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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Compilation photo by HRI staff

By Tom Jicha

The earliest opening and longest meeting in Saratoga history could not have come soon enough. The onslaught of bad news and negative commentaries about racing has been relentless. Nothing counteracts this better than Saratoga.

The first time I walked into the Spa, SAM machines were still science fiction. I have been going back ever since, even though for almost a half-century this has entailed a 1,500-mile drive. This is how much Saratoga means to me.

When you love an activity you want to share it with family and friends. Over the years, I’ve introduced the joys of the Spa to my parents, my kids and some of their friends, my siblings and their kids and a slew of cousins. Not one of them would have ever walked into a race track otherwise. Now they are Saratoga regulars every summer.

One summer a few years ago, there were about 50 of us and a creative niece had tie-dye shirts made up to mark our family reunion. The local ABC affiliate noticed and did about a three-minute piece on us. I don’t know if we’ll match that number but later this month, we’re having another reunion.  

I can’t believe there are people making an issue of the season extending by one week. To me, this is like finding an extra Christmas present I neglected.

Baseball statistics have a new metric, WAR, for Wins Above Replacement. When you acquire a player who hits 30 home runs to replace someone who hits 25, you don’t pick up 30 round-trippers. You pick up five.

It’s not as if Saratoga has created an eight-week meeting out of whole cloth. It has added one extra week. Somehow there are people who are making a big deal of this.

I appreciate that many downstate horse people rent private homes in the Capital region. It might be inconvenient for the owners to be away for another week. But if you can vacate for seven weeks, you can do it for eight. It’s not as if home owners won’t be handsomely rewarded. An extra week could be worth thousands in rent.

 Even more farcical is the claim that the extra week is disruptive to local businesses. Right. Hotels, bars and restaurants have to hate the millions of dollars in revenue the racing season brings to town.

Let the curmudgeons curmudge. The rest of us have been given a gift, an extra few spoonfuls of a delicious  ice cream sundae we can’t get enough of.

There is no finer racing over two months anywhere. A half-dozen stakes will be run this weekend, which wouldn’t have existed without the extension.

Saturday’s Diana will feature a confrontation of the caliber you generally get to see only on Breeders’ Cup Day. Last year’s BC Filly & Mare Turf champion Sistercharlie, the Diana defending champion, is scheduled to make her 2019 debut against her Chad Brown stable-mate Rushing Fall, a winner of 8 of 9, including a pair of Grade 1’s in her only starts this year.

The Travers is the centerpiece of every season at the Spa. With the 3-year-old division in disarray and leaderless, this season’s renewal figures to pack extra significance.

Miracle man Jason Servis has the Midsummer Derby circled for the real Kentucky Derby winner, Maximum Security. Depending on what happens in the Haskell on July 20, his subsequent conqueror, King for a Day, should also be at the Spa on Aug. 24.

War of Will, the only winner of a Triple Crown event still in training, will probably make this dance, too, as well as the warm-up act, the Jim Dandy on July27. Last year’s Eclipse champion Game Winner, is using the Los Al Derby this weekend as a Travers prep. Shug McGaughey is pointing Code of Honor, placed second in the Derby and winner of last weekend’s Dwyer, for the Travers, too.

But the best 3-year-old race of the meeting might be for sprinting fillies on Aug. 3. The sensational Guarana, who demolished her Acorn Stakes rivals, could head a field including Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress, record setting Covfefe and last season’s West Coast star Bellafina.

Guarana might detour into the Coaching Club American Oaks on July 20 but the Test will still be loaded. The Whitney, which is expected to bring McKinzie back East, might be the headliner on Aug 3 but it will have to go some to match The Test.

Sandwiching Whitney Day will be the middle legs of the new Turf Tiara, which generated record-breaking numbers closing Saturday at Belmont. Many of the same shooters should be back.

Every time a juvenile race, MSW or stakes, is run at the Spa, there is an anticipation that we might be in on the launching of a future champion. Opening weekend will feature the Schuylerville for fillies on Thursday and the Sanford on Saturday. All the 2-year-old action is a prelude to the Spinaway and Hopeful on closing weekend.

The best part of the new longer season is that with construction on the new Islanders arena at Belmont still not under way the new schedule should be in place for at least three years. By then, it will be the norm, never to be changed.

West Coast chaos

Del Mar used to be Saratoga’s West Coast cousin, the treat SoCal racing fans looked forward to all year.

Racing approaches this Del Mar season, which opens July 17, more with dread than anticipation. All it will take is one equine fatality, a seeming inevitability, for the unholy alliance of PETA, Gov. Newsom, Sen. Feinstein and the media to renew their calls for the abolition of racing.

Even absent that, Del Mar, in order to maintain a five-day schedule, has had to drastically reduce the number of races to be run in recognition of the shortage of horses. Wednesday and Thursday cards will offer only seven races. Friday will have eight. Saturday is the big day with nine. On Sunday, it goes back to eight. Del Mar is only hopeful it will be able to maintain this abbreviated format.

The new rules put in place at Santa Anita allow any of five “experts” to order a horse scratched. The expected abundance of caution is sure to result in many short, un-bettable fields. Fans got a preview of this in the closing days of the Santa Anita meeting.

Fewer races with fewer horses; there’s a formula for success. I wonder if Del Mar will keep the exorbitant prices it charges for admission and parking while offering lesser entertainment.

Any sympathy I might have for Del Mar was eradicated when it meekly joined with The Stronach Group and NYRA to put Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer out of business. Like the others, Del Mar offered no explanation even though Hollendorfer has no outstanding violations in any jurisdiction.

So anything Del Mar suffers, up to and including being shut down by the forces aligned against racing, will be a case of poetic justice.

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6 Responses

  1. “There is no finer racing over two months anywhere. A half-dozen stakes will be run this weekend …” you write, Mr. Jicha; therein lies the rub: a) what constitutes ‘finer’ racing? b) are stake races any different than any other race on the day’s card for wagering purposes?, and c) are stake races easier to handicap and to profit from?

    I accept the fact that the ambience of being there, the people in attendance, and the nightlife create an excitement not felt at just about all other racetracks; but, the major attraction of gambling on Saratoga races (making money by betting on the ponies, Alice) takes a backseat to just about any other racetrack operating the same day; this conclusion is not just mine, but is derived from conversations over the years with numerous other serious horseplayers; few, if any, have overtime generated a profit from betting on Saratoga races.

    How does one pick a winner from two-year-old races? How are the entrants in a stake race ‘capped? One is either a heavy favorite offering no value or all figure – go figure! Plus, most have not raced on the surface.

    Saratoga racing is for the monied: the owners and trainers of blue blood thoroughbreds chasing six/seven figure purses made available from casino dole and attractive to the novice and casual bettor, usually on vacation, who love the exotic bets.

    Am pleased that you used the word curmudgeon; that’s me! I’ll take less atmosphere and bet on plodders that have raced a dozen or more times and have been around the current track a few times. It’s real money I’m betting and I don’t like to lose – period! Other races at other racetracks offer me a better opportunity to cash a ticket. It’s rare, but I will take a long look at a plater from a mid-Atlantic or Finger Lakes track entered at Saratoga. And, I will once again try to comprehend how Saratoga has the best racing anywhere as I watch some of the races at the local joint.

  2. How many times have we danced this dance?
    If you prefer cheap platers from the MidAtlantic, knock yourself out.
    I enjoy the horses, the ambiance and the success I’ve had at Saratoga.
    Live and let live.

  3. And, Mr. Jicha, we will no doubt dance again. Every year you and your fellow turf writers inform the uninformed that Saratoga racing is the very best. Your measurement or criterion being owners, trainers, jockeys, the blue bloods on the grounds, the number of stake races, and the size of the purse. Never a word that racing at other racetracks is virtually identical. Never a word, or admission, that wagering on blue blood two-year-old horses is precarious, that most entrants have never raced at Saratoga, and that (fact, Alice) few bettors depart Saratoga profitable except you.

    Knock yourself out betting Saratoga races when you would be more successful betting on races where the entrants have raced a dozen or more times and have been around the track several times already.

    Have a good meet, enjoy the atmosphere and the nightlife. The facts I process indicate that the odds are against your being profitable.

  4. I agree with both of you. While I love the challenge of handicapping Saratoga, it is awfully hard to bet a lot of money there. I think the mid Atlantic tracks are more formfull and easier to make money at

  5. What is the commotion about these mid-Atlantic tracks about, Alice? Are we talking Parx, Laurel, Pimlico, Meadowlands? I will take the classy sorts that ship to Saratoga any day, or night (The Big M) of the week. If you want big payouts perhaps try your luck at Evangeline Downs with big fields most races. Kentucky Downs another option but wicked short meet. I have read about big scores at The Spa, people who play $100.00 tri keys. Once left a Meadowlands harness card late one night and a guy who worked in the office downstairs showed me his $50.00 tri box on the nightcap. He won. Some of the blue blood horses that roll into Saratoga are gonna win and pay 5-2, nothing wrong with that. I agree with Mr. Jicha. Saratoga is a gift of sorts, a horseplayer’s paradise.

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