sure things.

But that is best left until September.


Del Mar Joins Saratoga, Limits Field Size for Two Year Old Races This Summer

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jeff Nahill of The North County Times…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Del Mar to limit entries in juvenile maiden races

A day after the New York Racing Association announced it would limit the number of starters in 2-year-old maiden races this summer, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and the Thoroughbred Owners of California reached a similar agreement Wednesday.

NYRA said it would allow eight 2-year-olds in maiden sprint races at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., hoping to have “more cleanly run events” and “more high-quality races.” In the past, 2-year-old races could have as many as 12 horses.

Del Mar will limit the number of starters to 10 in maiden sprint and route races. The new rule won’t apply for stakes races.

“I have been trying to get Del Mar to do it for years,” trainer Bob Baffert said by email Wednesday. “It’s a great idea. Young horses can’t develop as well in large fields.”

Tom Robbins, Del Mar’s executive vice president, racing/racing secretary, said the TOC approached him three or four years ago to reduce the field for 2-year-olds, but it was never approved by the TOC.

“Del Mar has been OK with it, but it was not passed by the TOC,” Robbins said.

That changed on Wednesday.

“(We) have agreed to limit the number of starters in all maiden 2-year-old races to 10,” TOC president Lou Raffetto Jr. wrote in an email, “with the understanding that all such races with 16 shall be split as long as it does not stop another book race from going.”

Raffetto said the TOC planned to agree to the change before New York announced its new rules.

Robbins said Del Mar couldn’t unilaterally put in a rule without “dealing with the owners and trainers in the state.” He said limiting fields to 10 2-year-olds seemed to be a perfect compromise.

“What if you said eight and the ninth or 10th horse didn’t get in?” Robbins said. “You have a lot of mad people.”

Oceanside’s Jeffrey Bloom, whose Bloom Racing LLC owns five 2-year-olds in syndication, thinks the change will have little effect.

“Sure it’s nice to have a shorter field,” Bloom said, “but I don’t see a need to go lower than 10. I don’t think it will have a significant impact.

“To have fewer than 10 could be a problem. It’s not rare to have two or three scratches in a 2-year-old race due to sickness or injury. You could be down to five or six horses.

“A lot of 2-year-olds have some experience (by the time the Del Mar meet is run) so traffic in race is a standard part of racing.”

Del Mar’s implementation of the new rule could affect the track’s profit. Races with more horses usually generate a higher betting handle. Still, Robbins said Del Mar is willing to take that risk.

“We have never had a problem with that,” Robbins said. “Everyone is aware of it and on board. It’s all good.”

Del Mar runs from July 18 to Sept. 5.

CORRECTION: In the original posting of this story, it was stated that Tom Robbins approached the TOC about reducing the field for 2-year-olds. However, the TOC approached Robbins. We apologize.


Is Strength in the Auction Sector Indicative of Strength in the Racing Industry???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Tom Law of The Saratogian…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Strong Auctions Mean Strong Industry

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The positive gains recorded earlier this month inside the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion on the Fasig-Tipton Co. sales grounds were felt not only in Saratoga Springs, but throughout the industry that has realized more than its share of disastrous outcomes at its public auctions over the last several years.

To recap, both of Fasig-Tipton’s auctions in Saratoga posted positive results. The first bit of good news, and easily the most significant of the two bright spots, came during the two-day sale of selected yearlings on Aug. 8-9. Bolstered by the purchases of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the select sale record gains of 1.2% for total sales ($32.9 million), 15.9% for average price ($319,340), and 4.2% for median ($250,000).

Five days after the select sale, the New York-breds got their chance to shine. The preferred New York-bred sale posted near-record results and increases of 83% for total sales ($6,725,000), 38.7% for average price ($54,238), and 16.7% for median ($35,000).

So what exactly do the results of the Saratoga sales, combined with similarly positive returns at Fasig-Tipton’s Kentucky July yearling sale, mean?

Simply put, the overall strength of the country’s Thoroughbred auctions is often a good indicator of the industry’s strength.

To further back up that statement, look back 75 years back to be exact, and read a quote from the late and noted Turf writer Charles Brossman that appeared in the Aug. 29, 1936 issue of The Thoroughbred Record to see what positive results at Saratoga mean for the industry.

Brossman noted after an especially productive year of selling at Saratoga, when the total sales mark was greater than $1 million for the first time in history, that the “price of yearlings at the Saratoga sale is always an index to the condition of the Turf in America.”

The differences between 1936 and 2011 are certainly great, considering that 75 years ago the mammoth Keeneland September sale did not even exist, never mind hold such a prominent position that it does today. But still, the results of the first three major yearling sales of the season hold promise for better things to come or at least some more stability.

Two more important tests loom in advance of the September sale, the first opening today in Ocala with the OBS August yearling sale and then again next week when the Fasig-Tipton Texas sale is conducted at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie. Those two auctions, much like the preferred New York-bred sale, are regional markets and offer largely middle-market-type yearlings, or horses priced in the $25,000 to $75,000 range.

They also often do not attract the nation’s larger and more prominent racing operations, something the New York-bred sale was able to do thanks almost entirely to the onset of the launch of alternative gaming at Aqueduct later this year.

The idea of slots-enhanced purses at New York Racing Association tracks brought buyers out in droves. They liked what they saw, and backed it up with plenty of bidding on August 13-14.

When all was said and done, 22 yearlings passed through the ring for prices of $100,000 or more, compared to just four a year ago.

The good times, indeed, have returned.

Now the challenge is for the good times to continue.

Stay tuned.