Saratoga Tonic - By Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the August 14, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell

By Eric MitchellIt’s easy to fall into the “racing is doomed” mentality. Handle nationwide is down, tracks have cut days because they don’t have enough horses, and the foal crop is declining. But I’m optimistic about the future of the sport. Why? Because Saratoga reminds me how much excitement Thoroughbred racing is capable of creating.

Nothing revives the racing spirit like seeing a few thousand people clustered under the carnival-like red and white umbrellas behind the Saratoga grandstand and lined up along the walking path to see the stars of the next race parade past. During the weekend most of these fans have been at the track since early morning, having claimed with the fervor of the 1893 Oklahoma Land Rush their spot in front of their favorite TV monitor or next to the saddling paddock.

In this grassy picnic area you find students of the game studying the Form while sipping their morning coffee. There are sports commentators sharing their opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of the field in the feature race to anyone within earshot. They are all dedicated racing fans, and they’ll stay all day. Enjoying the horses. Cheering the races. Basking in the camaraderie.

Racing has a future.

Yes, yes, I know. This is Saratoga, a summer playground for the well-heeled nestled in the leafy rolling hills of Upstate New York. A boutique 40-day meet that attracts the best horses and best trainers along the East Coast. It is a high-quality meet that is rewarded with big numbers. For its first 12 days the average ontrack handle was more than $2.5 million and the average attendance was more than 19,000.

Saratoga’s success is often dismissed as the exception to the rule, but only because the rule has become year-round racing. Can anyone sustain a high-quality meet for 210-plus days a year? Of course not. There are markets where longer meets fill a need and allow horsemen to make a living. These are vital, but they won’t raise the sport’s stature.

What Saratoga shows us is there is a real hunger and passion for good Thoroughbred racing. The well-heeled are not the ones kicking back under the umbrellas. These are the sport’s bedrock fans; the ones who will gladly spend an entire day at the track and come back the next day, ready to do it all over again.

We have seen at Monmouth Park what a focus on quality instead of number of racing days can do. After the first 30 days of its 50-day meet, the Jersey Shore track has attracted an average daily ontrack handle of more than $731,000 (up 78.7% from 2009) and an average daily all-sources handle of more than $7.7 million (up 148% from 2009).

The drumbeat for quality over quantity is getting louder and cannot be ignored.

“I remember when there was no racing in New York in the winter,” a buyer at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling sale told me recently. “When the springtime rolled around, everyone knew racing was returning. There was an excitement and an anticipation that you don’t see today.”

Remember when the National Thoroughbred Racing Association was created and the sport made a commitment to building a national presence? When racetracks pooled their marketing dollars to do more collectively than they could individually? Remember “Go, Baby Go?” The slogan is still around. It stuck.

Thoroughbred racing has a good product, and its stars are magnetic, as shown by the more than 32,000 people who turned out to watch Zenyatta win the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. I) at Del Mar and the more than 36,600 who saw Blame and Quality Road go head-to-head in the Whitney Stakes (gr. I).

With better coordination of race dates and key events among major league racetracks and with a renewed commitment to quality over quantity, racing can grow.

We can make Saratoga less of an exception and more like the rule.


Leave a Comment:

Big Lou

You speak the true.Iremenber being a student at University of Miami back in 1960 and going on my free time to Hialeah and watch those trains ful of horses pulling in from NY.It was great because i got to see the best horses here in Miami.As you were saying when tose horses went back to NY. everybody went back to see all of those nice horses compete again

10 Aug 2010 4:16 PM
steve Viuker

Of course, Frank Stronach would like to race year round. And let's not forget that whopping 12,000 that showed up @ Hollywood Park to see Zenyatta; with a giveaway thrown in.

Over @ DRF, Stan Bergstein said how great it was that 30,000 showed up for the Hambo at the Big M. Quite a bit bigger turnout than the 3,000 average.

10 Aug 2010 5:24 PM
Karen in Indiana

Can you imagine what kind of stir year round football would bring? Part of the appeal is that there is a season with a start (people can talk about trades, who will do what, who is on the bench, etc.) and an end (people can dissect the season, relive it and play 'if only so and so had done this instead of that').

Horse racing needs to be doing a better job of playing up their superstars instead of busily ripping them to shreds and putting them down. There is nothing attractive about doing the nasty 'my horse is better than your horse' game. Saratoga and Monmouth are prime examples that when managed properly, horse racing can still be an Event that attracts and excites people.

10 Aug 2010 11:00 PM


11 Aug 2010 5:17 AM

I agree with Karen - don't be so hard on the horses!!!! When one considers how few make it to racing, from the foal stage, it is a true testament to the gods, that a 2 yr old can step out onto the track! This is one tough game, for everyone involved.

I also wish that the states weren't as involved as they are. I am in Maine, which has almost destroyed harness racing. Luckily Penn National came in with a deal, and $, to continue racing.

Horse racing also must contend with the animal rights activists, who are opposed to racing, feel that it is cruel to the horses. Many young people I meet, are opposed to racing because of being swayed by the likes of the peta-like groups.

I love racing, even with the negatives, but can not bet unless I go to one of the two tracks in Maine. I can't bet through the TV, due to state regs. Very frustrating.

11 Aug 2010 7:09 AM

Saratoga isn't just for the well-heeled.  With a $2 admission fee (as of last yr. -- I haven't gotten over there yet this yr.), just about anyone can afford to get in.

"My horse is better than yours" is something that seems endemic among horse-people, even among "nobody" horse-people.  At your Joe Blow local riding stable, they're always trashing other riding stables in the area.  This has happened at every riding stable I or my kids have ever ridden at, and believe me, we don't ride at any "top" places.  Do people in other livestock industries act like this?  Somehow I can't envision dairy farmers trashing other people's herds.....

11 Aug 2010 8:39 AM

i agree with your commite and being a jockey in the 70,s-80,s have thought to many tracks less foals.not enough to go around.being in the game today think it will level out.[the market].colonel

11 Aug 2010 11:18 AM
Zen's Auntie

Ahh, Maine cant wait to get there.  Some very odd regulations.  Can't you bet online?  

I do think Horse Racing Has a future. Saratoga is doing great? thats is really good News. It has been a mecca for racing and the breif meet and big names and $ are good for the sport. Not all tracks are doing as well.  Even the ones in NY right?

Perhaps your right Eric.  Too much availability of racing makes it less "special" somehow? We are always going to have die hard race fans that will Love racing to the grave - like me and even I hope, my kids. I have immersed  and mesmerized them in the drug that is the HORSE.  My own Love for all Thoroughbred Horses has spilled out and soaked them. But we live on a ranch and things live and die and they see that too. Most folks cant raise thier kids a little wild with horses anymore.  Thats too bad.

The problem with attracting people to racing is its messy and beautiful animals get hurt.  Real racing fans pray for this not to happen and greive HEAVILY when it does but understand that these animals were born to run and running is inhertently dangerous - it is to some extent the fragility and liveness of the Horse that makes Racing even more spectacular.  I have never got choked up over a nascar race (uhhhgg) but 5K claimers in the stretch run can have me in tears its the nature of loving horses and racing.

Amy is right our youth is poisoned by the anti everything lobby.  Horse racing is Dirty and dangerous and glorious all at once.  Just like life. But, Clean Green and sterile is how folks are brainwashed to be.  

To be fair, Its just too much for some people to bear - watching a horse break down on the track - then just return to the days wagers. If all you want to do is gamble why do it on something that leads to horses and people getting hurt? The Operatives in Horse Racing often give it a black eye too - horse face beating, Dropping claimers from 16K to 2K so they get claimed away and having them break down, the list goes on and on.  

From the life long fan and amature Handicappers perspective, TVG & HRTV and sites like these are the best thing since the 80's when I lived and breathed TB's near Penn National (let me tell you how much added money has helped there HOLYCATS)The internet has taken handicapping to a new level.

Information available at a persons fingertips concerning racing (all over the country & world even at once!) is overwhelming.  for me who lives 400 miles from the nearest track its a reawakening for TB racing in my life.  People can watch (and wager on) any race anywhere just about - its amazing. Its not the same as a day at the track but I will take it over the old net work coverages what a joke. Horse racing channels as a back ground has replaced CNN type stuff in my life and Im a better person because of it. Try it I highly reccomend it

You would think that with all this availability folks would be jumping on the HR fan bandwagon all over. Well maybe not but we can all do something for the sport by gushin about our favorites and wotching a few races with people who would ordinarily not see a TB race.  I had company stop by on Saturday near post time for Z at Delmar I told them we must watch and they were enchanted by the Big Mare.  These folks are new horse owners with kids - Maybe just maybe it will hook them.  

I agree whole heartedly that the whole industry embrace the Fine Horses we have running on Both coasts and enjoy them while we can. Bickering turns new fans off If you Love the sport truely and its not just wagering and pick 6 then you can Love and appreciate

All of the horses, and still have your own favorites. I thought a lot about this with the retirement of 2 good horses and the deaths of Tuscan Evening and Odysseus (and so many other low level horses we barely hear about) all in the last week.

When, where and who they run against is NEVER ever the horses choice or fault. Leave the Player Hating to the Over Paid cocky arrogant Human athletes and just see the top Class horses for that -Just pure CLASS!  

11 Aug 2010 11:57 AM
Kevin L

Rail Trip, Zenyatta, Blame, Quality Road and others are assets that are needed to extend the popularity of the Sport and should be marketed as such. The meets at Saratoga, Keeneland and DelMar need to be trumpeted throughout the Sport's world. The problem is oversaturation. Yes Philly Park is necessary, and Turfway and Golden Gate to sustain the product and keep the industry alive, but growth will come from the Marquee horses and meets. Karen is so right, there needs to be defined milestones to mark the season. Yes, we have the Triple Crown and Breeder's Cup, but there are so many Grade 1's along the way that the best horses do not need to meet except the first Saturday in May and the first weekend of November. It is relatively easy to find a Graded Stakes Race to get your Breeding Certificate stamped and the 3 year old retired to Stud. Horses careers are short, it is such a shame that the Great Ones retire without facing each other. Fewer Grade 1's, maybe a Triple Crown for Older Horses with a nice Bonus might keep the interest and step up the Quality through the Summer months. Qulity Road versus Blame was a race that could have built the Sport. Rail Trip versus Quality Road in the Woodward needs to be on every front page in the country. More matchups like this need to occur. Then I will be optimistic.      

11 Aug 2010 12:28 PM

Nothing like Saratoga, look forward all year to getting up there. Caught up with Saratoga native, Chad Brown, to talk about his hot start to the meet. You can check out what he had to say at

11 Aug 2010 1:24 PM

The problem is the quality of racing at Saratoga has seriously declined in recent years. You use to never see lower level claiming races or state-bred races on weekend cards, but now they are scattered throughout the card. We've cancelled many trips to the Spa at the last minute after the cards come out. It is really disappointing!

11 Aug 2010 3:58 PM

THE premier race meet of the season used to be the Fall Championship at Belmont Park ! The spring meet was also outstanding ! If you attended the races on any Saturday (there was no racing Sundays, no OTB !) it was difficult to get a decent seat at the greatest track in the country. head over to Belmont on a weekend day now and you can sit on the finish line even if the feature is a Grade 1 ! They're lucky if they get 3500 in the place ! Too many bad races, small fields and no incentive for the players to be at the races ! My friends and myself can go to Atlantic City or any Casino and be treated like kings but we go to Belmont, Saratoga, etc. and are treated like step children !Sit down in an empty restaurant and pay cover charges, after tipping the host, maitre d', etc. The racing industry in this state should be privatized and treated like a real businesss and not a huge jobs program (along with 9 OTB regions in the state,9 more state run slush funds, etc.)GET the state out of racing ! Get the slots in and have new ownership run/own OTB ! It will never happen but we can still dream ! Racing has gotten worse evry year in NY since the early 80's and the people who own horses can't make a go of it anymore ! If you get a horse to race 10 times a year it's a miracle. How about trying something new and outlawing lasix and every other (masking ?)agent ? The law in the early 80's was if you were FOUND WITH clenbuterol YOU WERE RULED OFF FOR LIFE ! Now you get a 30 day vacation and your assistant runs the barn ! Hope for the best but EXPECT THE WORST ! If the two best racing circuits in the country are being run by the 2 worst state governments in the country it's amazing they prospered as long as they did ! Color me pessimistic !  

11 Aug 2010 9:40 PM

after my rant I neglacted to add that for however long they make the Saratoga meet for that periog of time it's the greatest town in America ! No true racing fan should go without a yearly trip up the Northway ! There's no place like it !

11 Aug 2010 9:49 PM
Fran Loszynski

If you want to get really excited abour horseracing at Saratoga, take the train up by the Hudson and arrive at the Saratoga Springs train station where you are greeted by beautiful engraved racehorses on the building, a pristene silence, and soft breeze as you wait for your taxi.  The taxi driver no doubt lives there and points out where famous people in racing have taken up residence. And if you are lucky catch a few wooded streams along the way. Then the track just simply reminds you of the days of Seabiscuit and reporters everywhere.  The silence breaks and the thunder of hoofs make you sigh. Long live Saratoga.

12 Aug 2010 8:48 AM

horse racing is so much more than just gambling. it your decision what number you bet   unlike a slot machine sorry girls but its mindless gambling, the thrill of your handicapped horse winning no matter how you do it is the entertainment. big fields no drugs is the answer to this game. all i ever read about is this and that about cheating with drugs it will not go with the young average player

13 Aug 2010 7:53 AM
Dino Romano

Sorry to tell you this Eric, but, someone has spiked your "Saratoga Tonic" with hallucinogens.

No one loves horse racing more than I do, but, racing is a dying sport because the average age of racegoers (die hard gamblers, let's be truthful) is, well, OLD.

Other than offering concerts (DUH???) not one of them has clue how to attract young people who could become life long fans.  NOT A CLUE.

Drugs, or at least the insinuation that drugs play a big part in racing (does anyone believe certain trainers can win at 30% on a regular basis) is problem number one.

Synthetic racetracks will eventually drive away ALL professional gamblers, permanently, who are a deceptively large percentage of the daily handles at most racetracks.

Rude, ignorant, clueless racetrack managements not only do everything in their power to make the race going experience a negative one, from expensive parking, seating, programs, and food, HORRIFIC FOOD...the worst food in the U.S.A. can be found at racetracks...but they almost all have the attitude that they are doing us a favor by providing a race meet.  Most would just like to have Simulcast privileges and be done with it.  They make no effort to provide an inviting, comfortable environment for people like myself who wager at their facilities at least one a week and churn many thousands of dollars through the windows, win, lose, or draw.

Racetrack employees are the least motivated retail salespeople in the U.S.A.  Almost everyone of them I've encountered are even ruder than the managements that employ them.  Guess the adage, "the fish stinks from the head," applies here.

I don't remember the last time, including when I've brought home winnings in multiples of what I started with, where I can honestly say..."WOW, that was a great experience today at...."blank" racetrack."

The exception was a recent visit to Hoosier Park, for the Hoosier Cup, a pacing event for 3 year old colts.  A beautiful, clean facility with multiple food options, plenty of free seating, and great, clean, clear monitors to watch racing on.

Eric, I'm sorry to bring you down from your Saratoga "high" but unless race track operators wake up, all is lost.

14 Aug 2010 4:58 AM

What Saratoga has shown is that there is a hunger and passion for racing in a fun environment, with competitive races and full fields (remember when Saratoga was running uninspiring fields of 6 race after race and handle suffered - maybe 10-15 years back?). Its not about quality at all. A commentator at Ascot made exactly that point not long ago when he pointed out that they were running for "peanuts" that day yet the crowd was huge and the fields were full and competitive!

And its dito for Monmouth. Its the large fields (or at least the larger fields than in recent years!), not the quality, and the feeling that its more of an event (ala Saragoga) that is the reason for its success. No bettor really cares that the quality of the allowance types is improved because they're giving away 80k.

Racing needs to move more towards the Monmouth model. Too much product and the impression that tracks are seedy environments will keep it on the fringes. Make it cool and fun and special they will come. And once they come, please, make a better effort to demystify the game. There ought to be continuously running video throughout the track teaching basic handicapping and wagering. Maybe license the Jerry Bailey video? You have to shove it down their throats! Very few are going to go out of their way to learn handicapping. Those "handicapping basics" buttons on the various racing websites must surely be gathering dust.

The guy who won the Dennis Mills contest thing, market like Poker? Yes its player vs. player like poker but thats where the similarity ends (whats the take differential!?). And too many other factors in racing to have any degree of confidence that you can beat the other players - which number in the thousands - as opposed to poker where there is one table of players! Poker is much more deterministic - seems to me that luck of the cards evens out in the long run so it boils down skill.

Isn't taking a poker marketing approach putting the proverbail cart before the horse? Lets get people at least somewhat interested in trying to make heads or tails out of the races. What did that Sy Sims suit salesman guy say in his ads? educated consumer is our best customer. To that end, kudos to TVG!  

15 Aug 2010 1:16 PM

I am amazed at the turnout each weekend at Del Mar. I am out here in California temporarily for work, and am thrilled to see the excitement and participation. All around me are folks who obviously are not experienced horseplayers, but are making a genuine effort to figure out their programs and pick winners. They say repeatedly how much fun they are having.

Oh, and getting to see Zenyatta for the first time hasn't hurt either :-).

15 Aug 2010 5:18 PM

Oklahoma in the AM and a nice cup of coffee are all in need to remember seeing legends like Secretariat, Ruffian and Forego in my teens ! the beauty of it all was we'd usually get to see them matched up against all comers 3 or 4 times at the spring meet...and ANOTHER 3 or 4 TIMES AT THE Fall Championship meet(that's when anyone who was anyone on whatever racing circuit nationally came to NY....ALMOST MANDATORY for an Eclipse Award !!)!! The "Golden Age of Racing"(even though we get the occasional star, Zenyatta, Ghostzapper, etc.) ENDED (makes me sad !!) somewhere in the early 80's !! even though  it will always be my favorite sport, hobby forever I can't imagine seeing racing returning to those heights ! The owners, trainers  AND players have been gutted by the state and like ALL government intrusion never gets better...ONLY WORSE !! Gotta love the albany beaurocrats/pigs/criminals ! bleed it dry but don't kill it or let someone with common sense and integrity (kind of stupid to use those words and associate them with Albany politicians unless we're using them tongue in cheek !) try and return what was once the best and most profitable around to a fraction of it's former glory !!The saddest part of all this is IF they let people who knew something about racing run it instead of the Pols the state would walk away with much more $$ in the long run !! Problem is, they can't pass it around themselves !!

15 Aug 2010 8:57 PM

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