Will it ever happen again? Belmont Park, synonymous with racing greatness hasn’t hosted the Breeder’s Cup since 2005 when Saint Liam, ridden by Jerry Bailey captured the Classic on a cold, blustery (I was there) late October day. Since 2005, the Cup has evolved to newer and better heights. Instead of one day of racing, there are now 14 races over two days with the big race, the Classic, spilling into prime time on Saturday night. It’s become event television with solid ratings and terrific drama. Who could forget the thrilling stretch duel between the regal lady Zenyatta and winner Blame under the lights at Churchill Downs in 2010?
For the second straight year, Santa Anita Park will host the BC festivities on Friday, November 1 and Saturday, November 2 and it’s tough to argue against the venue. It’s California, it’s sunny, dry, festive and because of the Pacific Time Zone conducive to prime time television in the East. The Classic usually runs between 9 and 9:30 PM EST, enough time to allow people on the east coast to be done with their Saturday tasks and the west coasters time to watch and go out for the evening. Summer weather, a festive, energized and relaxed crowd with the mountains in the backdrop. Can you do any better?
While the reasons for holding the Cup at Santa Anita are sound, what about Belmont Park? It’s a classic piece of Americana, home to great racing, regal champions and of course, the most unique race track in the world. In a word, Belmont is massive, the only place where a 1 ¼ mile race is just one turn. And, by the way, it’s New York and if you can make it there………
Things have not gone Belmont’s way since 2005. One of the reasons is simple arrogance. Because it’s New York and because it’s Belmont Park, New York Racing Association (NYRA) officials took Belmont’s rotation in the Cup for granted. How could they skip New York, or perhaps, it’s New York, we’ll be included. But, NYRA has struggled mightily since 2005, in fact, it was struggling before 2005, and Breeder’s Cup officials finally took notice. The state controlled NYRA has seen scandals, numerous changes in leadership, payout issues, and general disorganization. New CEO Christopher Kay is just a few months into his post, so he is taking an observational approach at the start. If NYRA is serious about hosting again, they must get their act together. The Kay regime is off to a promising start, but optimism has been there before.
Weather is another factor. In 2005, it was cold with temps hovering in the low 40s with significant wind. Of course, the next day it was in the 70s, but Mother Nature is Mother Nature. The horses might prefer the cooler temperatures, but the fans certainly don’t.
The calendar, specifically the change in the event also hampers the cause. In 2005, the BC was held the last Saturday in October, now it begins on the first Friday in November, the same weekend as the New York City Marathon. If any city can handle the mass of people, it’s New York, but hotel space will be limited with both marathoners and horse racing people converging on the Big Apple.
Lighting is next in play. The Breeder’s Cup has fallen in love with finishing each day under the lights, something Big Sandy doesn’t have. Could temporary lighting be installed? If not, would NYRA want to install permanent ones at its historic track? Tracks like Churchill Downs have put up lights, giving it the option of running day or night, but certainly not to abuse. The Churchill spring meet begins on a Saturday night, culminating with the Derby Trial, but most of the racing is done during the day. Opening night at Churchill has become a place to be with many younger folk than the typical 1 pm post times. Could NYRA market Friday and Saturday night racing to a younger, livelier crowd?
NYRA wants the Breeder’s Cup again as does New York, and in the horse racing game, New York can’t be ignored. But, no other state has more red tape than the Empire State, so action will be far from swift. We know that the Big Apple puts on a show that’s second-to-none, but getting the show might prove to be most problematic.
FORT ERIE SWAN SONG
Just minutes from the Peace Bridge which separates Buffalo, NY and Fort Erie, Ontario, sits Fort Erie Race Track, which for 116 years has hosted thoroughbred horse racing. Last Tuesday (October 15) the Fort concluded its 2013 and perhaps its very last season of live racing. Like New York, politics play a major role in horse racing in Ontario, and last week, a special commission decided to fund $400 million to racetracks in the province; Fort Erie wasn’t one of them
Fort Erie has struggled for years as gamblers have taken their money to the many casinos across the Southern Ontario landscape, but when video slots were installed at the track, the old grounds enjoyed somewhat of a revival. That revival was short lived when the Ontario government took the slots out. Because of that, many though that 2013 racing was doomed, but a meet took place, a meet that included the Prince of Wales Stakes, the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown.
Fort Erie was the first track I visited, the first track where I lost money and the only track that left my friend and me scrambling underneath the car seats to scrape for enough change to pay the toll to get back into the United States. Having been there seven or eight times, I hate to see the beautifully maintained grounds sit idle. Furthermore, it would result in the loss of 500 jobs, never good, but especially in that area.
The most perplexing part is what the government did. Slots were installed, revenues went up and the track appeared like it was going to survive. Then, in a flash, the slots were removed, essentially putting Fort Erie Race Track on death row. It’s like giving your child a bike, then abruptly taking it back. For the Fort, slots won’t be the answer, they’re gone and they’re not coming back. It’s tough to get blood from a stone, and is Fort Erie a viable enough attraction to bring in people and of course, their money.
In the end, it would be sad if racing ceased at Fort Erie. In one way, it’s sad that tracks have to have slots to generate revenue; on the other hand, it’s the times we live in. If a track can get slots to help ensure its survival, then so be it. But Fort Erie no longer has slots and it no longer has the aid from the government and unless some private owner comes to the rescue, Fort Erie may be dark next year and beyond.
There is hope for some racing at Fort Erie next year. Gene Kershner, horse racing writer for the Buffalo News says that there is mention of a boutique meet, a 30 to 40 day session which would include the Prince of Wales Stakes, which currently runs on the last Tuesday in July. Some racing would be better than none, but the costs of preparing and opening the track may be prohibitive for this to happen. We won’t write the obituary just yet, but the writing is on the wall. When I think of Fort Erie, the picture of Izvestia roaring down the home stretch to win the 1990 Prince of Wales Stakes on his way to the Canadian Triple Crown will always stand tall. Fort Erie was my first experience in horse racing. It would be great to get there again someday.