There are a number of things I failed to comment on promptly, so here is an attempt to do some catching up:
- Now that’s a March surprise: No not the NCAA’s, but the Israeli election. Candidates in American elections fear the “October surprise” from their opponent – an event so close to the election that there is no time to respond. Bibi Netanyahu delivered not one, but two such shockers. First there was the renunciation of the two-state solution to create a distinct Palestinian country. Then on election day he tweeted about the “droves” of Arabs turning out to the polls. While he has walked back from the first and apologized for the second, I wonder what his enablers in our Republican Party thought of those two developments. The two-state solution has been a long-standing tenet of United States foreign policy, although the GOP apparently now thinks it is OK to have its own foreign policy at opposition to the elected leadership of the country. I fear that many may secretly admire Netanyahu for blatantly playing the race card. Incidentally, for a disturbing account of seemingly wide-spread anti-Semitism in Europe, read Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece in this month’s Atlantic.
- Speaking of the GOP, buy this guy a dictionary: I have long thought that Representative Steve King of Iowa is one of the biggest nitwits to hold elected office. He is the one who talked about Mexicans with calves the size of cantaloupes from carrying backpacks filled with drugs into the country. More recently, he made a typically asinine comment criticizing Democrats who boycotted Netanyahu’s speech to Congress for being “Democrats first and Jewish second.” When Representative Steve Israel demanded an apology, the always erudite King responded that “I defend Israelis from Leftists & misogynists.” Huh?? It was reminiscent of a state legislator from Massachusetts who once defended himself from charges that he was anti-immigrant by saying, “I am not a bigamist.”
- Saratoga Springs does the right thing – so far – on monstrous parking garage: It’s good to know that the big-money interests don’t always win. First, the City Council decided against applying for a casino license, and now the Zoning Board of Appeals has voted down a five-story garage to be built on city property that would have been a monumental eye sore near the center of town. Interestingly, Mark Baker, President of the City Center was a leading opponent of the casino, but the major proponent of the garage. If a parking garage is the most desirable use for this valued parcel in downtown – it’s already a parking lot – the ZBA decision gives time for a rational planning process.
- NYRA equine fatalities decline remarkably: There was no shortage of publicity when there was a dramatic increase in racing fatalities on Aqueduct’s inner track. There were 14 catastrophic injuries suffered in less than two months in December and January. Since January 26, however, there has been one racing fatality and another on the Belmont training track.
- Why was NYRA not planning to race on Dubai’s World Cup day? Were it not for the large number of weather-related cancellations, NYRA would not have run a card this past Saturday even though it is one of the biggest days on the racing calendar. NYRA now focuses on its own “big days,” but doesn’t growing the sport mean educating a potential fan base that there are big races in addition to the Triple Crown and Travers?
- New York’s disputed election ends up with right result: I have written previously about the hotly-contested election for President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. Unsuccessful challenger Terry Finley lost to incumbent Rick Violette by 14 votes from over 1,200 cast. The NYTHA Board conducted an appeal process and made their decision earlier this month upholding the results. I know that there are loud dissenting views – this is, after all, horse racing – but I think a fair-minded observer would conclude that the appeal was taken seriously and the decision-making process was fair. NYTHA posted all of the written submissions on its web site, as well as the transcript of the hearing and then its written decision. That is not the behavior of an organization with something to hide. The hearing transcript was particularly revealing. Board members had obviously gone through the voluminous evidentiary submissions and asked pointed and pertinent questions. It was thorough and professional. I hope we can move on from what has, unfortunately, had an unnecessary personal aspect.
- NCAA tournament is, once again, riveting: Several years ago I decided against filling out a bracket because I did not want to be rooting for heavy favorites in order to win some cash. Now I can just enjoy the games, and this year’s tourney has been worth it. Of course, there are the inevitable annoying commercials and the suspicion that the NCAA is able to cram more of them into a 40-minute game than even the National Football League can with 50 per cent more time. But my personal most-hated spots are the Rob Lowe ones and the promos for Tru-TV programming. People actually watch that dreck?
- A final note of sadness: Racing lost one of its true giants with the passing of Allen Jerkens. I did not know him other than by observation, but it was one the highlights of my life when I met him on the Saratoga backstretch a couple of years ago after another one of his patented upsets in a graded stake. Others can write more knowingly of him (see Steve Haskin here and Teresa Genaro here), but it is unfortunate that his type of horsemanship is fading from the scene.
It was disturbing enough to learn that Allen Jerkens would be staying in Florida rather than coming back to New York. Then, today, the New York Racing Association announced that Tom Durkin would call his last race on August 31. There has been so much negative about racing recently, but we could always count on some of the fine people associated with the sport to bring us through. Now, we’ll be down two of them, at least in New York.
Jerkens has been one of the true icons in the sport. It is a game where almost everyone has a negative comment about someone else, but I have never heard anyone express anything but admiration for Jerkens. He is a horseman that we wish all trainers could emulate. He also trained two different horses who beat Secretariat. One of the true highlights of my racing experience was being introduced to Jerkens two years ago at Saratoga. Even though he would always acknowledge me on the backstretch beforehand, it was an honor to meet one of the greats in the game.
I loved taking photographs of Jerkens. I discovered that one particularly good spot to catch him was in Saratoga where he would meet up with the jockey outside the clubhouse when the losing rider was on the way back to the jocks room. It was always a pleasure to watch Julie Krone waving her arms as she tried to explain why she did not win.
Durkin was another who gave so much to the game. He was a fixture at Saratoga each summer. In addition to the race calls, he would volunteer for activities after the races. If my memory is correct, he would call the bingo games held at the rec center to benefit racing charities.
I had some personal contact with him when my wife won a charity auction where the prize was his voice on our voice mail. After I drafted a script for him, he edited it to make it much better. And he did this while in the midst of the Triple Crown when he was calling the races.
The departure of Durkin and “The Chief” will make New York a much less interesting place.
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.