SARATOGA A MAGIC BRAND

LAS VEGAS – Heading home after a month of horse-playing and other decadent activities at Saratoga and Las Vegas with lots of thoughts, opinions, questions and some complaints.

In spite of losing a Saturday to heat and most of a weekday card to rain, as well as breaking in fans to a new, longer restructured calendar Saratoga demolished handle records. Betting broke the $700 million barrier, up about $25 million from the previous high water mark of $679 million. Can the billion-dollar season be that far away?

The money didn’t come from on-track fans. Attendance was down. Simulcast money made the difference. Fans see the word Saratoga and send it in.

This is why despite some bellyaching from merchants and residents; the longer Saratoga meeting is here to stay. The live crowd is almost a convenient bonus for NYRA. It has been often joked that a bad day at Saratoga is better than a good day at Belmont. A lot better.

The main complaint from the upstate community is that eliminating Monday has killed Sundays at restaurants, bars and shops. When Monday was a part of the agenda, people would extend their weekends by a day. Without Monday, they go home at some point on Sunday, either early in the day or immediately after the races.

Trying to be a good neighbor, NYRA reportedly is considering reinstating Monday next season with a Thursday-Monday regimen.

The success can be traced to the remarkable Saratoga brand. The same dynamics have made summer racing at Gulfstream the extraordinary success it has become. The Gulfstream staff does a terrific job but it isn’t the reason it buries all the stats achieved at Calder, which was also run well until Churchill Downs took over.

Like Saratoga, the Gulfstream name stands for high quality racing. Calder didn’t. Branding is everything and Saratoga is one of the magical brands in all of sports.

PRICING OUT FANS

The downturn in on-track attendance is easily explained. NYRA is pricing out some fans. The $7 general admission is among the highest in the sport. General parking is advertised as free but this gets you a spot an Uber ride from the track. If you want to park anywhere in the vicinity of the admission gates, it will cost $10 and up in private lots.

Tack on $10 for two programs and a couple out for a day’s entertainment is out more than $30 before they make their first bet. This is if they want to try their luck at finding a place to sit. Grandstand seats, $2 or $3 for many years, now go for $17-$25 depending on the date–Travers excluded, of course. My sister inquired just out of curiosity and was told there was an obstructed view seat available for $60.

This is indefensible in light of the zillions NYRA reaps from the Aqueduct casino.

The true decline is probably worse than the announced figures. I’ve been going to the Top of the Stretch since the Kennedy administration. To get a picnic table you had to get there not long after the gates opened.

This is still the case on Saturdays but only Saturdays. I got there after the first race on the day after the Whitney and I had my choice of a dozen tables (I counted) next to the rail. (The missing Monday factor?) The weekdays, there were more tables open than occupied.

I joked to the woman selling Racing Forms that she looked as lonely as the Maytag repairman. “It’s been really quiet all season,” she said. 

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS

The best news in racing this year was Del Mar getting through an entire meeting without a single horse fatality during a race. (There were four deaths during training.)

But there is a downside. Isn’t there always? The anti-racing coalition will claim this proves that it can be done when clearly this was a statistical anomaly.

Poor Santa Anita. The first death there–some are inevitable when you run eight months a year–will trigger cries of irresponsibility and renewed calls for the abolition of racing, no matter how many safeguards are initiated.

SCREWING A FRIEND

The California racing community is known for being unforgivably selfish. The refusal of powerful barns to go along with lower takeout is a big part of this.

But it’s not the only thing. When Hollywood shut down, creating a void on the racing calendar and a crisis in stall availability, Edward Allred, owner of Los Alamitos, stepped up. He spent a fortune modifying his racetrack for longer thoroughbred races and building hundreds of stalls he doesn’t need for his quarterhorse racing.

Last week, without warning, the thoroughbred hierarchy paid him back by cutting back his race days in half. Racing at Santa Anita is more lucrative.

Allred couldn’t be blamed for telling the thoroughbreds, “If that’s all you need me for, I don’t need you at all.”

STRETCHING OUT

Saratoga and Del Mar are generally the places where the following year’s stars begin to sort themselves out. Not this year.

The Del Mar Futurity was won by Nucky, coming out of a claimer. A maiden, Bast, took the Debutante. Another maiden, Yesterdayoncemore, won the Juvenile Fillies Turf.

Back East, the Hopeful, Saratoga’s championship race for 2-year-olds, lost some of its luster when Green Light Go, the likely strong favorite, was scratched as a result of the track coming up muddy. We’ll have to wait for the Champagne to see if he is indeed at the top of his generation or a Saratoga horse for course and sprint star. From what I saw, it’s the former.

In Green Light Go’s absence, Steve Asmussen played Chad Brown, running 1-2-3 with Basin, Shoplifted and Gozilla.

The winner was advantaged by the outside slot. Shoplifted was hindered somewhat by drawing the rail. Reverse the posts and you might have reversed the result. I became a fan of Shoplifted when I saw him break his maiden and I still think he will be right there with the best when the big fall races are run.

Historically speaking, Green Light Go might have caught a break when the track didn’t come up to Jimmy Jerkens liking. The Hopeful has produced some top sprinters, Mind Control being the latest, but it hasn’t been a leading indicator of Triple Crown success.

The last Hopeful winner to double in the Kentucky Derby was Affirmed in 1977-78. The only Hopeful champion to win any Triple Crown race during this period was Afleet Alex in 2004-2005.

Q’s WITHOUT A’s

Why can’t a starting gate be used for jump races, at least at major tracks, which unlike hunts meetings, have starting gates available? It’s ridiculous that the field has to be herded into something resembling a line and some entrants wind up starting lengths behind the field.

How is the mile-and-an-eighth Haskell a win and you’re in for the mile-and-a-quarter Breeders’ Cup Classic while the mile-and-a-quarter Travers is not?  Ask any horseman which race he would rather win and there is little doubt what the answer will be.

By the way, whatever happened to the 45,000 cap on Travers Day? The announced crowd was 49,000-plus. This validates my contention that the cap was never anything more than a way to create an artificial scarcity to drive up sales.


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3 Responses

  1. Tom: Saratoga is just a magical place. Its the adult Disneyland. However, the price gouging has been going on for decades. When we first started going there in the 70s, the Downtown hotels were charging about $100 per night. Sure, that sounds like a bargain in today’s economic world, but it was obscene when Affirmed fouled Alydar in the Travers.
    Anyway, we did then what we do now, i.e., just drive 10 to 15 minutes out of town, and you will find bargains galore. In ’78, for example, I paid $12 per night ( plus a buck for AC), at a motel by Exit 17N. Nowadays, with all of the various brand hotels that have sprouted up all over Saratoga County, it could not be easier to find a very nice room at a reasonable price. of course, the gouging still goes on in town, where that $100 room from 40 years ago is now $500 a night. What are you going to do?

    Its still the greatest venue for horse racing in our hemisphere. Its our collective retreat from the misery of the daily commute on the Belt, Cross Island, LIE, etc. As James Earl Jones said in Field of Dreams, they will happily turn over their money to come watch a ballgame in a corn field. I am thrilled every year to pay for a “shady” spot on the lawn on my guy’s house on Nelson Ave. Heaven can be an Iowa corn field or a parking spot on the corner of Union and Nelson. Your choice, Tom.

    See you next July!

  2. Enjoyed your article despite your plug for Gulfstream Park. I disagree to disagree in that regard. If the NYRA was smart they would leave what little is left of the beucolic nature of the Spa alone. It never seems to end. Damn leftists.

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