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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

AN OPEN LETTER TO NYRA VICE-PRESIDENT OF RACING MARTIN PANZA

Dear Mr. Panza,

First, congratulations for showing the courage to think outside the box, something that’s rarely done in our sport. Everyone tethered to the Thoroughbred race horse loves this sport and horseplayers by nature will have a difference of opinion on what’s best for the game.

Of course, it’s that difference of opinion that not only makes the mares go, but the colts and geldings, too. I have used the following line more than once to colleagues and officials on afternoons of big race days as I look around, see all the fans lining the walking ring upon exiting the paddock before the day’s big race.

The first time I said it was three years ago as I walked from paddock to press box with then Gulfstream Park CEO, Tim Ritvo. From the ground level to the top floor, fans stood shoulder to shoulder, completely encircling the ring, paying $100 for the privilege of doing so at the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational.

I turned to Mr. Ritvo and said: “I feel sorry for everyone who just doesn’t get it about this game.” And I don’t feel any differently while sitting on a recliner in my den, computer in lap, watching races unfold, all of them, on television and online.

Our approach may be different Mr. Panza, but not the passion we share.

On balance, I commend the job you did shuffling the stakes deck with respect to this year’s racing schedule. I gave you a hard time about moving the Jockey Club Gold Cup from Belmont to Saratoga. I believe that the Spa, racing’s strongest brand, doesn’t need the help. Belmont Fall, however, can use all the help it can get. Time will prove which opinion was correct.

But this is not about Belmont Fall. This is about Belmont Spring-Summer,  about the most prestigious flat mile run in this country, and that includes the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Of course, I’m speaking of the Metropolitan Handicap, aka the Met Mile, in the same manner that the Santa Anita Handicap is known as the Big ‘Cap.

All reasonable fans who cherish racing history and tradition believe that its position on the Belmont Park undercard is a disservice to the event, that it’s much more than an appetizer for even the “Test of a Champion.” Arguably,  the Met Mile has made as many champions as the winner of the Triple Crown’s final leg.

Memorial Day is an important American holiday, of course, revered in cities and towns large and small all across this country. But growing up a New Yorker, Memorial Day always had a special feel, different than all the other holidays.

As a youngster, I would walk by Linden Park in Corona, Queens where the American Legion would hold forth with a ceremony replete with a band and a barrage of rifle shots from men dressed in uniform. Obviously, it made an impression, a memory that will never fade.

As a teenager, I cut my teeth at Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceways, like many New York horseplayers. But my first ever trip to a Thoroughbred track was Memorial Day, 1961. I arrived late but in plenty of time to see Kelso, under 130 pounds and Arcaro, make up four lengths inside the final furlong and run down the speedy All Hands toting 117.

Memorial Day no longer attracts crowds of 60,000 or 70,000 fans as it did back in the day, but Memorial Day in New York is still Memorial Day, still unique. And the Met Mile is still the Met Mile, still special, the kind of race run at the end of a program, something to savor, something worth the wait.

One HRI regular goes by the handle Doctor Disaster. Over the course of several columns with other commentors, memories flowed like fine wine as horseplayers recalled their favorite horses and races, the old days at the track that all of us miss in today’s world. These are his words, unabridged:

“It’s always sort of baffled me why NYRA moved the Met Mile to the Belmont Stakes undercard. It is a race that means a lot to downstate fans, and its considered one of the most important races run in the country all year. I think it’s too important a race to play opening act for anybody. In addition, why cut down a big Memorial Day crowd in order to add it to a card that doesn’t need a boost?”

Then, several days later, this:I’d give anything to go into that glorious Memorial Day weekend knowing that the highlight of the whole thing isn’t until the end of the Monday card.  Walking into the track that Saturday morning and sitting down with my Manhattan Clam Chowder, knowing there is 3 days of Spring Belmont goodness in store – with the great race Monday afternoon a joy that’s hard to put into words.  I could feel the stress of the week shedding off of my being while walking from the parking lot to the entrance.”

I raised a family on Long Island. For the past two decades, I’ve lived in Saratoga Springs and now South Florida. Pre-Covid, I missed only two Belmont Stakes since 1964, either driving south or flying north. And the horseplayer in me can’t wait for the glut of Belmont Day Grade 1s.

But now I’m ask for myself and for all those who remember Memorial Day at Belmont Park the way it used to be and can be again, to consider returning the Met Mile to its rightful place on the Belmont calendar.

The Metropolitan Handicap is one of the country’s great horse races, one of a handful of handicaps remaining. It deserves to be a focus for true racing fans, a celebration of the sport’s past, present, and future on a day when a country honors those who sacrificed all to make America great.

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8 Responses

  1. I thought the scheduling of the Metropolitan, Brooklyn and Belmont on the same day was to ascertain there would no longer be a 3yo Met-Belmont sweep nor a NY handicap winner (Met-Suburban-Brooklyn). I relish the memories of Arts and Letters and Conquistador Cielo using the Met as a winning prep for the Belmont and Fit to Fight capturing the NY Handicap triple(Sad to say I wasn’t following the sport (too young) when Kelso accomplished the feat!)

    1. Can you imagine seeing that stretch you on your first day at a Thoroughbred track. I’ve only experienced two louder crowds in all my years at the track; Rachel winning the Woodward and Hedevar and Dr. Fager head to head into the first turn in the ’67 Woodward run at Aqueduct. Damascus won by 10, Buckpasser was second–loved Frank Whiteley but, as a Fager fan, I never forgave him for running the rabbit.

  2. John: I love you. My first Metropolitan Handicap was May 30, 1977. A two week mutuel clerk strike ended that morning at around 10 o’clock. Racing had been conducted without any betting at Belmont during the strike but with only wagering at the then blind OTBs. During that strike, the following year’s Triple Crown winner won his debut at 13-1. However, with only a couple of hours notice, and there was no Social Media advertising the news, over 45,000 of the loyal and ancient followers of the breed, showed up to see the great & Mighty Forego, under Bill Shoemaker and 133 pounds, beat Co Host and Full Out. So, our first Met Miles were with Kelso & Forego, and two better weight carriers did not exist in the 20th century.
    Nevertheless, I must dissent from your plea to Marty Panza to return the Metropolitan to Memorial Day ( observed-its actually the 31st of May). John, I spend some of my time analyzing the mutuel pools, and I can assure you that the Met attracts anywhere from 4-5 times more money on Belmont Day than it would on Memorial Day. That is always the bottom line and Mr. Panza would be derelict in his duty if he reversed the decision. Moreover, having the Met on Belmont Day is an insurance policy against a non-TC Belmont.
    John, nobody would love a return to the “old” days more than me. I learned how to handicap at Harvey’s knee during his old Paddock Club seminars on the second floor of what used to be the Aqueduct grandstand. I bet $5 to place on Seattle Slew in the 77 Wood and used the 50 cents that I won to buy a hot Pretzel ( from the Chestnut vendors) on my way to the A train back to Brooklyn. There was a certain romanticism associated with a day at the Big A back then, but those days are long gone. We have been trending towards racing without fans for the last few decades. The pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. Lets hope that we can have a Belmont Day this June with a reasonably full Grandstand

    1. This is about more than nostalgia Fram, abd the thing is you can put any stakes in the hole vacated by the Met Mile on Belmont day and it would be 3 to 5 times the size as it would on any other day in the calendar.

      How about turning Memorial Day into an event day, build a card around it, listed stakes, what does it matter? Have an early post time if you’re worried about BBQs. Have promoters earn their money.

      Not comparing the two tracks, but once upon a time, Gulfstream only had the FL Derby, then Pegasus came along and they had two big days, The last few years, they turned Fountain of Youth into Big Day #3. It can be done. All that’s needed is a little want-to.

  3. Reading memory lane memories, some of mine includes being utterly disappointed when Gun Bow beat Kelso ( but my dad did have a bet on the winner), knockwursts and knishes on the second floor at the big A close to our favorite watering hole section 2s.
    And being at the new Belmont opening weekend was a long awaited thrill.
    And the memories of the great Memorial Day and weekend races, which unfortunately are gone with the wind.
    Looking forward to humans opening day this year.

    1. Mark,

      Hoping all racing gets fans back, even at 25% capacity, something.

      Also remember knockwursts and knishes!

      Sorry, Mark, I too, bet on Gun Bow–you know, controlling speed, and “Kelly” one of my all time faves. (I left my short pants at the door that day).

  4. JP–
    From your lips (or pen!) to God’s ears! The highlight of my Memorial Day weekend was always the Met Mile. And now it is relegated to playing second fiddle…….hoping the NYRA gods hear your eloquent plea!

    Chuck from Saratoga

  5. John,

    I second your emotions and then some! No reason for the Met Mile to be hidden in the undercard. It is truly one of the great American races and it needs it’s own day. Having it stuck on the Belmont undercard indicates a lack of understanding about the historical importance of the race. AMEN to all you said!

    Peter Applebee

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