Saratoga Springs, NY, September 4, 2008--Belmont opens Friday after a three-day racing hiatus and this town is getting back to normal, which is to say there’s much more traffic on Broadway than there used to be when first I visited the land of history, health and horses four decades ago.

Until finally, sick of packing and unpacking, I moved my tack here permanently almost a decade ago. I recall when this used to be the place where time stopped. But the old line about “travel up the Northway to exit 14, turn right onto Union Avenue, and go back a hundred years,” just doesn’t scan anymore.

The last two dark days saw temperatures rise into the high 80s--warmer than on any day in August--and gas prices fall to $3.79 a gallon, which we’re supposed to believe is a bargain. But it’s the same every year. The circus comes to town and everything turns upside down.

Like many of the horseplaying locals, I can’t wait for the Saratoga meeting to begin then can’t wait for it to end. Sorry, but while the Woodward is a welcome aesthetic cherry on the Saratoga confection, it feels like anything that occurs after Travers is anticlimactic.

The final week is sold as a good time to visit the old Spa, the vacationing hordes having dissipated. On balance, that’s true. But the reality somehow never measures up to that perception. With the exception of the Woodward and closing-day programs, the joint is buzzless.

However, the opening the Belmont Park fall meet on the Labor Day weekend hasn’t been the answer for some time, either. Paraphrasing the great Hall of Fame horseman, John Nerud, a bad day at Saratoga is better than a good day at Belmont Park.

Here, horse racing lives and thrives in the mainstream. There, it barely exists beyond the first Saturday in June.

While, with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t agree with every policy decision the NYRA executive team makes, it’s difficult not to feel some empathy for their situation. Much of their current woes are the result of a shameless state government that places politics above the needs of its citizenry. To wit:

How is it possible that VLT legislation, enacted into law seven years ago, is not yet a reality at NYRA tracks? That’s disgraceful on two counts, the overall quality and health of this country’s leading racing jurisdiction being the least of it.

Why haven’t the state’s overburdened citizens been allowed to benefit from tax relief additional VLT revenues would have afforded all these years? And the VLT franchise decision is still in limbo. Is the state stalling while it tries to figure a way to take over all gambling, from the lottery to racetracks, OTBs, and the remaining VLT franchises, too?

Of course that isn’t exactly right because a VLT franchise announcement is supposed to be imminent, but it does make one wonder.

Meanwhile, the state will continue taking a financial hit the longer it delays making this industry healthy. Everywhere around the country purses have been lowered as a result of reduced handle. That’s how the model works. But despite lagging business, purses went up at the Saratoga meet and stayed that way.

As long as the NYRA will be forgiven its debt as part of the franchise agreement, where is the incentive to curb its spending? For New York to remain preeminent, purses need to remain competitive with states benefiting from VLT dollars. But when it comes to the horsemen that need the money most, it seems only the rich are getting richer.

Even when the NYRA tries to do something to benefit its standing and bottom line, it can’t catch a break. Not only don’t dollars go as far as they used to, neither do handshakes.

New York racing thought it was next in the Breeders’ Cup line following the Santa Anita double-dip--a move that still doesn’t make sense unless there’s some underground agenda to foist synthetic-track racing on the rest of America.

While a synthetic surface might fuel greater international participation in Breeders‘ Cup, it’s also possible the breeding industry will benefit by the expansion of an ersatz surface over which horses run, thereby widening the gene pool via external means, all in the name of safety.

Forgive the paranoid ranting. But 2008 is, after all, an election year. Either way, New York racing deserved better. Especially when it’s still capable of putting on a show as good as the one we saw for the last six weeks.

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Stewards Had Good Spa, but Should Have Taken Labor Day Off

Anyone can have a bad day. So can three people. But there’s plenty of blame to go around for the horrendous call in the fifth race closing day, a five and a half furlong turf sprint. What made the call so indefensible is that no one, stewards included, had a definitive view of the action.

In the race, Mrs. Holden and Jorge Chavez took command from the start. Racing near the hedge throughout, slightly less than two paths wide, she appeared to remain in the same lane from gate to wire, drifting out slightly only when clear in the straightaway. But that’s not where the incident occurred.

Approaching headstretch, Leader of the Life, racing on the hedge, tried to get through inside of Mrs. Holden but, lacking room, was forced to check by John Velazquez. Once the two fillies entered the straight, Mrs. Holden widened her margin from 1-½ lengths to 2-¼ in the drive to the post.

There was no question as to which filly was best, but plenty of doubt regarding the outcome. Even official Equibase chartcallers had trouble discerning exactly what happened. There never was a specific reference to how the incident occurred, as there commonly is--unless now it will be done after the fact.

Mrs. Holden…”set the pace under pressure… came out slightly in upper stretch” were the only descriptive phrases. The short comment in her past performances next time out will read: “speed inside, drew off.”

Leader of the Life…”steadied behind the winner leaving the backstretch….took up sharply nearing the quarter pole…” Her short comment will say: “took up turn.” But was that “leaving the backstretch” or “nearing the quarter pole?”

Here are some of the problems. The chartcallers in the press box never saw the replays I viewed from the box area from various angles. Why? I witnessed several replays from different perspectives. The problem with incidents occurring at this juncture is that there’s no definitive view of what happened. Many problems occur in the seam of the shifting camera angles. This was one of those times.

There is no good reason why the chartcallers weren’t seeing the same replays the fans in the boxes, and those standing directly behind them, saw. And even if they had, surely they would have felt without equivocation that the evidence was inconclusive.

How can horsemen be held accountable and subsequently punished on inconclusive data?

An HRI reader commented on the site that he suspected politics, since Velazquez was involved in a battle with Alan Garcia for the meet’s leading rider. Not sure how that would work since the legendary Allen Jerkens was the trainer being punished, a political push.

Admittedly, stewards everywhere, especially New York’s, will view apprentices with a jaundiced eye as they would jockeys with reputations for dirty riding. Chavez has a reputation for being an aggressive race rider, but not for being a dirty one.

The stewards alone are not to blame, however. While the industry pays lip service to integrity, it still won’t require stewards to file written reports outlining the basis for their decisions as is done in other countries. Why not? It’s about time racing commissioners--the State Racing and Wagering Board in this case--made their highly paid officials accountable. That they don’t is indefensible.

In relation to what happens on its tracks, management should invest in additional tower cameras to help officials make better decisions, as opposed to those cameras recently installed on the other side of the finish line for providing interesting, new perspectives and some cool “hero shots.”

Or management might have used some of the budget that paid or bartered for three full-page ads in the trade paper trumpeting Curlin’s Woodward participation, as if anyone spending $5 for a set of past performances wouldn’t know.