Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Too Hot to Race? No Such Thing
New NYRA CEO Christopher Kay made a strong first impression when he swatted away suggestions that it might be too hot to race on the scheduled opening day at Saratoga. But the promise of quality moving to the fore this season went unfulfilled when five of the first seven races on opening Saturday were for state-breds and the program closed with a bottom-level sprint for bottom-level beaten claimers. Meanwhile, in South Florida all the trends are pointing toward Gulfstream winning its battle with Calder.
Plaudits to NYRAâ€™s new CEO Christopher Kay for making his first significant call the right one. Itâ€™s unthinkable there were thoughts of postponing Fridayâ€™s opening day because the temperatures were stagnant in the 90s. Kay decreed the show would go on.
As a four-decade resident of South Florida, my reaction to these suggestions was the same as it has been whenever racing at the Spa has been cancelled due to unseasonably warm weather: â€śAre you kidding me?â€ť
I know the authorities are having talks about the heat in California in the wake of a horse fatality. That's the right thing to do, of course. But if you're prepared in advance...
There have been literally thousands of afternoons during my years in Miami when the temperatures were approaching triple digits and the humidity was stifling enough to make those who thought it was bad at the Spa last week apologize for being wimps. I canâ€™t recall a single occasion when this was cause for cancelling the Calder races.
A Saratoga cancellation is far more consequential than one in South Florida or downstate New York, where the merry-go-round spins day in and day out. Racing fans make vacation plans months in advance to spend time at Saratoga, drive hundreds of miles to get there and spend hundreds of dollars for lodging. Opening day is an extra special canâ€™t-miss occasion on many race fansâ€™ calendars. To lock them out would evoke the same feelings of disappointment and anger the Griswalds felt when they drove cross-country only to find Wally World inexplicably shut down.
(In another weird weather phenomena Friday, a mere 0.22 inch of rain in Las Vegas flooded the gaming floor at Caesarâ€™s Palace and caused leaks in the roof at Gilleyâ€™s at Treasure Island among other havoc, according to the Associated Press. Thankfully for simulcast players, the heavy damage occurred after 7 p.m. when all of the opening day Saratoga card and most of the races at Del Mar had been run. Itâ€™s mind-boggling that a town with billion dollar properties up and down the Strip has the drainage of a New York subway system menâ€™s room.)
Unfortunately the racing at Saratoga wasnâ€™t as hot as the temperatures, especially on the first Saturday of the meeting. Expectations were raised that with casino money bolstering NYRAâ€™s bottom line this would be a Saratoga meeting harkening back to the days of old when quality ruled.
This was especially true coming off a four-day break and after what many felt was the worst Saturday card in the history of Belmont Park the week before. The thinking was the lesser lights were given their final shots before the heavy hitters took center stage at the Spa.
Then the entries came out. Four of the first five races and five of the first seven were for state-breds, with bottom-of-the-barrel beaten claimers to close the show.
New York-breds Hessonite. Strong Impact and Wired Bryan might have distinguished themselves and the state breeding program winning open stakes opening weekend. By and large, however, run-of-the-mill state-breds are mediocrities or worse, who need restricted races to pay their keep.
State-bred races are what weekdays and winter racing are for. Five on the first Saturday of the Saratoga meeting? Seriously?
Also, what happened to shorter programs to get fans out on the streets and into the bars and restaurants of Saratoga before dark? Do we really need a $20K claimer (a grossly inflated price tag in many instances) to lengthen the day?
The Battle of South Florida is tilting strongly toward Gulfstream. Except for Calderâ€™s Summit of Speed program, Gulfstream has had the stronger handle by decisive margins in their weekend head-to-head showdowns.
The situation could be taking a significant turn for the much worse for Calder. The Florida HBPA, which has not had a purse contract since the start of the season in April, is threatening to withhold permission for Calder to simulcast its races out of state if a new deal isnâ€™t negotiated by the end of this week.
The FHBPA took similar action the first week in May and Calder retaliated by cutting purses 20 percent. At that point there was no alternative place to race for local horsemen, so a truce was called and the purse cuts were reinstated after a week.
Itâ€™s a different situation now. Horsemen have Gulfstream as an option.
If simulcasting is halted and Calder institutes another purse cut, which will be dictated by the loss of revenue, the exodus to Gulfstream could resemble the last plane out of Saigon.
In addition, an inside source said a deal is all but done for the Florida Stallion Stakes, a fixture at Calder since its inception, to relocate to Gulfstream in 2014. The rich filly and colt finales of the three-stage Stallion Stakes are the centerpieces of the Festival of the Sun each fall, one of Calderâ€™s biggest days of each season.
There is no disputing Gulfstream has the superior brand name nationwide when it comes to simulcasting but it could be getting outside help. Driving north toward Saratoga, I was able to get a Saturday Racing Form near Laurel Park in Maryland. Past performances for seven tracks were included. Among them was Gulfstream Park. Not included was Calder. So simulcast fans had all they needed to bet the Gulfstream card but nothing for Calder, which was staging three stakes, including the opening legs of the Stallion Stakes.
You have to wonder in how many other regions this is the case.
Laurel is part of the Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream. Just saying.