Sunday, July 06, 2014
Stars n’ Stripes Grades: Box Office A, Execution B+
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 6, 2014—At the bottom line, the first Stars and Stripes Festival program held over the July 4th weekend, essentially Saturday’s five graded stakes program including two Grade 1s for three-year-olds on grass, was very successful.
More than 11,000 fans showed up on a glorious afternoon, or about twice the new normal, and the $16 million simulcast handle on the 10-race card beat last year’s totals—a tough comparison since the 2013 holiday program was conducted over a very long “weekend”—by $6 million.
And 11 races were carded last year so, yes, Virginia, quality does count.
The Belmont Derby boasted only one Grade 1 winner, Blue Grass Stakes winning Dance With Fate, but he was a program scratch, leaving the field without a horse that could truly be considered Grade 1. Potentially, yes, but not in reality, including the four Europeans.
It was going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible to attract a true international Group winner at this time of year with all the classic racing being conducted “over there” at this time of the year.
But that can change next year as new events take time to gain status traction; throwing seven figure purses at it alone did not yield max results.
The hunch is that next year, after the “world” had a chance to study the results, a few of Europe’s best runners might be reserved for Belmont Park.
European horse owners who normally might be motivated by prestige instead might ask themselves the following: Why be 20-1 at Ascot when I can be 5-2 in America for a million and a quarter?
The racing was very entertaining with a number of close, exciting finishes and a breakthrough performance by Clearly Now, a colt the racing gods owed a good-fortune run following one tough trip after another dating back to his 3-year-old year.
And he won the Belmont Sprint Championship Stakes by nearly 10 lengths and in track record time for the seven furlongs, despite remaining on his left lead right to the line.
The enigmatic Mr Speaker finally put it all together to win the Belmont Derby beneath a hedge skimming Jose Lezcano to defeat the only European that bothered to do any real running on the day—Adelaide, a very game, come-again second after being outrun by the winner in the final furlong.
Zivo, the New York-bred win machine seems to be getting even better. His previous win in the Commentator was a last-to-first, swoop-the-group victory.
On Saturday, he came from arrears again, only this time saving ground and winning by a clear margin over some very nice but not-ready-for-primetime horses.
Maybe’s Zivo's the player that’s ready for primetime, his victory started a natural double for Chad Brown and concluded a natural triple for Jose Lezcano.
That win would come in the Belmont Oaks with Minorette, who Brown predicted was ready for a new top. Nice training and handicapping, Mr. Brown.
NYRA could have carded an All-Graded-Stakes Pick 4 but stayed with the previous administration’s handle playbook, carding a full field of state-breds going long on turf.
The Belmont Sprint Stakes was just as spreadable as the finale, a promotional opportunity lost.
Clearly, the centerpieces were the Belmont Derby and Oaks which were good branding ideas, names with a little more panache than the former Grade 1s Jamaica and Garden City.
Renaming those stakes is how Vice President of Racing Operations Martin Panza was able to debut his new creations with Grade 1 status.
As stated, the event likely is to attract more foreign participation next year although that’s no out-bet given the present international racing calendar.
The experiment was worth trying and it did succeed. If not, then simply consider the day as a prep for Saratoga which promises to be a victory of quality over quantity. Alas, we shall see.