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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, July 17, 2023 – In hindsight, what happened on the evening of May 3, 2003, at the Albany Tele-Theater Clubhouse was a funny thing, although I remember thinking at the time not so much.

When I arrived at the cashier’s window, I had just finished celebrating the events of the day and held a worthy collection of tickets on the winner and exacta of the feature race at Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby.

Better still, I had a small bunch of Oaks-Derby Double tickets which, if memory serves, were worth $177 per ducat. Marylou’s Bird Stone in the first leg and a “gutsy gelding’ to complete the play. Indeed, those were heady times in the Capital District of upstate New York.

As I stepped up to cash in, the mutuel clerk said: “Sorry sir, you will have to come back tomorrow.”


“I apologize sir, but we’ve run out of money.” And that wasn’t only the case at 711 Central Avenue in Albany.

At that time, Capital Region Off-Track-Betting had approximately 40 off-track bet shops covering the 16 counties that serviced horseplayers in the upstate region to the west and north of the state capital.

“It was 20 years ago but I would say about half our shops ran out of funds,” recalled Capital OTB President John Signor by phone from his executive office in Schenectady. “I remember it took about three days to add funds so all our customers could collect their winnings.”

Funny Cide’s Triple Crown run and summer campaign led the way to record earnings for the company that year and gave racing and off-track community added visibility across the entire state.  

“When the Triple Crown ended we rented a school bus and the group visited all of our branches. When he later raced at the old Gulfstream Park, the school bus rolled down the length of the stretch to the finish line. Gulfstream later welcomed Funny Cide into their Hall of Fame.

“We couldn’t be happier to have been associated with Sackatoga Stables. Jack Knowlton could not have been more accommodating in helping us to promote the sport. Capital OTB owes a lot to Funny Cide and Jack Knowlton. They helped to put us on the map.”

Thoroughbred racing does, too. Funny Cide was beloved. How many retired racehorses, after all, receive Christmas cards while collecting a  pension? He put the town of Farmington, NY, on the map, too, when he doubled the capacity of Finger Lakes Racetrack for his final race.

Funny Cide passed on Sunday, two decades after his Derby victory at a time when racing was being conducted in the town of his birth 23 years ago. And so this weekend, he joined the fraternity of past champions who touched the hearts of so many, in and out of racing.

Treasured champions of the past, horses named Kelso and John Henry and Forego had two things in common. All were geldings, and all raced well past the age when today’s Equine Gen X’s and Gen Z’s have called it a career. The game, and racing’s true fans, miss them deeply.


HRI’s Footnotes for Wednesday’s Feature, three-year-old state-bred fillies going one mile on turf, listed in spot order with early line odds:

RED MOON (2-1) tardy from gate, was taken back to last under rating hold, made very good turn move 4-wide into 6-path entering lane, finished well down the center; probably best?

BERNT AGAIN (8-1) stoutly restrained speed between horses much of the way 2-3 wide, lowered her body and lengthened stride late.

MZ. BIG BUCKS (5-2) set very solid/fast pace comfortably, re-break soon after entering stretch, clearly deserving winner in strong front-end effort.

CAMP AKEELA (12-1) rated between horses throughout 2-3 wide, angled out into 4-path, finished one-paced.

CLOVER STREET (10-1) restrained speed stalking lively pace from good position throughout, tipped 5-wide into lane, finished evenly behind 2-for-2 Todd/Winstar winner.

LITTLE LINZEE (5-1) stalked pace 3-4 wide across the track throughout, solid rally 4-wide entering lane, finished with energy, evenly through last furlong in 12:23.

BEA BEA KAZ (30-1) steadied while keen between horses 3-4 wide backstretch in close quarters

QUEENS OVER THREES (30-1) [no video available, May 18 race two-back] restrained speed on the fence throughout, tipped out 3-4 midstretch, ride made the difference.

ORANGE FREEZE (6-1) restrained speed 3-4 wide good trip backstretch, surged 4 wide approaching headstretch, momentum carried her 6-wide into lane, solid rally through stretch but was one-paced nearing finish late.

The Skinny: Either one of the early favorites will be hard to beat, lean goes to Red Moon with tougher trip over strong front-end winning Mz. Big Bucks. Orange Freeze, off the Morey claim and uncoupled mate of Red Moon a little interesting, Rosario sticks.


The enthusiasm that always accompanies the opening of Saratoga was decidedly dampened by the blows it suffered as a result of significant rainfall. It wasn’t the overall amount, necessarily, but then timing is everything.

We begin out of respect for the Godfather, who insists on hearing the Bad News immediately:

The transition of clean surfaces into severely wet ones, accompanied by a plethora of rescheduled turf races, wreaked havoc with respect to bet-ability and watch-ability–even a graded turf stakes was lost to the elements.

Including off-the-turf, trainer, veterinarian and main-track only declarations, 99 entrants spent one of the first four days of the meet on the sidelines. Obviously, field sizes were negatively impacted. In all, 298 horses did answer the starter’s call to the post.

By our old-school count, 12 races had fewer than six combatants: Five races were run with five betting interests, four races went as 4-horse fields, and three answered the bell going with a mere three horses leaving the gate. The number of defections and small fields had to set some kind of infamous standard.

Since no one can control weather phenomena–never mind 2023’s Climate Change Summer From Hell—there was Good News generated by what transpired between the fences:

The Ortiz Brothers, Irad Jr. and Jose, ended the first week of the meet right where they left off at Belmont Park, where Jose clinched the riding title by one winner with the competition going down to the final race of the meet. At the end of the first short week, the Ortiz boys led all others, tied at seven winners.

Others getting off quickly were Flavien Prat, with four including Saturday’s upset win of In Italian in the G1 Diana. Four riders tied for fourth with three wins each: Javier Castellano, Luis Saez, Kendrick Carmouche and Dylan Davis, two of Castellano’s coming in stakes.

Linda Rice, Belmont’s leading trainer in a rout, has not slowed down upstate. Her five wins in four days leads Chad Brown and Mark Hennig, each with three, with six trainers tied with two each, among those Hall of Famers Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott.

The ‘Graveyard’ claimed three odds-on graded stakes victims on the first Saturday of the meet, but favorites overall fared well, winning at a 41.5% clip over 41 races.

this live column will be updated through Wednesday’s Week 2 opener.

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⚠ Before you comment

Our staff likes nothing better than to engage with the HRI Faithful and provide a forum for interaction on horseracing and sports. In that spirit, please be kind and reasonable; keep the language clean, and the tone civil. Comments from those who cannot comply will be deleted. Thank you.

8 Responses

  1. Hi, John:

    For the HRI Faithful, making the trek up the New York State Thruway from NYC or NJ, here’s my first hand account of what you’ll find at The Old Spa this Summer:

    First, be very aware that every other Thruway Rest Area is closed for renovations. You’ll often be driving 60 miles or more to the next outpost. The New Baltimore and Platteville stops, however, are new and outstanding.

    General Admission is $10 each, up from $7 last year. Your paid pass through the gate allows you to also access the Clubhouse (formerly a $3 bump). It’s a slippery, pricing move by NYRA to raise the cost for Grandstand-only patrons. You can get the old price back for future dates by venturing to the Reserved Seat booth behind the Grandstand. Be advised that you’ll also be in the line with those purchasing seats for the rest of the meet. Be prepared to wait. Debit and Credit Cards only are accepted.

    Track accessories – like the Daily Racing Form, NYRA Programs and Tip Sheets – may only be bought with Debit or Credit Cards.

    Bring a cooler if you’re staying in the back. Best tip of the meet every year. Beer runs you anywhere from $6.00 for 4 cans of Coors Light at a stand directly across from the Clubhouse Escalator to either $9.00, $12.00 or $14.00 elsewhere. “Bettor” be beating the mutuels at these high prices. Your cash is still happily accepted at bars and refreshment stands.

    Parking rates have gone out of sight, too. Be prepared to hand over between $20 and $30 to park your vehicle. I didn’t see the pricing for the NYRA on-site lot on Union Avenue. Also, I believe that the Oklahoma Track still offers free parking for those willing to walk a long distance and bet their money instead.

    Saratoga in-town hotel prices are ridiculous. My recommendation is to stay in the Albany suburb of Colonie, either on Central Avenue or Wolf Road, and drive to the 25 miles up the Thruway to the racetrack.

    The load of scratches that you mentioned above made a mess of the opening week Friday and Sunday programs. It might be helpful to card one or more replacement or substitute Main Track races to replace these off-the-turf fiascos when the field size is reduced to below 5 runners. Just thinking out loud here because there is seemingly no easy solution to a situation which gets worse each year.

    Finally, it’s easy to criticize Saratoga 2023. Granted, it’s pricey, steamy (as in high humidity on many days) and beyond disappointing on the rainy, off-the-turf days. For me, it’s still “The Summer Pace To Be.” The best of the best – horses, owners and trainers – still converge here for 40 days each year. The town – with its restaurants and a full array of Summer activities – is tremendous and well worth visiting. Oh, and it remains the Graveyard of Favorites, too, judging by some of the upsets during opening week. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to be rewarded at the windows, if only you can somehow remain deeply focused on finding and wagering on winners.

  2. Excellent and unsolicited review Richard, and a real service to the HRI Faithful vising the old Spa.

    On behalf of all, thank you, it’s God’s work you’re doing.

    Yes, it’s not as if horseplayers haven’t become used to off-the-turf events turning into bet-less affairs for those disinclined to be on short priced winners–though I would think horizontal players with smaller bankrolls appreciate the opportunity to compete with deep-pocketed brethren under those conditions.

    But as true Saratoga lovers know, it’s bigger than cashing tickets, which can be done at any racetrack in America. Saratoga and its outskirts are great places to visit.

    Finally, there’s no law stating you must bet every race, just double up on another race where your opinions are strongest. Saratoga is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be many opportunities along the way. All that’s needed is a little patience to await those spots. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks, John. It was my pleasure to offer some commentary on the Saratoga scene. Your many columns on Saratoga racing are indispensable (certainly not disposable) while offering great insight (with some hindsight) on NYRA’s Summer away from the City.

      First to the Oops Department to correct my errors: Coors Light is $6.00 per can at the track provided that you buy 4 at the same time. Otherwise, a single can is $8.00. Funny thing, though, you can pick up a 30 pack of Coors Light for $30 at the local Stewart’s Shops. That’s a great deal, if you can use 30. Also, the Saratoga Reserved Seat booth still takes cash and not just debit or credit.

      Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to return to Saratoga for the Whitney Weekend and perhaps one more before the curtain closes on Labor Day. As you correctly said, no one is forcing you to bet every race. Find 3 or 4 “good things” on a 10 or 11 race card and you’ll be in position to make a nice score. A few days at Saratoga each year – in my opinion – is an experience well worth repeating.

      1. “A few days at Saratoga each year – in my opinion – is an experience well worth repeating.” I’ll second that emotion. Either you get it about Saratoga or you don’t. It is your father’s racetrack, only with enhancements… at higher prices, of course..

  3. I think it’s safe to say that opening week of Saratoga was a relative dud.

    BTW, check out Jerry Brown’s letter to the editor in TDN this morning about CAW’s. Nice to see it’s not just on here that people are discussing how grave a danger to the sport they are.

  4. Will do, Doc, thanks for the heads-up re Jerry Brown… Caught up to the Brown piece; he nailed it.
    And I learned something and I’m angrier than ever. The account for nearly a third of the betting pools?
    If that’s accurate, than CAWs–at the very least–should be shut off at the 3-minute mark so that rank and file players everywhere have a chance to react to their inefficiencies. No one has a lock on the game, except arbitrageurs with special access and a takeout rate paid for by the average fan.
    Instead of investigating public handicappers, maybe HISA could look into this and do something about an uneven playing field! Brown is right, this is an existential crisis that will kill the golden goose for everyone.

    1. Remember back in the day, when you got a better payout on track vs betting at an OTB in NY? So people would have incentive to go to the track instead of pulling into the OTB next to the track on Hempstead Turnpike in Elmont & Franklin Square, or the NYCOTB parlors close to Aqueduct?

      When the Belmont renovation is completed, and there are lots of fun amenities for fans to enjoy during the day, I wonder if they would ever consider revisiting that idea or something like it. They could set up shuttle buses between the track and strategic locations in Queens and Nassau. People could still bet on their NYRAbets accounts on-track, since it could easily be monitored from using the on track wifi.

      Just spitballing here

      1. Any idea to get the general public involved is to introduce them to the experience of a day at the races. Lots of sights tO take in and the atmosphere–provided there are people in the building–is charged. Any engagement with fans is worth the investment.
        And maybe they can get back some of those who have walked away re-engaged.
        Will see your spitball and raise you one, Doc. Perhaps some special pool where only those on-track could bet into without the fear of CAW whales fleecing of casual fans and rank and file bettors.

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