Paul Moran

For 30 years, more than 22 at Newsday, in New York, Paul Moran has covered thoroughbred racing on its highest level. During that time, he has covered 30 Triple Crown series, every running of the Breeders' Cup Championships, 23 race meetings at Saratoga, won two Eclipse Awards, a Red Smith Award for coverage of the Kentucky Derby and other writing awards from the National Society of Newspaper Editors, Long Island Press Club, Society of Silurians (the oldest press club in New York), Long Island Veterinary Medical Association, Florida Magazine Publishers Association.

In 2002, he was named New York's best thoroughbred handicapper by the New York Press in its annual "Best of Manhattan" edition. His work has appeared in virtually every racing publication published in the United States and most major American newspapers. He is a licensed owner of thoroughbreds in New York Contact:

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

The blush fades from the Saratoga rose

A meeting at Saratoga bookended by Commentator winning the Whitney Handicap a second time and Curlin taking the Woodward saw the six weeks unfold with a magnificent effort by the best mare in training, Ginger Punch, another by three-year-old Proud Spell in the Alabama and a truly memorable Travers in which Colonel John prevailed by less than an inch over the developing star Mambo in Seattle, was overshadowed by steady declines in betting receipts and attendance that were truly alarming.

Some three thousand miles to the west, the meeting at Del Mar saw a similar reversal of fortune.

While weather was not an issue at Del Mar the relentless rain at Saratoga provided a handy and entirely plausible excuse early in the meeting, but perfect weather during the second half produced essentially flat receipts and attendance figures yet did nothing to subdue what amounted to a daily decline in handle that averaged about $1 million, year over year. Certainly, the weak economy was part of the equation and, in the view of Del Mar officials, the primary cause of business declines in another heretofore bulletproof market.

All things considered, I put less money than usual at risk during the meeting, but being a spot player who was finding relatively few spots, this was seen at first as no more than a matter of circumstance. It was the observation by others, inevitably complaining about the low level of racing being offered, that they too were risking less money than usual during the meeting that suggested a wider trend that was a large part of the deeper problems.

A diluted racing product was not embraced by horseplayers who operated from afar. NYRA ran races it seemed for the sake of running races, expanding almost every card. Cheap maiden claiming races fill and NYRA is now more concerned with attracting large fields than maintaining a level of competition suitable to Saratoga and for that matter Belmont.

Not so long ago, the bottom claiming level at Saratoga was $25,000 and no selling races for maidens were offered even at that price. Not so long ago, there were no claiming races offered for New York-breds at any NYRA track. Not so long ago, a large portion of the horse population in residence at Saratoga this summer would have been sent to Monmouth Park or Finger Lakes while the centerpiece meeting of the New York season was in progress.

But there was more to the story of Saratoga ’08.

Perhaps the predatory nature of the hoteliers, merchants and restaurateurs of Saratoga Springs and the New York Racing Association has finally reached the point of diminishing returns. This would explain the flat on-site meeting and a tough six weeks for the Chamber of Commerce, but betting declines were most pronounced off-site, which nowadays means the rest of North America.

Observations by others shed some light on the current state of the summer-destination resort meeting, Every Saratoga experience is different but this year far too many were less than idyllic.

This from Alydarjk, a frequent commenter:

“ … I have been coming to the Spa for thirty years and I attended for four of the six weekends this summer and there was a different feel to the whole experience. It probably had to do with the economy, the gas prices and the weather. Lots of for rent signs, for sale signs and it was never easier to get an Albany hotel any cheaper. No question that the racing cards had some very good moments (Travers, Alabama, etc.), but there were a lot of ordinary cards with ordinary racing. NYRA does need to change some of its approach to getting the attention of the young and established, but it is distressing that even with a lot of publicity, only 22,000 would show up to see Curlin this past Saturday. It would be too simple to drop it all at the feet of NYRA. I would like to say that I know the answer, but I think that it will take some time to be clear for all of us.”

From “Former Citidiot:”

“… as for the headline.....sees you next year, well I'm no longer sure.

I have been going to Saratoga for the last 10 years. And while I was able to put up with the outrageous hotel and food prices, I am no longer sure I want to. $500 for a night at a Residence Inn? And it's still a cab ride to the track and main street? Holiday Inn or Hilton for 400 a night if you can even get a room? No thanks. About the only place where they don't hike the price is the diner. I am saying Uncle, enough. No more Saratoga. Maybe they can extend the meet another few weeks to dilute the product and drive the price down. And the nerve of the lame residents. Calling the tourists "citidiots" and how they can't wait to get the town back. Go ahead "Saralosers" have your town back for good. You won't see my annual $5,000 donation to your overpriced town next year.”

Seems that more than one derisive element is at work here that when combined boil down to poor if arrogant decision making in the face of an obviously weak marketplace driven in great part by external economic forces.

In a recessionary economy, simultaneously raising prices and diluting quality is not a sound business model.

Written by Paul Moran

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