Martin Panza, who put together the spectacular Belmont Stakes card and is inaugurating the Stars & Stripes Festival next weekend, also wants to restore Saratoga to its proper place as the home of the finest racing in America. Toward that end, the NYRA executive is shortening cards by eliminating cheap races, which have detracted from the image of the Spa in recent years. Also, those trumpeting the TV ratings of the World Cup as a sign that soccer is the next big thing in America, should take a moment to compare the tune-in to that of the Belmont Stakes of "that dying sport of racing."



MIAMI, June 25, 2014--Martin Panza for Racing’s Man of the Year.

NYRA’s senior vice president for racing operations keeps outdoing himself. He created the greatest non-Breeders’ Cup card ever on Belmont Stakes Day.

On July 5, he’s laying the groundwork for a new international turf event, a worthy complement to the Arlington Million carnival, with the first Stars and Stripes Festival.

His next venture might be his boldest and most laudable of all. He’s endeavoring to return Saratoga to what it used to be.

Panza announced Monday that quality will trump quantity at the Spa when the season opens July 18. About 15 to 20 fewer flat races will be presented in an effort to “try to bring back what Saratoga used to be,” the gold standard for the finest in quality racing.

This hasn’t been the case in recent years. The priority degenerated to jamming in as many races as possible to build the bottom line. It didn’t matter that many were woeful collections of cheap, formless, chronic losers, whose only merit is there are so many of them it was easy to fill fields.

Employing refreshingly candid language, Panza said, “I’m not writing all those cheap claimers.” He singled out non-winners of two on the turf and bottom level maiden claimers on the turf. “If they want more races, then that’s what you have to run.”

In recent years, these races, more appropriate for snowy weekdays on Aqueduct's inner track, not only diluted the quality racing that used to be Saratoga’s hallmark, they were strategically placed within the Pick 6 to enhance the likelihood of a carryover.

Panza’s plan is to run only nine races on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, although the latter two afternoons also will feature a jump race to open the card. However, the up-and-down set will be segregated from the traditional program with a 12:25 post time, 35 minutes ahead of the normal 1 p.m. first post. The jumpers also will be omitted from the Pick 5, which will start with the first flat race.

Panza is remaining flexible on Friday, Saturday and Sunday cards. Ten races will be the target on Sunday. However, an extra race or two might be added to extend the program to accommodate the time slots set aside for three live Fox Sports telecasts.

Saturday, which draws the biggest on-track crowds and simulcast participation, also will feature additional races, according to Panza.He can't be faulted for that. Racing is a business. If there are enough “extras” that fill, he said, they also will be used on Friday.

Twilight cards on Friday have been eliminated at the behest of local restaurants, who contend the later final race negatively impacts their dinner business.

Ten or 11 race Friday cards could be a win-win compromise. Fans would still be released to downtown Saratoga an hour sooner than they would be with twilight racing. Meanwhile the extra race or two could be an incentive for those driving up from New York City or other distant locales to get an early start on their weekend at the Spa. An opportunity to catch the final four or five races is more inviting than rushing to make the final two or three—especially when the last race isn’t the garbage heat it has been.

Perhaps paving the way for another dramatic revision to the Saratoga season, Panza responded to questions about the potential negative impact to the total handle from fewer races by pointing out that Del Mar produced more revenue after reducing its weekly agenda from six days to five.

Given the declining foal crops and overly conservative training methods in vogue, a five-day week at Saratoga has had its advocates for several years. Saratoga remains the only major thoroughbred meeting that sustains a six-day agenda. But this is a debate for another year.

Panza isn’t promising an overnight transformation. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he said. The racing programs at Saratoga have been deteriorating for too many years to restore their former glory in one season.

But the mere fact that he is making the effort to take steps in that direction makes him the Man of the Year. If he gets it done, he’ll be the Man of the Millennium.

World Cup is no Belmont Stakes

Soccer enthusiasts are going ga-ga over the attention the World Cup, especially Team America, has generated in the United States.

“Footbol” buffs and trend searching media are swooning over the 18.2 million viewers who tuned in to the U.S. 2-2 tie with Portugal on Sunday. This made it the most watched soccer game in U.S. TV history. This is a harbinger of soccer joining football, baseball and basketball as a major American sport, they argue.

Some of the same folks will tell you that thoroughbred racing is a dying sport. But let’s look at the facts.

All Sunday’s World Cup game would have needed was another 2.4 million viewers to match the 20.6 million in the TV audience for the Belmont Stakes--and this wasn’t the all-time high for the third jewel of the Triple Crown. That distinction is held by the 2004 Belmont, when 21.9 Americans tuned in to watch Smarty Jones go for the Triple Crown.

Funny, I don’t hear any soccer fans saying the World Cup needs to be tinkered with and fixed.

Colorado track offers no drugs bonus

I won’t be so vain to suggest last week’s column triggered an action that could be the start of something big and wonderful for racing. So let’s just say sometimes great minds think alike.

Arapahoe Park in Colorado is initiating a program that will pay a $1,000 bonus to the winner of a race who goes to the post medication free. This includes Lasix, Bute, flunixin and keteprofen, all of which are legal in Colorado.

This takes my suggestion a laudable step further to pay a bonus (or write Lasix-free races) to horses who race without the anti-bleeding medication.

“The future of racing is going to be race-day medication-free and we at Arapahoe Park want to be ahead of the curve,” said Bruce Seymore, executive director of Mile High Racing and Entertainment, the parent company of Arapahoe Park.

From his mouth to God’s ears.