Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Celebrate Saratoga 150 with Return to True Quality

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 26, 2013—It’s not that I don’t wish Saratoga 150 to be a huge success, I do, but I hope the upcoming race meet doesn’t break any handle records this year.

Now I didn’t move my tack from Long Island to Saratoga over a decade ago because I wish either the racetrack or the community any harm; just the opposite. But I don’t want to see handle records fall if it means that quantity again will out-finish quality.

Now I am a fan, and have been booster of, the New York-bred program since its inception. But a slow horse is a slow horse, whether it’s bred in New York, Kentucky or Florida.

In other words, please, Mr. Racing Secretary, no maiden claiming sprints for New York-breds going 5-1/2 furlongs on the grass this year, OK?

I know that such a race will draw a limit field, and I agree that small outfits have the same right to Saratoga success as those of once and future Hall of Famers. But there's a limit. It’s like the pool hall owner told the hustling Fast Eddie Felson: “This is Ames, mister.”

Quantity should not trump quality in New York, especially here. Commander Kay may not be aware of such nuances, but he is said to be a fast study. The previous administration justified their jobs and salary increases by growing handle.

But increasing handle should be Priority #2 at the new NYRA. No longer should the racing office be pressured by executives looking over their shoulders; there no longer should be a need to use the Sub-9 to make an 11-race card go.

At Monday's annual Saratoga press conferences, NYRA executives said that, in a spirit of cooperation with the town’s entrepreneurs, efforts will be made to end the day's race cards earlier.

Last year, the average Saratoga racing day was insufferably long, an occurrence made worse by a six-day racing week. Actually, a five-day week might bring some of the specialness back to a time when less was more, a time when Saratoga was the August Place to Be.

Of course, no one is attracted to or wants to bet on five-horse fields. There were many stories on that very subject in cyber-land last week, including one on Saturday’s Mother Goose Stakes.

The Grade 1 attracted five 3-year-old fillies, including 1-5 Dreaming of Julia, a gutsy but dull, never-in-it runnerup to the talented Close Hatches.

Considering that no one likes five-horse fields, what if this year’s Travers attracted only five runners; Orb, Oxbow, Palace Malice, Verrazano and Normandy Invasion. Explain to me how that would not be a great betting race.

Like everyone, I live in the real world, one where change isn’t an option but the way it is. Fine. But that doesn’t mean that every now and then an effort shouldn’t be made to turn back the clock.

And is there a better time than the present, as the community and racetrack celebrates 150 years of the best extended race meet on the planet, to make such an attempt?

The first condition book has yet to be published so there's still time for New York racing to re-dedicate itself to quality Saratoga racing beyond its 34 graded stakes and 16 Grade 1 events.

Whatever the number is, now or in the future, Albany leadership is never going to be impressed by a couple of percentage-point handle increases, not while the bottom line measuring stick is racing vs. a run-of-the-mill sino.

Any member of the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce should be able to reason that a five-day race week in the future date can be good for business; another more day to cruise the shops, do brunch, or just relax after one more night of reveling.

“It’s not the 24 days of Saratoga that get you,” often said the late, great Joe Hirsch, “it’s the 24 nights.”

In addition to those once-and-future Hall of Fame outfits, there will be plenty of out of town support for Saratoga 150. With the exception of scrutiny-averse Larry Jones, every major outfit east of the Mississippi with any interest has been granted stalls.

Of course, Saratoga means juvenile racing. There haven’t been many 2-year-old maiden races at Belmont Park this spring owing to, among other things, 12 inches of June rainfall thus far. That, and the 8-horse limit for juvenile sprints, should mean plenty of high class babies will be on display. Recall that all the Triple Crown heroes of 2013 were stabled here last year.

It’s too late to do anything about a five-day race week this year. But an effort can be made to card not more than nine races daily, except steeplechase days and weekends. Betting handle on bigger and “better” fields will more than compensate for fewer races. There's only so much betting money to go around, even in Saratoga.

Track prices, already high enough, will not increase this year. Coolers will be permitted in the backyard. NYRA executives have been told that hotel reservations and advance ticket sales are strong. Weather permitting; a successful season already seems assured.

There's no good reason for quantity to trump quality this year. This is Saratoga, Mr. Campo.

Written by John Pricci

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