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.

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