It does fly by. Even though summer and winter have approximately the same number of days, the summer goes faster. There may not be scientific evidence to back this up, but we all know it’s true. I was fortunate enough to make it to Saratoga this summer, once early, once in the middle and once at the end. The best part is that there was great racing each and every week no matter when one went.
There are many things one can take away from the Saratoga meet. First and foremost was quality racing most of the time. Yes, there was some average at best Wednesday and Thursday cards, but not like in year’s past. When allowance races offer $90,000 purses, the quality and quantity will be there. As we know, no track gives away more purse money than the Spa. As a result of this, the fields were fuller. Nobody wants to see four and five horse fields for any race, especially allowance, claiming or allowance-claiming races. The obvious advantage is for the bettor, who for the most part, knows very little about the field, but with 12 horses, or even eight, the payoffs have a chance to be high. The 20 horse Kentucky Derby field is the best example. In that race, even the favorite usually pays at least $10 for a win.
As a general rule, I dislike races with less than six horses entered, and that didn’t happen for most of the non-stakes races. Some stakes races like the Personal Ensign only had five fillies entered, but there are reasons for that. Those races are often expensive to enter and sometimes, when there is a Royal Delta lurking, the connections of the others are simply scared away. If you don’t think you can win the top prize, save him/her for another day.
For the second straight year, there was high drama in the Travers. Last year, we saw the dead heat between Alpha and Golden Ticket and this year we saw Will Take Charge roar past the upset minded and very game Moreno to win. And, unlike last year, which produced a non-descript field, most of the stars ran in 2013. The Travers has suffered a bit in recent years, but this year, the marquee names showed up with Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, Belmont winner Palace Malice and the Haskell champ, Verrazano. Of course, in true horse racing fashion, the unheralded Will Take Charge, trained by the legendary and ageless D. Wayne Lukas crossed first.
No meet can pass without controversy and this year, the Travers aftermath produced it. The question is did Luis Saez, the jockey of Will Take Charge use an illegal electric shocking device to propel the colt past the others? Rudy Guillot, the trainer of runner-up Moreno says that the video shows Saez “moving something from his right hand to his left hand to under the saddle of the colt.” I have watched the video and personally, I don’t see anything suspicious. Saez does move the whip from one hand to the other and it does look like he touched the saddle, but it might have been a piece of debris. I don’t see anything that seems to be conclusive enough to warrant punishment.
When the story first circulated last Saturday morning, it sounded like the evidence was overwhelming and that Saez was going to be banned for life and the money bet would have to be refunded. But, it seemed to blow over quicker than it surfaced. NYRA says that they are looking into the claim, but the story seemed to simmer down quickly.
If Saez did indeed cheat, the question would be why? What would be the real motivation? The race has a $1 million purse with the winning connections receiving $600,000. Saez, as a winning jockey would receive $60,000. At 21, would you throw away your entire racing career for $60,000? The answer should be no, unless some organized crime outfit got to Saez and offered him millions and millions to try this. And, if that’s the case, then we all might as well stop watching sports altogether. The final reason would be that there would be no proof that the electric device would work. Why would Saez use an electric device for a horse that could have finished seventh, eighth or ninth? Sure, you could have the device ready and use it only if needed, but why take the chance? Once again, this story has juicy scandal on it, but in the end, my guess is that nothing will come of it. We did see this in 2003, when Funny Cide jockey Jose Santos was accused of using a similar device when he rode the gelding to victory in the Kentucky Derby. Santos was cleared and successfully sued the Miami Herald for libel, and for the record, ended up in the Hall of Fame. And, just to prove himself, two weeks later, the gelding won the Preakness Stakes by seven lengths.
Labor Day is sad for many reasons (kids going back to school is not one of the reasons), because it does signal the unofficial end of summer, and the transition to fall begins. For Saratoga fans, it’s goodbye until next July and with that, the familiar recourse of extending the season begins. There are many reasons for an extension of the 40 day meet. One, is that it has been done before, going from 24 to 36 to 40. Two, is that it makes NYRA lots of money and that is important, because NYRA usually has an operating deficit every year. If not for slot revenue, there would be serious economic issues facing NYRA, but the slots have stemmed the tide to a degree. Extending the meet would probably help offset the red ink that will surely be there during the upcoming Belmont and Aqueduct meets.
All that said, an extension is not the answer and is not a great idea. The fans love Saratoga, the local restaurants and bars love Saratoga, and for the most part, even the police and city love what horse racing brings to the area. What one fails to realize is that there is tremendous overhead with the Saratoga meet. NYRA is headquartered in Ozone Park, Queens. For seven or eight weeks, the staff has to relocate to Saratoga, leaving their families and their normal life on hold for the most of the summer. If you’re an employee of NYRA, I don’t think a vacation request for the first week of August is granted. One might say big deal, but these are people working for a living just like you and I , and what’s fun and games for us, is not necessarily the case for them. Forty days for them is likely more than enough.
That leads to the most important element, the horsemen and women, the owners, trainers, and everybody else that is connected to a stable of horses. Most trainers love the meet, most have houses here, most enjoy it here, but they are glad to see the meet end. Lukas is based at Churchill Downs and he says that after 40 days, it’s time to go back home. Think of the enormous costs associated with vanning or flying an entire stable of horses from one track to Saratoga. It certainly isn’t cheap, and an extension would likely lessen the quality. Horse racing is the major league sport in this area and why water it down for another eight to ten days?
There is another theory as well. When I was a distance runner in college, we did countless workouts on the track (in many ways I can relate to a horse because of the love or hate of oval running surfaces). One of my teammates—-the late, great John Trowse—always used to say that you should leave the track knowing you could do more, that it would motivate you to greatness the next time. I think this can be applied to Saratoga. Forty days is perfect. It makes you plan, it makes you take the time to organize and it leaves you wanting and knowing you want more. An extension may bring more total people, but less each day. Why do that? The NFL is the most popular and watched sport in the United States. They play 16 regular season games. Why is it the most watched? Because they play 16 games. The league leaves its fans wanting more and they know that and they love that. The Spa should have that same effect.
Why ruin a great thing? 2013 was one of the better years at Saratoga in recent memory, so if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. New NYRA CEO Christopher Kay did not address an extension which I applaud because it indicates to me that he likes it the way it is and 40 will remain 40.
And, remember, Kay lives in New York.