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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


No pun intended, but we’ve lost track of how many stakes, surface, and course records were set this season at the Spa.

We’re setting the Over/Under at seven. If that’s incorrect we’re certain someone will be more than happy to correct the error.

After 39 days of racing, with only the Labor Day card needing completion, NYRA has broken the all-sources handle record set two years ago.

Total handle for Saratoga following Sunday’s card reached $679.7 million. By Monday night that figure should be over $700 million. Not bad for 40 days work.

Subtle changes to the betting menu, including the introduction of a 20-Cent Jackpot Carryover that has proven popular wherever it has been installed, helped.

The Empire 6 experiment was deemed so successful that the Association applied to the NYS Gaming Commission for approval at the upcoming Belmont Fall meet–a formality.

When you consider the weather cancellations and wet tracks early at the meeting, the numbers show “Saratoga” continues to be one of the strongest brands in Thoroughbred racing.

The Graveyard of Favorites was stood on its head this session with the win percentage of favorites through Sunday standing at just under 40%. Considering the competition, that’s confounding.

But it makes sense with respect to the handle figures. Favorites mean churn, and churn is the game’s best friend. That’s why the constant promotion of horizontals is so wrong-headed.

Every horseplayer dreams of making a score, but if he wants to remain liquid, the simpler the wager the better. As for the Pick Everything Pools–the 20-Cent wager notwithstanding–it takes money to make money.

Whatever the approach, good racing is good business. The cream rises, especially at Saratoga, but some trainer win percentages strain credulity, fueling the notion that not all barns play on the same field.

And, so, as it turns out, all the king’s horses and all the king’s couldn’t stop Chad Brown’s horses again.

No barn has the fire power that Brown enjoys; owners notice when one barn’s horses always seem to out-finish all others by rote and are rarely caught from behind. It strains credulity.

Love or hate the concept of federal intervention, an outside, independent agency is the only hope racing to level the field.

Brown notwithstanding, this was Shug McGaughey’s meet, doing the kind of excellent work that put him in the Hall of Fame years ago.

McGaughey’s patient development of Code of Honor was classic old school. And the recent maiden breaker Mrs. Danvers could be, as the racetrackers say, any kind.

And the Pletcher two-year-olds are still breaking maidens on debut; Bill Mott continues to be a huge factor at Saratoga, and Christophe Clement always seems to win in bunches there.

As for riders, we have never seen a phenomenon equal to the success the brothers Ortiz are enjoying.

For jockeys, only winners beget more winners. Jose the younger and Irad Jr. the older win more than share and are in great demand. Together they have more wins than Castellano, Rosario and Saez combined.

Castellano and Rosario have enjoyed outstanding meets and, at 46, Johnny Velazquez continues to out-think and out-position his rivals. Saez, Junior Alvarado and Jose Lezcano have all enjoyed big moments.

Jeremiah Englehart and owner Bill Parcells were a couple of happy post-race celebrants. The Champagne likely is next up.

For the short time we were in town, morale was good and the energy always positive. Having two dark days was well received although some merchants did have issues with scheduling.

Consequently there were discussions about switching dark days to Tuesday and Wednesday. With Sundays and Mondays being difficult travel days, a new Thursday through Monday schedule makes four or five-day weekends do-able.

The only negative associated with the 2019 meet was the passing of Marylou Whitney who, back in the day, dedicated herself to revive the glory days of Saratoga racing. And did she ever.

Beyond that, Marylou’s charitable work is legendary. Her racetrack legacy will always be her dedication, and that of husband John Hendrickson, to improving the quality of life of backstretch workers.

It was the finest of many fine hours she dedicated to helping others, whatever community she happened to be in at the time.

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13 Responses

  1. JP–
    I would note that Saratoga actually only raced 39 days due to a heat cancellation on July 20 and also lost over half a racing card as a result of the cancellation of racing after the 4th race on July 25 due to rain. That being taken into consideration, the 2019 Saratoga meet was a smashing success by nearly every measure.
    However, leave it to the NYRA spinmeisters to conveniently omit the fact that the on track handle was down (from $148,826,388 in 2018 to $146,618,750 in 2019) as was the paid attendance (from 1,124.149 in 2018 to 1,056,053 in 2019). But these facts do not dull the luster of a very solid 2019 meet and successful experiment with two dark days.


  2. Right you are Chuck; my bad for not noting the day and a half lost.

    Allow me to take up the spin where NYRA left off. Every time I seemed to look, the per capita on track often was low. Usually in the neighborhood of $200 per customer, average NYRA handle often was halved.

    Maybe the town has priced some of the tourists away. And maybe some of the locals had a little less betting money as a result of the high concession stand prices that are so much a part of attending any live sporting event these days.

    I can understand having the one-percenters pay for clubhouse or 1863 air-conditioned access, but they have priced the rank and file fan away, who simply are unable to afford a day AT the races. Going to the track should be the best bargain in sports.

    Perhaps some of the executives are intimidated that the state is looking over their shoulders. Others may be shocked to know that there’s gambling going on at the racetrack.

    As for attendance figures, who knows what they really are as season passes sold at Stewart’s–if I recall properly–are counted as live bodies. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that since there’s no way to know except actual turnstile count.

    You know, it’s a lot like voting. (Rim-shot, please).

    You might know this: How did the harness track fare in comparison? Certainly a cheaper alternative with free air-conditioning and lower concession prices. It’s not be the “Saratoga experience,” but if a racetrack atmosphere is wanted…

    Looking forward to checking out the final figures later this morning. Thanks for checking in.

  3. JP, There is a lesson here for Chad….”Beyond that, Marylou’s charitable work is legendary. Her racetrack legacy will always be her dedication, and that of husband John Hendrickson, to improving the quality of life of backstretch workers.”

    Thanks for an enjoyable summer. Ended the meet at plus a buck and a half. Would have been another hundred, but I skimmed some of the profit for the “diaper city funding”.

    I suspect Todd Pletcher may have saved his best two year old for race six yesterday. Adding Gouverneur Morris to the watch list for next May. Hopefully the Champagne is the next target.

    1. McD,

      Indeed, but this country has been taking advantage of undocumented labor in all walks of life. Not excusing, just saying.

      Agree the ‘Gouveneur’ was very impressive but would have to spot Green Light Go, among others, more experience. My guess?

      Another short one, then Breeders’ Cup if good enough, then the Holy Bull. But I may be getting out over my skies here. Happy you did well at Spa.

      Had solid meet myself but screwed up some big money-making chances and had a bad final weekend…

      On to Kentucky Downs Thursday, Belmont Friday…

    2. I actually came here to post that exact thought re: Gouverneur Morris. I do wonder if the Champagne is the next logical step, then why would he have debuted in a 5.5f spot though? Watching him though, it is impossible not to feel like he timed this for the Champagne. I watched that colt from the paddock pre-race until the unsaddling after the win, and every step that horse takes oozes class; he acted like a 4yo veteran every second he was out there pre and post race. And then you see him run and he has that beautiful stride where he levels out. Casse’s filly that kept bulling through horses to win stake races and Gouverneur Morris are the 2yo’s that left the biggest impression with me. I was fortunate to be at Green Light Go’s debut at the end of the Belmont meet, and it is hard to argue with anything he has done, but Gouverneur Morris feels like something really special.

  4. What was not up was attendance.
    The two price increases under Kay likely responsible.
    A rollback to $5 Grandstand would be appreciated.

    1. Nobody,

      NYRA instituted a policy several years ago not to announce attendance except for those inescapably big days. How this is allowed under NYS aegis is beyond me. Unacceptable in my view.

      Yes, those were Kay price increases. Since he’s no longer there, there are no excuses as to why the new administration can’t roll back some of the pricing.

      BTW: I think I like your handle; actually there’s no real difference between “nobody” and some made-up pseudonym.

      Nevertheless, we will have our web-person check out the IP address for future reference. It would remain confidential, of course, as it has for 14 years. Thanks for the comment…

  5. One more comment re: the attendance/handle figs. Obviously, we have no idea what the real attendance is, but I do feel as if there has to be some consideration given to how much they potentially lost on-track on the weekend of that Saturday July 20th cancellation. First off, it was announced a couple of days earlier that there would be no racing that Saturday, so here is where I feel the lack of a Monday card this year really hurt them; since people knew there would be no races Saturday and that there was no card this year on Monday, how many people didn’t bother coming up at all who would have ordinarily come up for the weekend knowing they could still get 2 days in with a Monday card? So that Friday and Sunday both got hurt imo.

    1. Secondly, Monmouth had their huge Haskell card that Saturday, and everyone had assumed it was 100% running, so there was a very viable option that weekend to serve as another body blow.

  6. Hey Doc, thanks for checking in. In no particular order:

    Good point re Monmouth’s Haskell, but who knew there would be night racing on that occasion.

    Also, good idea about rescheduling for Monday which would have helped all-sources but must figure it might not have altered tourist plans that dramatically; working folk probably would not have the luxury of an extra-night sleepover. And, too, there is the travel arrangements made for the horses that shipped in to race.

    Agree with all you said about the two-year-olds. Have a new respect for Perfect Alibi; fillies that bull their way through on the fence speaks to class and courage.

    I. too, noted how professional the ‘Gouveneur’ from what I could see of him. I thought 5-1/2 a little curious, too, but Todd Pletcher considers all options and their potential consequences.

    And, of course, you don’t know until they do it but that big beautiful gray horse looks like he’s run up the side of a mountain. Can’t wait for his next start, but I must say I’m a big Green Light Go fan.

    They both might really be special, and wouldn’t that be fun?

  7. It absolutely would be fun, especially given the contrasting approaches you have with Pletcher vs Jimmy Jerkens.

  8. Word was the restaurants didn’t do well with Sunday dinners, NYRA already considering running on Monday next year, with Wednesday dark.

  9. Yup, would be Chief School vs. Coach School. Both revolutionized the game though, admittedly, as a New York-bred, have a little bias toward The Chief…

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