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Wednesday, September 12, 2012


On Restoring Sanity to Saratoga’s Racing Schedule


Saratoga Springs, NY, September 12, 2012—Now that Saratoga 144 is in the rear view, there has been, courtesy of colleague Bob Ehalt, Internet chatter about extending the Saratoga race meet.

Ehalt argues that between Saratoga’s popularity--showing no signs of waning--and the struggles of tracks downstate to coax live bodies into its buildings, that Saratoga should host a summer meet from the 4th of July through Labor Day.

It probably was more than a dozen years ago, just after our Saratoga Diary came of age at 21 years, when we made the same suggestion. It wasn’t so much that it was a great idea, or even a desirable one, but the notion seemed inevitable.

Forget that a bad day at Saratoga--roughly 10,000 fans--is 250% greater than an average day at Belmont Park. And never mind that Saratoga is the word you hear most often about one hour after the Belmont Stakes horses reach the finish line.

Forget, too, that racing on a mile and an eighth track is more aggressively exciting and, on balance, more predictable than those at big Big Sandy, everything else being equal. (Talking main track, not turf courses here).

Above all, finally, how many of America’s best race horses wind up here at one point or another, making Saratoga still the classiest, most competitive race meet attracting pool liquidity like no other and the best place to make a score on one event.

Frankly, I would like to see a Saratoga summer meet, but only with certain criteria. If it doesn’t work, scrap it the next year.

First, a Saratoga summer meet must be a five-day race week. If it is expected that people relocate for two months, they must continue to have a) a life, and, b) an opportunity to freshen up the day after all life’s errands are run.

If you want to keep your workforce happy, they must be provided a little “me time.” Should visitors be the only ones allowed to have some fun? A race day is pressure packed. Having time to unwind is important.

A happy worker provides better customer service. And if you’re a bettor, it’s impossible to remain focused when you’re mentally and physically exhausted. Then legislators and suits would need to know a little something about gambling to appreciate that.

Want to keep those fields full with quality horses for eight weeks instead of six and a half? That’s very simple. Conduct nine-race cards every day except Thursdays (steeplechasing) and weekends.

No one will have a problem with a dozen races on Travers day, with an 11:45 a.m. post time.

Seriously consider a 12:45 p.m. start every day. It’s earlier, but not to a fault, and it should be good for business. Adding one minute between races contributes to the Spa’s leisurely pace and will be appreciated by the simulcast crowd and horsemen alike.

One final alteration; the meet not need be extended to run through Labor Day. The stand should end on the final weekend in August and close with what Saratoga is essentially all about.

Parenthetically, give families a chance to return home and get youngster ready for school or time to get back to work, locals and visitors both. After a week’s hiatus, run the Woodward on Labor Day weekend, the opening of Belmont Fall. Spacing to the Jockey Club Gold Cup doesn’t change. Give fans a reason to show up.

So, in addition to any other stakes the racing office wants to schedule for Saratoga’s final weekend, the Travers, in its customary calendar spot, should be the final Saturday of the meet: You build towards a climax and your biggest event brings the curtain down.

Closing day is the following Sunday and, again, whatever other stakes are offered is fine, but the Spa will always be about the babies. The Hopeful and Spinaway should be the final two races of the closing-day program. Leave fans wanting more!

End on a high note--a Saratoga note--not with maiden claimers on the turf for horses that can’t reliably get 9 furlongs, as was sadly the case this year.

The Chamber of Commerce will be happy, as will bars, restaurants, and other service industries, and renters will be happy, too—more money for the negligible difference between 6-1/2 and 8 weeks.

Racetrackers would have a life and could take a deep breath once a week. Revenue would grow. And the New York City ballet people will be just fine. When it comes to Saratoga, money makes more than just the mare go.

No Lasix for Juveniles? It Can Be Done

Excellent piece of research by Saratogian columnist Jeff Scott. Last year, 58 two-year-olds, or eight percent of total juvenile starters, raced without Lasix. This year there were 141, or 20 percent of juvenile starters.

The 141 Lasix-free two-year-olds ran in 71 races and of the 141, nine were post-time favorites. That whole group compiled a slate of (141) 10-13-14. In all, 12.67% of the Lasix-free horses won 14.08 of races run, with an in-the-money percentage of 52.11.

While the sample is small, obviously, the non-Lasix two-year-olds are trending in the right direction.

The reason non-Lasix horses are competing without the diuretic is two-fold: Some raceday-medication critics are walking their talk; others are conducting a grand Breeders’ Cup Juvenile experiment, since Lasix use is barred from juvenile competition this year.

It seems that several outcomes are possible. The number of Europeans that wouldn’t make the trip because the air miles from Europe double when California hosts the event and because the synthetic surface has been replaced by conventional dirt.

In the juvenile races, anyway, the no-Lasix rule could increase European participation thinking that, for them, the playing field is more level.

There are several issues I have a hard time discerning: Why would trainers race their two-year-olds on Lasix if they have to come off it on Breeders’ Cup day? And how is the betting public expected to deal with this?

Unfortunately, I see a scenario playing out whereby the majority of pro-raceday Lasix trainers will argue: See, horses need it and these form reversals will continue if you compel us to get our horses off Lasix.

Of course, the remedy for that is to not use the performance enhancer in the first place. That’s why--if and when raceday medication is banned--you start with the two-year-olds and grandfather in all three-year-olds and older until their racing careers end.

But for now, as long as raceday Lasix remains legal, horsemen will continue to champion the status quo and will come up with tons of Breeders’ Cup juvenile data crafted to make their case.

Written by John Pricci

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