Martin Panza arrived at the New York Racing Association late last year following the demise of his prior employer, Hollywood Park in California. He is now the Senior Vice President of Racing Operations at NYRA, and is responsible for the selection of races that will be on a race card at the NYRA tracks.
Rick Violette has been training horses for over 30 years and is a fixture on the New York circuit. He is the President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and, in that capacity, is an ex officio member of the NYRA Board. He brings a different perspective to the discussion on the future of racing in New York than Panza’s.
Panza’s signature innovation this year has been the concept of “Big Days,” a notion he believes is the future for racing. The first such “Big Day” was Belmont Stakes Day. He moved three Grade I races, including the Metropolitan Mile, from Memorial Day to Belmont day. So what had been a big day in New York on the holiday marking the start of summer became part of the under card for the final Triple Crown race. Not surprisingly with California Chrome shooting for the sweep, 100,000 showed up at Belmont – a crowd consistent with prior attempts at racing immortality.
The next “Big Day” was July 5, where Panza moved two existing turf stakes for three-year olds from other days, but bumped the purses for each to at least $1 million. Three additional graded stakes were part of the under card. Total purse money offered was $3.8 million. A grand total of 11,118 showed up. NYRA officials were practically giddy at the tremendous success of this event. By contrast, Monmouth Park in New Jersey, the closest competitor to Belmont, offered $400,000 in purse money and attracted 8,782 fans. Its feature was an ungraded $100,000 stake. The almost 10-1 differential in purse money attracted a mere 2,400 more patrons. When reality set in, NYRA actually blamed the weather from the day before as depressing the “Big Day” turnout.
Whitney Stakes Day was the next “Big Day” where NYRA’s goal was to attract a Travers-type crowd of 50,000. They fell short, drawing 36,318, or about three thousand more than last year’s attendance. Of course, NYRA’s attendance figures are considerably suspect, as discussed in this post and this one. One reason is that NYRA counts the 6,370 who purchased a season pass as attending, even if none of them actually showed. If we make the generous assumption that half did appear, and subtract the other half from this year’s figure, the resulting number is actually smaller than last year’s crowd.
The next “Big Day” is, of course, the Travers. The Travers is like the Kentucky Derby – it doesn’t matter what horses are entered or what the under card is. I mean, do you think a Wicked Strong-Tonalist rematch is going to get the juices flowing? It’s an event and people will show no matter the weather or the field. Although if we had a match-up as compelling as Affirmed v. Alydar, we would expect a record-breaking card. Even a California Chrome entry would make this year’s event much more compelling.
Panza may also be the inspiration for one of the most disturbing proposals in recent years in New York. One morning I showed up on the back stretch and saw this:
This is Clare Court, one of the most historic and picturesque locations at the Saratoga Race Course. I was informed that this was a Panza brainstorm, replacing the white wood fencing with this metal monstrosity that he supposedly had back in his West Coast days. While the fencing has since been moved, the dumpster still is there, not exactly contributing to the allure of this magical section of the back stretch. I asked NYRA if the wood fencing was to be replaced, but they did not respond.
Panza’s latest headlines – at least in the racing media – were his thoughts on limiting the number of races run. In remarks at the Jockey Club Round Table in Saratoga, Panza said that the declining foal crop meant the racing industry needed to reexamine the number of races it was running. The numbers he cited are indeed disturbing. From a level of 35,000 foals being born only a few years ago, the new normal seems to be 22,000. That necessarily means there are considerably fewer horses that can fill race cards. (New York, interestingly, has reversed a steady decline. The foal crop increased by 19 per cent from 2011 to 2012.)
Panza raised the possibility of either reducing the number of race days or reducing the number of races run each day. Other ideas that have been floated by NYRA’s Board include eliminating either the Belmont or Aqueduct tracks located down state, or even eliminating winter racing altogether.
Enter Rick Violette. While he is no longer a voting member of the NYRA Board – his vote was taken away in Governor Cuomo’s legislation establishing the temporary and “new” NYRA – Violette is one of the rare members of the Board who is clearly knowledgeable about New York racing and its history, and is not afraid to speak his mind. It is not clear, however, if not downright doubtful, that independent voices are welcome in the rarefied chambers that now control New York racing.
But he is not a calcified remnant of the prior NYRA Board, having expressed his willingness to be open-minded and willing to experiment. At last week’s annual seminar sponsored by Albany Law School, Violette did insist on fact-based analysis and a willingness on the part of those advocating experimentation to acknowledge when they are wrong.
The panel on which Violette appeared was entitled “NYRA Re-Organization: Rounding the Far Turn.” Reorganizing NYRA is one of the primary objectives of the law creating the “new” body, and is one of CEO Chris Kay’s three main objectives. Kay declined repeated invitations to appear. A NYRA Board member who did agree to show was a “late scratch.”
So Violette was left to explain how winterizing Belmont Park – and closing Aqueduct – was not only prohibitively expense and impractical, but would result in a diminished experience for those attending. While he described Belmont as a “white elephant,” he said that adding a winterized surface inside the three existing tracks as would make it “like Gulfstream.” It was not a compliment.
He went on to outline the devastating impact that stopping winter racing would have on New York’s racing and breeding industries. According to Violette, many of the over 30,000 jobs dependent on those businesses would be lost.
Is Violette correct? I do not know. What I am fairly certain of, however, is that these issues require a full airing and discussion. What we do not need is someone coming in and destroying a valuable part of an historic race track and also forcing dramatic changes on the racing program without a willingness to listen to contrary views, or to look at the objective evidence.