SPRINGS, NY--Opening Day at Saratoga Raceway was picturesque with brilliant
sunshine and temps in the 50s. And, the crowd, buoyed by $1 hot dogs and $1 PBR
drafts was in a good mood and surprisingly, fairly big. And, this despite the
fact that there was nary a mention in the local media that Opening Day was
approaching. Had this been the flat track across the street there would have
been live reports and live broadcasting all day long. We know that the region
fauns over the SRC and while that's certainly valid, why not throw a little
love at the harness track, which began season number 76 on Sunday?
that as it may, the betting windows were busy and the raceway generated over
$469,000 in total handle for the 12-race card. The feature was a $12,000 Open
Handicap Pace that saw Better Rock On N rally from off the pace to win in a
fine time of 1:53.3. My pick, E Z Noah started from gate 7 and was second, with
the 11th, crowd favorite Blazin Benny
led from start to finish to win the $5,500 Trot in 1:58.2. I was told by some
trainers that Blazin' is the ultimate warrior when it comes to racing. The
nine-year gelding by Angus Hall often struggles between races, but when it is
show time, he is always ready to go and the veteran clearly outclassed the
in all, it was a good day, but there were some issues. One, they ordered 504
long-sleeve t-shirts and they were gone 15 minutes before the first race began.
Why not order 2,500 and give them out until they're gone whether that happens
on opening day or one week later? They also didn't shovel out the walkways so
people could sit out on the benches. I guess they thought it would be too cold
to be outside. One might have gotten the feel that harness racing was the
second-class citizen to the gaming machines located inside. We know that the
carpets get vacuumed before the next day; why not do some shoveling?
And, let's admit, the racing is second to the casino, but does it have to be
the good side, the races were competitive and the buzz was palpable. Who knows
how many more people would have shown up had the opener been marketed just a
little bit? Service at the bar was solid and with $1 draft beers to be had,
that can be a challenge.
was fortunate enough to meet and talk to some trainers and certainly learned a
few things during the day. Since the track was banked, the times have
been much faster, but that sometimes comes at a cost. Obviously, banked tracks
put more stress on the left legs and that can result in more injuries to the
pacers and trotters. Another positive was that every race was won in under two
minutes; the best time was 1:53 and the slowest time was the aforementioned
Blazin Benny's 1:58.2
is a racino and one can't go to a harness track without bringing up the impact
of VGMs. Most agree that VGMs saved the sport from a certaon death, but
that has also led to more money in purses which, in many ways, has squeezed out
the "little guy.". Saratoga paid out $89,200 in total purses yesterday.
In comparison, Monticello paid out $31,700 on their card last Thursday. If you
want to race at Saratoga, it is tough for the $5,000 horse to run and win
against the $50,000 one. The racing secretary will enter you in these races,
but winning is more than a tall order.
Monticello and Vernon Downs got good reviews from the horsemen I talked to and
one trainer in particular was looking forward to sending a couple of his horses
there to Monticello to race in the near future. Monticello is a step down
in class while Vernon Downs features a 7/8 mile track and is owned by
Meadowlands owner Jeffrey Gural.
will race several Thursday afternoon cards this spring with 12:15 post times.
It will be interesting to see how this compares/conflicts with Monticello,
which races Monday-Thursday with 12:25 post times. Monticello has always
had the afternoon harness slot in New York State, but now they'll have some
competition. And, despite lower purses, Monticello's handle is as good
or better than both Saratoga and Yonkers. The trainers told me that Monticello
cares the most about the local guys and the smaller purses would reflect that.
There has to be tracks that offer something for everyone. Nobody wants
to see harness racing become all-corporate like thoroughbred racing is; there
has to be a place for the little guy to train and race at and right now,
Monticello seems to be the track for this.
York harness offers top end racing at Yonkers, which has seen its purses
increase substantially in recent years. After Yonkers, the purses drop
with Saratoga, Buffalo/Batavia, Tioga and Vernon ranking very close to each
other. Monticello offers the lowest purses and clearly, each track serves
its unique purpose.
of the seven harness tracks offer VGMs, which are open just about every day of
the year and some of the revenues are given to the horsemen. Tioga Downs
is now a full-fledged casino, meaning that in addition to VGMs, table games are
offered. Amazingly, 92 percent goes back to the gamblers, but it is that
8 percent that gets cut up with some going to education and some to harness
York is experiencing casino growth. In addition to racinos (there is also one
at Finger Lakes thoroughbred track), there are full-fledged casinos at Del Lago
(Tyre, NY), Rivers (Schenectady, NY) and Tioga Downs (Nichols, NY) with a
fourth one coming to the Catskills later this year. The Rivers Casino is just
26 miles south of the Saratoga casino and in the first week, Rivers took in
$23.1 million while there was a drop of $800,000 at Saratoga Hotel Casino.
I visit racinos, I wonder aloud, "where do people get the money to gamble away
here?" Is there that that much wealth in New York State, or are people
coming here in the hopes of tripling their pay check? How many casinos
can New York handle? In addition to the racinos and the soon-to-be four
casinos, there are Indian casinos at Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Salamanca, Vernon
and the Resorts World Casino at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. How many more
can the state allow? When will the appetite decrease and when it does,
will New York look like Atlantic City with boarded up palaces?
now, harness racing moves forward. They will still get their money from the
casinos and the bettors will continue to make their wagers. For one day,
Saratoga looked radiant with a festive, lively crowd and some good action on a
brilliant sun-splashed day. Let's hope this is not a one-time event.