By Peter Applebee
SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 11, 2021 — There was a time not long ago that a day at the races in Saratoga ended by about 5pm. Now the race “day” includes a good part of the evening as well. The extended length of the race day has implications that are not all positive.
Twenty years ago the nine-race card was the standard on weekdays, with 10 races run on weekends. Under this model the feature race on weekdays went off at about 4:45 pm as the eighth race on the program.
This meant you could work a half day, catch eight races, including the feature, and be home in time for dinner. On weekends the feature race went off at about 5:20 pm.
But those days are long gone. Ten races are the minimum at Saratoga nowadays and the time between races has been extended as well. A recent weekend was typical.
The “feature” race on that occasion was the Caress Stakes and it went off at 6:14 pm, the 10th of 11 races. Many people had left the track by that point.
This no longer is unusual at Saratoga. The race days have gotten so lengthy that many fans exit the grounds well before graded stakes events are run. Fans are people too and their day is planned. They leave when their schedule demands it.
As a result, graded stakes races often are being run in front of fewer fans. You can see this clearly on the Fox Sports broadcast when the camera pans the largely deserted Saratoga track apron that had been teaming with fans only a few hours earlier.
How can this be good for the sport when casual and budding fans miss the biggest races? You convert the casual fan into a die-hard fan by exposing them to the sport’s stars, and our equine stars run in graded stakes.
This is not rocket science. But it’s very clear that the name of the game has become betting handle and the audience the industry seeks play the races from their living room on smart phones.
The best way to create lifelong fans is to expose them to a day of live racing.
The Saturday referenced above provides an example of short-sightedness because the actual feature that day was not the Grade 3 Caress but the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks.
The CCA Oaks was run as race five to keep it out of the late horizontal sequences because it had a four-horse field with a 1-2 morning line favorite.
The CCA Oaks went off at 3:23 pm with 30,000-plus fans anxious to see the event. The excitement was palpable when the field came out on the track.
The crowd was whooping and yelling as Clairiere and Malathaat passed the quarter pole head-and-head. When the field got to deep stretch and the race was tight, the old Spa was rocking.
The advent of 10 and 11-race cards means that race days take longer. So do we still need to run the feature as the penultimate race? That’s when the nine-race card was standard, when the “late double” was a big deal. With the advent of rolling doubles, that’s no longer the case.
But there’s no reason why the feature can’t be the seventh or eighth race. The CCAO fifth race spotlighting a star equine energized the entire day by raising the excitement level of the crowd.
I don’t believe that handle would be hurt by moving the day’s true feature back to the latter part of the program.
Short-priced favorites can attract horizontal play by offering bettors a “free square.” The rank-and-file might make wagers where they otherwise would not because they can’t afford to spread the money in pools with very high degrees of difficulty.
It’s bad enough for the industry that ADW rebates and special access to betting pools catering to large betting syndicates chase away more fans than they create.
HRI’s executive editor often has suggested that high-volume bettors be compelled to wager earlier—say shutting down computer access mega-wagers at the 2-minute mark–allowing on-track fans who support their local track an opportunity to find value created by drastic late-odds drops.
Leveling the playing field for a greater number of horseplayers and building excitement and anticipation throughout the race day for fans seems like a logical win-win.
But this is horse racing where past performances indicate that bet takers will get as much as they can while they can and never give playing the long game a second thought.