The New York Racing Associations has announced scheduling changes for the Saratoga meeting beginning on July 18. Among the differences from last year:
- A small reduction in the number of races, with only nine flat races carded for Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays;
- Steeplechases on both Wednesdays and Thursdays, with the post for those events being 12:25;
- Loading up the card for Whitney Day, August 2, by moving two Grade I races, the Test and the Alfred G. Vanderbilt, to that Saturday.
I think the first two changes are positive, although there are some who prefer longer programs. I realize you are not being handcuffed to a seat to prevent you from leaving before the nightcap, but my personal preference is for fewer races, hopefully producing better quality racing. Increasing the days on which there are steeplechases will appeal to fans of the jumps, and by making the post time 35 minutes before the standard 1:00, those who do not care for the events won’t be bothered (and the earlier race will not factor into the pick 5). NYRA is to be credited with coming up with these changes that I think should only be viewed positively.
Loading up the Whitney card by moving two grade I’s from other days is an effort to repeat the increased handle that NYRA believes resulted from a similar approach on Belmont Stakes Day, when they moved Grade I’s from Memorial Day to have a card with six Grade I’s as well as four other stakes. Martin Panza, the senior vice president for racing, was quoted by Thoroughbred Daily News as saying, “Instead of handling $40 million, we hope to be handling $80 million. We hope … 50,000 people show up….”
This notion of creating “big” days as a way of enhancing attendance and handle, as well as attracting new fans, is one of the innovations by NYRA this year. My view is that 100,000 showed up on Belmont Stakes Day not because there were six Grade I’s, but because California Chrome was going for the Triple Crown. NYRA’s stated purpose in moving three Grade I’s from Memorial Day was to give Belmont Stakes Day insurance against the Crown not being at issue. I would hazard a guess that at least half the crowd that day had no idea what a Grade I is. The increased handle, on the other hand, very likely was the result of one of this year’s most enticing race cards. It undoubtedly came at the expense, however, of what I surmise was a seriously lower handle on Memorial Day.
So NYRA’s theory as espoused by Panza will be put to the test on this year’s Whitney day. My prediction is that the attendance will be about what it was last year, despite what I anticipate to be a heavy marketing campaign by NYRA.
Speaking of attendance, I was at Belmont on Saturday and Sunday two weekends ago. Both days were absolutely perfect early summer days. On Saturday, 6,060 other fans joined me; Sunday’s crowd was 5,414. By contrast, Monmouth Park attracted 40 percent more people over the weekend. Even Suffolk Downs, cozily nestled between huge oil storage tanks and train tracks in East Boston, attracted a Saturday crowd that was more than half of Belmont’s. The Monmouth cards did not come even close to approaching the quality of NYRA’s offerings – and we need not go into the “quality” offered by Suffolk, a track that may well be on its last legs.
Even more significantly, this weekend’s heavily touted “Stars and Stripes Day” drew a mere 11,118 for a terrific card of racing featuring two Grade I turf races and the Dwyer and Suburban. Now I realize that Andy Serling works for NYRA, but when he mentioned the “great crowd” as I was looking at tens of thousands of empty seats, I had to wonder if working for NYRA comes at the expense of any pretense of integrity.
The Belmont numbers are not atypical. They do, however, point to a significant issue concerning the future direction of racing in New York state. With the exception of Saratoga and Belmont Stakes Day, attendance at New York’s tracks rarely hits five figures. New York’s handle, from all sources, nonetheless accounts for 20 per cent of all wagers on thoroughbreds in the country. It may not matter, then, what on-track attendance is when that amount of handle is being generated. At the very least, however, it is a conversation worth having, particularly since the closing of NYRA’s other down-state track, Aqueduct, is frequently raised.
It is not the only subject worth discussing about New York’s future. The Governor’s top racing figures have openly mentioned removing revenues from Video Lottery Terminals that currently go to the thoroughbred purses. The legislation creating the current state-controlled NYRA expires a little over a year from now, and a recommendation on the future structure of NYRA must be filed in less than 10 months.
In addition, there are industry-wide issues that need to be addressed. Tom LaMarra recently wrote in BloodHorse.com about the significant drop in both recent foal crops and the number of owners. Yet there is not even a peep from NYRA’s so-called leaders talking about these issues. Chairman of the Board David Skorton rarely says anything about the future of the racing and breeding industries in New York. He came to the job almost two years ago with neither a background in racing nor any knowledge of it. I am not sure he has ever been to a horse race. His pick for NYRA’s CEO, Chris Kay, similarly has no racing background. At least he had been to a race, albeit 40 years before his appointment. While his pre-Saratoga press conference demonstrated his knowledge of the eligibility for a free scoop of ice cream at the Spa’s traditional open house on July 13, the next interesting thing he says about the direction of the racing and breeding industries will be his first.
New York should be a national leader in the racing, particularly given the dramatic decline of Churchill Downs as either a racing venue or voice for the industry. Neither Skorton nor Kay has demonstrated any aptitude – or interest – in assuming that role. The NYRA Board that has 11 government-appointed members out of 16, is as useless an entity as exists in racing. Its last meeting – the only one it will have over a six-month period – lasted all of 56 minutes, except for an executive session, even though it is facing these significant issues.
According to The Saratogian, Board member Charles Wait said that the preliminary report on returning NYRA to a non-government controlled entity is expected in August. It is a report that should be made public in order to encourage a much-needed discussion about the future of NYRA.
If past performances are any indication, however, NYRA will refuse to release it. It’s not as though a Board consisting entirely of older white men could not use some input that the 30,000 people dependent on the racing and breeding industries might have. Last time I looked, “older white men” is the only demographic amply represented by racing patrons, a concern that should be paramount to an organization that is purportedly interested in expanding its fan base.