August 18, 2010

Dear Diary,

If only this meet were as easy to read as a few of the most difficult races, it would be possible to put business at the old Spa in some kind of perspective.

But I can’t seem to figure this thing out and it seems that neither can anyone else with any certitude.

The local NBC affiliate, WNYT-Ch. 13, did a feature on business in Saratoga on their Tuesday night news program by going to some of the 60 restaurants in this “city in the country.”

According to the shopkeepers, business was booming and, if not booming, then certainly better than in 2009. If only the racetrack were doing that well.

Attendance figures are now officially disappointing, down 10.7 percent from 2009.

The best theory posited for this is that all those people who did not make reservations per usual this year because they weren’t sure there was going to be a year this year.

Apparently decided to do something else, like make a day trip or two and when they got here decided to spend their money on dinner instead of at the windows.

It is said that you don’t eat your betting money or bet your eating money. Looks like some people are taking that to heart.

Earlier in the meet, attendance figures were lower but were “beating” the national trend. That no longer is the case.

It will be interesting to see whether this trend continues into the prime time portion of the meet that begins this Saturday and peaks the following weekend with the Travers and the Personal Ensign starring Rachel Alexandra.

The main event is the Grade 1 Betfair-TVG Alabama Stakes featuring a colossal West meets East matchup between divisional leading Blind Luck and the Eastern filly who would wrest that title away, Devil May Care.

But what do the figures really mean? What can they be compared to? As stated here before, a 40-day meet is a new paradigm, measurable only against itself. Perhaps when the meet concludes on Labor Day, some enterprising bean counter will figure a way to pro-rate 40 days of racing into 2009’s 36.

According to statistics released by the New York Racing Association, on-track handle has slipped at an identical rate to attendance, down 10.7 percent, which measured the first three full weeks of the meet, meaning days 5 through 22, the first four days of the meet incomparable in a meaningful fashion.

While interstate handle figures were also disappointing, all-sources handle reflecting nationwide simulcast wagering was down 4.8 percent, beating the nationwide trend.

That clearly is the good news because it indicates that the Saratoga simulcast product is still the best and most popular offered in this country.

Critics can point to a greater number of lower class claiming and maiden-claiming events, but that’s a national trend reflecting the smaller foal crops in recent years. Good horses, even in the best of times, are an exception, not the rule.

Field size at the meet has been good, averaging 8.47 starters per races, fractionally lower than 2009. Actually, some of the decreased handle reflect six fewer races run this year than last, putting declines in better perspective.

The reality is that all-sources daily handle to date is $13.4 million, after the loss of 10 turf races. There isn’t a track anywhere that wouldn't sign for little more than half that handle number on a daily basis.

Quality has suffered, yes, but not in dramatic fashion when compared to recent years. Even when races haven’t attracted the best stock, the product on the track has produced good wagering fare, competitive racing, and a disproportionate number of exciting, close finishes.

But we’ve seen a legitimate star emerge in Blame, even if he was in receipt of five pounds from Quality Road. We’ve seen Devil May Care develop into possibly the most talented three-year-old filly in the country.

We’ve seen Position Limit emerge is a juvenile filly with a future, and Kantharos win by daylight again, geared down, after spending the first part of the Saratoga Special trying to find his footing after getting bumped at the break.

We’ve seen A Little Warm become a possible Travers favorite with a first rate score in the Jim Dandy and the reigning Horse of the Year work strongly toward a defense of her title.

The meeting is at the five-sixteenths pole and there’s a host of important races remaining, many of them here. Saratoga is approaching headstretch and despite disappointing numbers the vibe still feels positive, just as it was on July 23.