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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Racing does not corner the market on bad news, not hardly, but it might lead all the sports leagues in negative reactions. Perhaps it’s a flaw that comes naturally with the horse-playing territory. Consider:

NEW YORK: Thanks in large part to its successful Day at the Races programming from Saratoga and Belmont Park–with some bluegrass sprinkled in–NYRA’s enjoyed a very solid year both aesthetically and at handle’s bottom line.

Better news is that NYRA is efforting to make the operation more successful, even if it takes years, as plans for improvements are in the works although still in the formative stages.

The Aqueduct winter which began in the second week of December was up more than 27%, according Daily Racing Form tabulations, the result of a higher quality “winter product” and an increase in field size.

The shortfall for the year is understandable considering that nearly 11 weeks of a four-day-per-week was lost and, upon racing’s return, it came without on-track customers. But NYRA weathered the storm, no small feat given America’s depression-like environment.

The most interesting aspect is the Association’s vision for the immediate future if only in the early stages. To wit:

What becomes of Belmont Park once the Islanders Arena is completed in the fall of 2021? Will a new, smaller facility replace the existing one or will the current model be retrofitted? Will fans be permitted in the infield?

At this point, everything is in play including backyard enhancements for fans in a park-like environment.

We personally love the idea of an open infield, a huge area where social distancing is more than feasible if still required in the future. Television monitors can bring the action closer to fans with plenty of room remaining for the erection of upscale VIP tents on big event days.

There are plans to expand the Oklahoma training track in Saratoga and to replace the existing dirt surface with the same materials that drew raves from horsemen and horseplayers this summer. All these ideas figure to come to pass eventually, in one form or another.

Maybe the most relevant question at this juncture is: What will become of Aqueduct Racetrack?

CALIFORNIA: Track surfaces from coast to coast are in the news these days. Santa Anita has installed a new turf chute that grew out of concerns for horse safety. The 6-1/2 furlong Hillside turf course had came under close scrutiny after a spate of breakdowns that date back to March, 2019.

Many jockeys and trainers gave their approval of the new course in a statement released by Santa Anita, but we’re still reserving judgment after having seen only one race. But from what we gleaned, we’re unsure about what was accomplished.

Turf horses racing 6-1/2 furlongs out of the new chute still need to cross over main track dirt for a short distance which causes some horses to alter their stride and not dissimilar to the issue raised by Down-the-Hill sprint events.

Further, with its short run to the bend, many horses breaking from inside posts are forced to either quarter-horse away from the barrier or carefully steady into position to avoid potentially hazardous close quarters and wide draws are naturally disadvantaged in the early going.

The good news is the track has made changes it can show the state if the issue of a statewide ballot initiative to make horseracing unlawful ever resurfaces, no pun intended.

Maybe a period of adjustment is needed for horses and riders, but these biases seem to be baked in. Meanwhile, it’s bettor beware.

The best news for Santa Anita is that horseplayers welcomed them back with open arms and wallets. A record $23 million was wagered on the opening 11-race program that featured five graded stakes including a spectacular return to the races by undefeated three-year-old, Charlatan.

That amount eclipsed the old opening day standard of $20.4M and last Saturday’s was established without fans in attendance. The Santa Anita program had little top-class competition, but this handle figure is truly remarkable.

FLORIDA: Santa Anita’s sister track in the Southeast, Gulfstream Park, is considering the installation of a third surface, a synthetic Tapeta track, which hopefully would mitigate overuse of its oft-criticized turf course and avoid a plethora of late scratches when scheduled turf races are rained off.

The Stronach Group has Aidan Butler, the company’s new CEO and President of 1/ST CONTENT, to thank for strongly backing the construction of a synthetic surface originally raised by General Manager Bill Badgett and Racing Vice-President Mike Lakow.

Butler gained national attention this year by overseeing the creation of the Jockey Village concept at the Arcadia track during Covid-19’s first wave as well as backing the installation of the track’s new turf chute.

Horseplayers–and the rest of the industry—also has Butler to thank for insisting on the elimination of post-time drag as a matter of policy, with limited exceptions to huge carryover payout days or special event days once fans are allowed back on track.

Three surfaces are better than two. The assumption is that the wider portion of the turf course would remain unchanged and what this year has been known as the inner turf would be the spot for the synthetic oval. With Gulfstream West no longer an option, Tapeta would provide a safer surface for training as well.

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7 Responses

  1. JP–
    Agree that the news out of NY is mostly good. Razing the overly large and outmoded Belmont grandstand is overdue and opening the infield with tents should accommodate crowds on Belmont Stakes day. Clearly NY will be out of play for future Breeder’s Cups since tents are unsuited for November weather, but California, Florida and Kentucky seem to have a monopoly on the Breeder’s Cup anyway. Pretty clear that Aqueduct is a goner…..which is sad.
    And look forward to installation of a synthetic surface at GP. With Calder no longer available to give GP’s turf track a respite, a synthetic option definitely makes sense.
    Happy New Year to you and Toni!
    Chuck from Saratoga

    1. First, only good things for you Chuck in 2021 and God willing perhaps see you in August 2021; first drink on us…

      Really angry about the Breeders’ Cup rotation. They had some justification when NYRA was leaderless and in chaos, no longer the case. And weather is a strawman. Winter notwithstanding I’ve been pretty damn cold at both Churchill and Keeneland in spring and fall.

      Tents can be heated, so there is that. My knock is that the turf courses prevented lining up those tents close to the rail. Given what likely will be an outrageous cost, I’d want to be up close to the action.

      And, of course, we all know that the Governor has wanted Aqueduct gone from as long as I can remember.

      Please give our regards to all the good folks at 115 and 125…

  2. John: Happy New Year! The closing of the Big A has been pretty much a given since NYRA transferred the deeds to its real property to the State in the Bankruptcy/Franchise deal. Lets remember that the current Aqueduct was a complete rebuild in 1959, only after the then Greater NY Association (NYRA’s predecessor) decided to sell off the Jamaica racetrack property to the City. Also, with the pandemic causing a huge budget deficit in the NYS budget, Cuomo must consider allowing a full blown casino, with table games, at the BIG A. There is just no way they can have table games without the use of the current clubhouse structure at Aqueduct.
    In any event, I just drove past the new Arena on the Cross Island. The outer part of the structure is almost complete. It really does blend in with the Belmont Grandstand. They have also started the structure of the new LIRR train station (Elmont) just outside the north parking lot. It should be operational around the time that the Arena is opened next November. It will be on the main line (unlike the Belmont station which is a short spur off of the eastern track of the main line). However, John, I think that a retrofit of Belmont will not work inasmuch as it was built in the 60s, with 60s technology. Belmont needs a completely new structure, built for today’s needs, with 21st Century Technology Infrastructure. Moreover, I believe that both NYRA and the Breeders Cup want the BC to return to Belmont and for Belmont to be part of the rotation. No matter the weather in California, I think that the Europeans would always prefer to run on the Turf courses at Belmont. Also, the Dirt Mile was always intended as a one turn race, like the Metropolitan Handicap, and it should be run at Belmont.
    As to the infield, I participated in a “forum” about two years ago concerning the future of Belmont. Although some of the others didn’t like the idea, I think that it would be a very good use of the space. In this regard, if the future includes a reduction in the footprint of the main building, which it should, then for Belmont Stakes and BC days, the infield would be able to accommodate the larger crowds that accompany those important race days.
    Lastly, as Dave O’Rourke noted in his interview with Dave Grening, Sports Betting will be expanding in NY. With the explosion of sports betting in Jersey, and with the Budget pressure imposed by the pandemic, Cuomo will finally relent on the question of mobile sports betting. Nobody from the metro area is driving up to Monticello, or Schenectady, to place a bet in the Sports Books of those casinos. Untold millions are being bet by New Yorkers at the Meadowlands, and Monmouth, etc, which are both short drives across the Hudson ( or Amboy Bay). As some small consolation prize for being evicted from the Big A, I suspect that Cuomo would grant the right to conduct Sports Betting to NYRA. Thus, as part of the major reconstruction at Belmont, NYRA would put in a large, modern Sports Book somewhere in that new facility. As usual, in NY politics, one day your OX is the one that is gored, but tomorrow, you are presented with a new OX. What a wonderful system!

  3. So much to chew on here, Fram.

    First, a retrofit is truly impractical, one no longer needs such as huge structure to accommodate racing crows; Frank Stronach figure that out about a decade and a half ago.

    Much more practical to tear down and start anew, including a race and sports book. Yes, there’s budget pressure put to bear but interesting how NYRA has changed its tune on sports betting. At lea they’re unlikely to repeat their disastrous OTB decision of a half-century ago.

    To you and yours, Fram, a safe and healthy New Year! And wouldn’t that be a happy day throughout the land…

  4. One sure sign that we are beginning a New Year–perusing tomorrow’s entries, I see that nearly all of the former 2yos are going on lasix as they begin their 3yo season.

  5. Getting it while they still can… some things never change… but it’s not a PED, perish that thought!

  6. The good news for anti-raceday-meds people is that Derby points earned in 3YO races will not be awarded to any horses that race with Lasix

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