With the Saratoga meeting just having passed the half-way point, here are one fan’s observations:
- The high point for me was Allen Jerkens winning yet another Grade I in an upset. While Emma’s Encore may not have slain any giants in a thrilling nose win in The Prioress, the three-year old filly had been so lightly regarded to this point that she went to the post at 39-1 in her prior start, a Grade III event. Kudos also go to The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association for running a daily series of quotations from The Chief in The Saratoga Special. Many fans know that Jerkens upset Secretariat in the 1973 Whitney with Onion, but less remarked upon is the fact that the Giant Killer beat Secretariat twice in the same year with different horses.
- Another high point was the two-hour Jockey Club Roundtable, presenting intelligent and informed presentations concerning the future of racing. With one of the premier racing franchises in the world about to be taken over by New York’s state government without anything even remotely approaching a discussion, let alone one that is intelligent and informed, it was good to hear that there are people who have thought about some of the sport’s biggest challenges, including the role of drugs and the development of a fan base. This warrants a fuller discussion, but if you would like to observe it, it is replayed at The Jockey Club’s web site.
- One of the ideas presented at the Roundtable was the importance of offering a quality product to racing fans and prospective fans. Paul Moran, writing in ESPN.com (courtesy of equidaily.com) recently observed that one of the appeals of Saratoga is the “gentle energy in the morning that gains momentum in early afternoon.” There is nothing better than what I call the “full Saratoga” – watching the morning backstretch activity, grabbing breakfast at the snack bar on the main track, then easing into a day of handicapping and racing. But, as Moran observed, an 11-race card with over 5 hours of waiting causes many people, including those who arrived just in time for the first post, to leave early. On Sunday, I arrived after 4:00, in sufficient time to watch the last five races, and was met by hundreds already leaving. By the time my wife and I worked our way back to the grandstand from the Shake Shack to watch the first of the day’s features, the crowd leaving had become a stream. When Sam summoned horses to the track for the first of the two-year old stakes, the clubhouse was almost empty. With post times of 6:14 and 6:46, it is little wonder that families and those who had to go to work the next morning opted to leave. I understand the post times may be caused by the NBC television schedule, and NYRA is to be commended for seeking to expand broadcast coverage. But a television picture of horses racing against the backdrop of an empty grandstand is not going to convince many that Saratoga is the “August Place To Be.”
- Speaking of quality products, I conducted a rough survey of the cards for the first 20 days. Of the 203 races run on the “flats,” 52 percent were either claiming races or maidens, and I did not include open two-year old Maiden Special Weights or optional claiming races. After observing that Saturday’s card included six $20,000 claiming races, I looked at the cards for the third full week (Wednesday through Monday) and saw that 61 percent of the flat races were claiming or maiden (with the same exceptions as noted). Now, I think any good card has a mix of claiming, state-bred and turf, but it is hard to argue that six $20K claimers on a Saturday at Saratoga represents quality. Nonetheless, most field sizes are large and racing has been competitive.
- Speaking of attracting new fans, why does NYRA allow the rail at the Paddock to be taken over by people who push their picnic tables and blankets up to the rail? Another of the Spa’s appeal has always been to get up close with thoroughbreds, including some of the nation’s finest. Now, thousands each day are being deprived of that pleasure because of the rudeness of a few.
- Another meet highlight is the sales week that just ended. The high-end Select Sale that began the week is a fun event attended by many neighborhood residents rubbing elbows with stars of the industry, as well as stars of, shall we say, a seemingly different industry. I do not know what to make of the sales results and what it means for the health of the sport. The Select Sale had declines in both the average price ($319K to $299K) and median price ($250K to $225K) from 2011. The percent of horses not sold for failing to meet a reserve climbed from 22 percent in 2011 to 34 percent this year. The New York-bred sale experienced increases from 2011 in both the average price ($54K to $63K) and median ($35K to $50K). The RNA’s, however, also increased, although not as dramatically as for the Select Sale, from 32 percent to 38 percent.
All in all, it’s kind of a mixed bag for the first half of the meet. It is regrettable that the most significant news that comes out as we get to Labor Day is the naming of the State of New York’s government-controlled Board of Directors. I would like to think that Governor Andrew Cuomo is paying close attention to what is going on since he has demonstrated no prior interest in the sport, but I doubt it.