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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

RETHINK THE STRUCTURE OF THE RACE DAY FOR THE GOOD OF THE SPORT

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.

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17 Responses

  1. PA–
    Excellent point about the various negative impacts of the longer racing day at Saratoga. Here’s hoping NYRA is listening to the voice of the diehard racing fans like you.

  2. The determining factor in the racing schedule is the bottom line. NYRA conducts racing in accordance with days and times that will maximize profit. I don’t like the last race going off at almost 7:00 PM, but if a change in post times means less money for NYRA, then that change will NOT happen.

    1. Dan, Of course you’re right and I do believe Peter understands this. The larger point is that no organization, NYRA nor seemingly anyone else, will never take a long term view when measured against daily handle figures. And that’s the sad part; no one in racing management ever takes a long term view. Meet the new boss …

    2. Agreed – they won’t likely do something that negatively affects their bottom line. But I am hard pressed to know why running the feature as race seven or eight vs. race nine would do so? Also, if you do things that benefit your bottom line today but hurt it in the long run…then maybe you might be persuaded to make a modification.

  3. The late double will always be special, since it’s the last time a bettor has a chance to ‘get out’ playing a multi race wager.

    1. Yesterday’s (Aug 11) Late Double:

      $1 Daily Double 8-4 paid $6.70

      That certainly would NOT have bailed out a guy like me. Even a $10 wager would have netted only $57 – and the favorite lost the 9th race !

      1. Tell you what, Dan. I know it was a strong favorite (not odds on) over 3-1, but a $1 exacta paid $2.80? WTF?

    2. I was referring to a time (not that long ago) when the early and late doubles where the only horizontal bets you could make. There were no Pick 3,4,5, or 6s at all. The late double can’t be that important if half the crowd leaves before the leg is run.

  4. PA,
    Today all racetracks must leave enough time between races for their patrons to bet other tracks, and no track benefits from this practice more than Saratoga.

    I suspect that most people who actually go to the track these days stick around for the feature race(s) on Saturdays unless they have more pressing reasons for leaving which probably can’t be addressed by race scheduling.

    While attending live racing at Hollywood Park during its final years, it was the constantly heavy traffic that motivated me to leave after the feature race, and sometimes even earlier.

    I’ve never personally seen a newbie enticed to spend a day at the track by the anticipated presence of a famous horse, but rather by the company of an enthusiastic racing fan willing to put in the time to educate him or her.

    1. Points well taken but I can only talk from my experience I.

      I was captivated by the atmosphere and became immediately hooked on excitement and action. But it was seeing my first big race live (my mother took me to see the Met Mile) and that’s what made me a lifetime fan.

      There was a period of burnout when for a few years I did sports handicapping for the Racing Times and the DRF, but it was the “big hoss” that sunk the hook in deep.

      1. JP,
        If your Mom was not already a fan herself, but spent the time to take her son to the track at his request, she deserves accolades I can’t even begin to formulate.

    2. I agree that Saturday crowds at the Spa hang in better than the other five days. But I am there on plenty of Saturdays where alot people clear out at 5pm. How can it be a good thing to run Grade Is in front of a half empty facility when you had a full crowd there an hour earlier?

      Peter

  5. I found what I believe to be all instances of a race at Saratoga with a post time after 7:00 PM from 2000 to 2020. The 2:45 1st race post time was an enjoyable change of pace on the limited dates when it was scheduled. I would like to see it return for a few Wed & Thu cards, but that probably ain’t gonna happen. If I am there for a 1:00 1st Race, 6:15 is my absolute limit for sticking around.

    SAR 20200801; Race 1 Off at 1:13; Race 12 Off at: 7:33
    SAR 20190804; Race 1 Off at 1:01; Race 11 Off at: 7:08
    SAR 20190728; Race 1 Off at 1:04; Race 12 Off at: 7:12
    SAR 20190727; Race 1 Off at 1:02; Race 12 Off at: 7:23
    SAR 20190721; Race 1 Off at 12:20; Race 13 Off at: 7:20
    SAR 20180901; Race 1 Off at 1:03; Race 12 Off at: 7:25
    SAR 20180824; Race 1 Off at 1:03; Race 11 Off at: 7:02
    SAR 20180805; Race 1 Off at 1:00; Race 11 Off at: 7:01
    SAR 20170902; Race 1 Off at 1:00; Race 12 Off at: 7:17
    SAR 20170812; Race 1 Off at 1:00; Race 11 Off at: 7:18
    SAR 20160826; Race 1 Off at 1:00; Race 11 Off at: 7:15
    SAR 20160820; Race 1 Off at 1:00; Race 12 Off at: 7:28
    SAR 20150905; Race 1 Off at 12:30; Race 12 Off at: 7:00
    SAR 20150815; Race 1 Off at 1:00; Race 11 Off at: 7:20
    SAR 20150809; Race 1 Off at 1:03; Race 11 Off at: 7:03
    SAR 20150801; Race 1 Off at 1:00; Race 11 Off at: 7:00
    SAR 20140831; Race 1 Off at 1:00; Race 12 Off at: 7:09
    SAR 20140830; Race 1 Off at 1:01; Race 12 Off at: 7:21
    SAR 20130830; Race 1 Off at 2:30; Race 9 Off at: 7:01
    SAR 20110902; Race 1 Off at 2:31; Race 10 Off at: 7:15
    SAR 20080829; Race 1 Off at 2:45; Race 9 Off at: 7:09
    SAR 20080725; Race 1 Off at 2:45; Race 9 Off at: 7:13
    SAR 20070831; Race 1 Off at 2:45; Race 9 Off at: 7:05
    SAR 20070825; Race 1 Off at 12:45; Race 12 Off at: 7:21
    SAR 20070727; Race 1 Off at 2:45; Race 9 Off at: 7:06
    SAR 20060901; Race 1 Off at 3:00; Race 9 Off at: 7:18
    SAR 20060826; Race 1 Off at 12:30; Race 12 Off at: 7:05
    SAR 20050827; Race 1 Off at 12:31; Race 12 Off at: 7:06
    SAR 20030823; Race 1 Off at 12:30; Race 12 Off at: 7:05

  6. That’s nice work…as you will note a number of those days were a couple of years ago and NYRA did reduce the time between posts in response to complaints. On some of those late running days there was literally 20 people left in the whole grandstand for the last race.

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